At the end of each year, I do a short end-of-the-year recap for readers and then share my favorite books that I read that year. You can see recaps and book reviews from 2019, 2018, and 2017

Year in Review

Well, fuck… we didn’t see that coming, did we?

I’ll start by saying that I have been extremely fortunate this year. I feel as though I dodged pretty much every bullet 2020 shot at me. I already worked from home. I have no kids. Being online, my business benefited from the pandemic and grew a bit this year. Book sales continue to be strong. Wife and I got along great. Without the insane travel schedules of 2019 and 2018, I ate healthy, lost about 20 pounds, drank way less, and slept better than I have in years.

Honestly, on an individual level, 2020 was a great year for me. It was healthy, productive, and for the most part, relatively happy (there were a couple dark periods in the spring and fall, but those passed). I feel very fortunate and I’ve been constantly reminding myself of how good I have it.

This year was spent working on the Will Smith book (yes, it’s still happening) and expanding the content of the website and newsletter. I launched my YouTube channel and have a few other projects I am looking forward to pursuing in the new year.

Since so many people ask, yes I will be writing another book, although I have not started the next one yet. The past six months have been the first time that I was not actively working on a book since 2013, so I decided to take some time off from book writing and focus on other projects for a while. I will start the next book in 2021 and it will likely come out in 2022 or 2023.

Overall, I enter 2021 hopeful. The vaccine is great news. There is a documentary film project that I will be working on in the spring. Travel should hopefully open up in the second half of the year. I’ll begin research for the next book in the summer and probably begin writing in the fall. By this time next year, things should be back to normal.

Reading Recap

Long-time readers know that I am quite fastidious about tracking all of the books that I have read. I do this to push myself to improve my reading, both in terms of quantity but also quality.

This year I read 81 books. 44 were general nonfiction, 16 were history or biography, 11 were fiction, and 10 were philosophy. In total, I read 29,664 pages (over 30% more than my previous best year), averaging 81 pages per day, and 366 pages per book. I also started and abandoned 15 other books.

Numerically speaking, this is probably the most I’ve read in any single year of my life (thanks, COVID-19). I also read some of the most difficult books of my life this year.

Below are my ten favorite books that I read this year. I should note that these are not necessarily the “best” books of the year—simply the ones I enjoyed reading and got the most out of personally. It’s completely subjective. Also, these books did not all come out in 2020, I just happened to read them this year.

My ten favorite books of 2020 are: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, Very Important People by Ashley Mears, The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku, The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering by Scott Samuelson, and The Information by James Gleick.

You can read full reviews of each book—along with some other notable mentions—below:

Book Reviews

1. Piranesi

Piranesi

It’s not rare for me to finish a really good book in one or two days. But it has been years since I’ve had that, “literally cannot put this down” experience. Piranesi gave me that experience this year.

Fair warning: the first fifty pages or so are slow and weird. They are a bit of a grind to get through. But if you stick it out, you will be rewarded with one of the most inventive, exciting, and interesting plots I’ve come across in a while. Part mystery, part fantasy, part mythology, part craziness, Piranesi was a perfect escape from such a drab and surreal year. In other years, I doubt I would rate this as my favorite book. But given the vivid fantasy and the setting of the book, it grabbed me and didn’t let go until the last page.

2. The Psychology of Money

One thing that few non-fiction authors do, but that I always try to do, is go beyond the obvious questions and look at why we see things a certain way. For instance, in my books, instead of telling people how to be happy, I go through pains to help the reader question why they want to be happy, whether happiness is even the right goal to have in the first place.

Most self-help books don’t ask those deeper questions and I like to think that’s part of why my work has done well.

Housel applies this same treatment to making money. Instead of just telling you how to get rich, he asks the hard questions of what is wealth, how does your life actually change when you become more wealthy, how do your perceptions around money change or perhaps how have they changed already?

