It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been an unusual year. But that’s not going to stop me from putting out my annual My Year In Books, recapping some of the literary highlights of my year.
I read a total of 31 books this year, which is about the usual amount. I read a bit more fiction and lighter things this year, maybe the pandemic influenced me and made gravitate towards a bit of escapism, I don’t know.
The year started out with an ambition of mine: to read a book on world history. I have a pretty good grasp of history, but have felt that I have lacked the big picture. So I know quite a bit about, say, Ancient Rome and Greece, and about the Ottoman Empire, but what of the rest of Europe at the same time? Or the Far East? And what happen between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Ottoman Empire? So I had bought a well-reviewed book on world history, Politikens Verdenshistorie (a Danish title). It largely lived up to my expectations, though I wouldn’t mind more on the interconnectedness of world history (how Egypt help shape Ancient Greece, which again influenced the Mesopotamians, which then influenced Europe through the crusades), so I may try to find another world history book.
I also read John Le Carré’s autobiography, The Dove Tunnel in the beginning of the year. Quite fitting, as he passed towards the end of the year. A great read, as one would expect, though not a tell-all, for obvious reasons. I especially enjoyed the ending, where he concludes that (and I’m paraphrasing) “old men forget, spies lie, and author make things up – seeing as I’m all three, neither you nor I can be sure what, if anything, in this book is true”.
I finally read Eric Schmidt and Jon Rosenberg’s How Google Works. As a Xoogler (ex-employee of Google), I’ve often been asked about the book, but as I’ve never read it, I haven’t been able to say much about it. I can say now that it does indeed represent Google quite well, at least the Google that I was part of. Since the book was written, Google has doubled it’s number of employees many times over, and when organisations grow, they tend to change. Also, the pandemic has changed a lot at Big G, as I’ve heard from people I still know there. In the book, Schmidt and Rosenberg argue that the best way to build a creative organisation is to take a bunch of smart people and pour them all into an office space that is strictly speaking too small, preferably so you have them rubbing elbows as they work. Also, as Jon Rosenberg has stated many times, Google believes that working from home is detrimental to innovation. It’s hard to read these two statements without thinking about how poorly that works with a global pandemic, and a Google that has sent all employees home until mid-2021, with potentially work-from-home options becoming permanent.
Probably the book that has been the biggest surprise this year was The Will To Change by Bell Hooks. I picked it up for it’s timeliness – the Me Too movement has been one of the biggest things to happen this year, after all. And I must say I was blown away by it. Hooks’ main thesis, that traditional male culture is toxic not just to many women, but to many men as well, really hit me hard. While I do find that the paints with a brush that is a tad too wide, seemingly claiming that all traditional male culture is toxic, she has some extremely strong points about how many men are not allowed to “fit in” to a traditional male culture, and how many of those who do seemingly fit in, struggle as well, and often take that struggle out on women, children, and other men, usually through violence. If I was to recommend only one book from this year, this would be it.
Almost accidentally, I stumbled upon Destination Casablanca by Meredith Hindley, an exceptionally well-researched book about Casablanca’s role in World War II. From Josephine Baker escaping Paris to the Allied invasion, this is a marvellous book for any interested in history, or who simply love the classic movie and would like to know what the real story was (spoiler: there was no Rick’s. Which is sad, but then again, we’ll always have Paris).
I also read a Clive Cussler book this year. I’ve made a habit of reading one of his books as vacation entertainment every year on my summer holiday, often one from the Dirk Pitt series. This year, I chose Dragon. I grew up reading Dirk Pitt, and the books, along with Sea Hunt and the TV shows by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, played a significant part in me picking up scuba diving in high school. But I think I’ve read my last Cussler book. They just feel too out of step with the world these days.
One of the biggest disappointments of the year was reading The Book of Five Rings by Myomoto Musashi. I’ve only ever read excerpts (like most people who quote, I suspect), and the full text leaves a lot to be desired. While I understand that swordsmanship is a practical art, but still, it seems every other paragraph in the book ends with “this must be further studied”. And maybe I got my hands on a bad translation, but the whole text reads like a series of Trump’s tweets.
Another book bucket list book I got around to, was the Thomas Jefferson Bible, or in the original title, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the original edit of the Bible that Jefferson made, cutting out all miracles and allusions to the supernatural from the New Testament. What is revealed is an unsurprisingly short text full of surprisingly sound moral philosophy.
I also re-read a few books this year. Tortilla Flat by Steinbeck was one of them, and it was as marvellous as ever. Though I had to skip the chapter about the lieutenant and his infant son. Last time I read that the book was before I became a father, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to read that chapter again. I also re-read Buddha in Blue Jeans, by far one of the best books on meditation I’ve ever read. Brief, almost to the point of it feeling like a joke, it still encapsulates the art of sitting zazen as it is known in Zen Buddhism.
I also finished off the year by reading The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I haven’t read it in perhaps 20+ years, but it still works. Yes, his idea of how martial arts work are a bit dated, as are his political views, but I liked how the book places the reader much more inside Bourne’s head, and how his main skill is actually being able to blend in anywhere, to be a chameleon. He’s also much more of a spy, less a super soldier, than the Bourne of the Matt Damon movies.
All in all, this has been a good book year, even if my desire to read was knocked a bit out of whack by the lockdown we went through in the spring. In 2021, I have a few books on my to-read list, including T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a copy of Steinbeck’s A Connecticut Yank in the Court of King Arthur that my mom gifted me for Christmas (her own copy, as this particular version is out of print), and my recently purchased illustrated hardback version of The Princess Bride.