The book calls into question all sorts of assumptions people have about wealth, work, investing, getting rich, conspicuous spending, etc. It’s written in easy-to-understand bite-sized chunks and there’s a certain humor prevalent throughout. This is the other book this year that I read in a single day. It’s that good.

3. Washington: A Life

Washington: A Life

Okay, this one I did not read in a single day. That’s because you could kill a small child if you accidentally dropped this book on them.

Chernow is one of the most acclaimed living biographers and this 928 page behemoth of a publication (with tiny font, no less) is currently considered the definitive book on George Washington’s life.

I forgot where I came across this book, but something funny struck me when I saw it—I realized that despite all of my history classes and knowledge about the constitution and US government, I couldn’t actually tell you a single thing about Washington’s life. I mean, like everybody, I heard he was a badass. I also heard that he was widely revered in his time and has come to be seen as one of the most ethical figures in human history. But again, I didn’t actually know anything about him as a person.

Well, the details are in, and Washington’s badassery has been understated. There were countless nights where I was reading this before bed where I would simply guffaw and turn to my wife and say, “Okay, you’re not going to believe this one…”

However incredible you think Washington was, he was even more incredible. And not just for his accomplishments or humility (he was given the opportunity to become the monarch of the US and repeatedly turned it down), but also his humanity. Chernow covers, in depth, his insecurities about money and his poor farm boy background, his inner turmoil about slavery and his struggle to free his slaves, his sensitivity to insults from political opponents, his prodigious physical talents and his flirtations with women. He was a fascinating man through and through and undoubtedly one of the most important and influential humans to ever walk this earth.

4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

The first time I read this book was in 2010 and it was the book that convinced me that I wanted to be a writer. Before then, I had been running some middling ecommerce sites while I blogged and coached dating/relationships on the side. But for whatever reason, the endless ingenuity of David Foster Wallace’s essays clicked that, “I want to do this for the rest of my life” feeling into place in my mind and I’ve never looked back.

I hadn’t read these essays since then. I think being home so much this year as well as finally having time off from writing books gave me a lot of time for introspection. Coming off the back of two bestsellers, it felt fitting to return to the writing that inspired me in the first place.

Reading Wallace is like going on vacation with a really, really smart brain for a few hours. Everything seems a bit brighter and more connected. Yet, at times, it becomes mentally exhausting.

Wallace has a tone that is completely his own. Also, he’s probably the most insightful cultural commentator of the 90s and early 00s. A simple piece about him going on a luxury cruise runs 60 pages and includes riffs on everything from the infantilization of the American Dream to the geopolitical ramifications of the restaurant’s wait staff. Reading this again was just as joyful as it was ten years ago. But it also made me wish so much that he was alive today. We need his commentary. We need his brain.

5. Very Important People

Very Important People

Most of you will not love this book as much as I did for one simple reason: I spent most of my twenties wasting way too much time and money in nightclubs.

Mears is a former fashion model and partygoer who is now a professor of sociology at Boston University. She returns to the peculiar party environments of her early years to study them from the perspective of a sociologist—documenting the behaviors, rituals, and practices in the high-end nightclub scene and all of the ridiculousness that comes with it.

In this world of “very important people,” female beauty is a kind of currency collected by nightclub establishments and then traded for wealthy men’s actual currency—money. It’s a bizarro world where everyone is glamorous and nobody’s happy. I was riveted throughout. Although I never partied in the “elite” circles that she writes of, I had enough of a taste of the scene in my younger years to know the shallowness of what she writes is true. A fascinating read for anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have an addiction to partying and spending way too much money trying to impress others.

6. The Overstory

The Overstory

It’s a novel about trees… sounds absolutely fucking riveting, amiright?

If this book hadn’t won literally every award that could be won (including the Pulitzer), I probably would have passed it up. But when something is that acclaimed, I always feel some sort of responsibility to at least give it a look.

Well, shit, this is an absolutely fascinating book about trees. Not only did I learn so much that I didn’t know about botany and forests, but a wonderful array of characters (whose lives revolve around trees) come together and produce a memorable story. The writing is fantastic, as well.

I don’t know how to make a book about trees sound sexy. In fact, I can’t. But give it a chance. You’ll be surprised.

7. The Immortality Key

The Immortality Key

Between this book and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (reviewed below), psychedelics have become en vogue—a cool thing to talk about among the online intelligentsia. I enjoyed both books immensely. Whereas Pollan is more concerned with the therapeutic and medical benefits of psychedelics, Muraresku is arguing for their cultural, historical, and religious significance.

It’s funny, when I was a teenager and taking a lot of drugs, I remember reading on online forums theories that early Christianity and Greek and Roman paganism revolved around hallucinogens. At the time, I thought it was just potheads being stupid potheads. But Muraresku spends ten years investigating this idea. This book is the result.

The excitement of the book is two-fold: first, the batshit insane idea that early Christianity and ancient Greek and Roman societies revolved around psychedelics, and second, the fact that Muraresku is the first to fully explore this mostly new scholarly territory. As a result, the book feels part-scandal, part Dan Brown caper as Muraresku runs all over Europe, investigating catacombs and Vatican archives and obscure archaeological sites in Turkey and Greece. A delightful read.

… and I have to say, I buy it. I think the ancients used to trip balls. Makes sense to me.

8. The Revolt of the Public

The revolt of the public

At this point, I’ve read maybe a dozen books about the effects of social media on society and this is probably the best one I’ve read.

Instead of the usual hysterics about mental health and fake news, Gurri takes a much broader and deeper historical view. Social media has done more than simply change how we communicate—it has changed the informal structures of society itself. It has changed what we view as credible. It has challenged hierarchies of authority. And while these might sound like a good thing, Gurri points out the many ways these changes are socially and politically destabilizing.

Starting with the Arab Spring in 2011, Gurri traces the rise of protest and populist movements of the 2010s, demonstrating a new political order of “the fringe” vs “the center.” Gurri’s chief concern is that social media appears to drive a streak of political nihilism through society. It generates social movements that are excellent at tearing down and completely uninterested in building up. What’s fascinating is that this has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing politics. It has everything to do with anti-establishment and establishment.

An important book for anyone concerned about our political institutions and how they’re being affected by new technology.

9. Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

Seven ways of looking at pointless suffering

A number of people asked me this year for recommendations of books to start learning more about philosophy and I think this book is as great a starting point as any.

There are two things I loved about this book. The first is that he structures the book around one of the fundamental questions of philosophy: how do we justify and cope with unnecessary suffering in the world? The book is a nice tour of the major perspectives throughout history—from the Ancient Greeks and Christianity to Buddhism and Confucius.

The second thing I like is that Samuelson grounds his philosophical discussion in the real world. He is a volunteer teacher at a local prison. Therefore, he grounds many of the philosophical issues he brings up about suffering with discussions he’s had with the inmates at the prison where he teaches. The result is a nice application for some of the headier topics.

10. The Information

The information

Gleick may be the best science writer out there. This is the third book I have read by him and all three of them were excellent (check out his biography of Isaac Newton for a real page turner).

This book is about the history of information theory and the technologies of information science—all the way from the drum signals of prehistoric Africa up to the internet and cell phones of today. While Einstein is the scientific celebrity of the 20th century, it’s really Claude Shannon’s information theory that has completely reshaped the world from the ground up. Information has become the water that we swim in—it’s so ubiquitous that we no longer even realize it’s there.

If you like scientific history and if you’d like to know more about how our world became the way it is from a technological point of view, this is a great book to pick up.

Other Books I Enjoyed This Year

Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman – Scott’s book is a paean to the famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow. You probably know of Maslow as the hierarchy-of-needs guy who introduced the concept of self-actualization to the world.

Kaufman reimagines Maslow’s theory and updates it with the most recent scientific research on happiness and well-being. For me, the value of the book is two-fold: 1) an excellent introduction and overview of Maslow’s work, and 2) a comprehensive summary of much of what we know about human well-being right now. As a psychology nerd, I enjoyed all of the great research that was collected and well-organized. As a writer, I’ll probably use the book for references in the future.

Seeing Like a State by James Scott – This book has become a bit of a cult classic among libertarian-minded people online and I can see why. Scott’s analysis of government intervention looks at a concept he calls “legibility”—i.e., the ability to accurately decipher what a large chunk of reality looks like and then respond accordingly. Scott’s argument is that no matter how sophisticated our technology, reality is never entirely legible, therefore we are doomed to enact failed policies based on false perceptions.

To put it another way, even the best maps do not fully reflect their territories. Because policy is always based on maps, those policies will inevitably fail.

It’s kind of nerdy, but enjoyable if you’re into that kind of thing. Great vignettes and examples of Prussia, the Soviet Union, China, and Africa throughout.

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett – Many readers recommended this book to me and it definitely made me aware of a perspective on emotions that I was not previously aware of. It turns out, the nature versus nurture argument has invaded the field of emotional psychology, as well.

Whereas most research I was aware of suggested that emotions are innate and universal, Feldman argues that most emotions are culturally constructed and determined by the contexts and experiences of the people experiencing them. Anger in the US is not the same as anger in Indonesia or China. People react differently and even understand their sensations differently. It’s an interesting argument and I learned a lot from the book. I’m not sure where I fall on the issue, but it has certainly opened up my mind and I’d like to study the subject further.

Breath by James Nestor – Last year, I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and discovered the 38 ways I’ve been sleeping wrong my whole life and why it’s probably killing me. This year, this book taught me the 43 ways I’m breathing wrong and why it’s probably killing me. Enjoy.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – I have a strange personal history with psychedelics. I did them frequently as a teenager and in college. I later disavowed them (and pretty much all other drugs). Don’t get me wrong. I had a blast. I goofed off with friends, became one with the universe, giggled myself breathless. But I was done. For the many years since, as they slowly crept back in popularity, I held a, “been there, done that” attitude about them.

Well, I’m slowly coming to the realization that I have to check my ego at the door and get over myself, because books like Pollan’s show that they could be hugely important for psychiatric and medical purposes, not to mention enriching for human well-being. The new research happening in this space is exciting and can potentially do a lot of good in the world.

The Rite of Spring by Modris Eksteins – I read a lot of history this year but no book quite like this one. Instead of following the lives and events of the people around World War I, Eksteins instead follows the movements and changes in art of the period. Beginning with the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913 and concluding with the German architecture of the late 20s, Eksteins manages to somehow trace the birth of modernity and all of its horrors with the shifting artistic sensibilities in a way that somehow makes Nazism and the rise of Hitler feel completely logical and inevitable. Maybe not the best or most accurate history book I’ve ever read, but certainly the most interesting.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – This has been the big breakout fiction book of the past couple years. A wonderful read. Especially if you’re a bit of a russophile. It’s about a count who is stuck in Russia after the Bolsheviks take over. His life is spared but he’s confined to live the rest of his days inside a hotel.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey – I was impressed with the depth and insight in this memoir. I hate to say it, but you rarely expect much from celebrity books. This one delivered though. Candid and thoughtful throughout. Very quirky, too, just as you’d expect from the author.

Why States Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson – Aside from making an interesting argument about the stability of governments, this book is one great history lesson after another. Whether it’s discovering why the industrial revolution began in England or how the Ottoman Empire collapsed or why civil strife is so much worse in the Congo than other African nations or why Mexico and the United States experienced such different economic development, this book’s got you covered. Come for the history lessons, stay to learn why some countries are rich and some are poor.

Everything Else I Read in 2020 (In No Particular Order)

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen
What Doesn’t Kill Us by Stephen Joseph, PhD
Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom
The Sports Gene by David Epstein
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance
Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
The Soulful Art of Persuasion by Jason Harris
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
The E-Myth Revisited by by Michael Gerber
Good to Great by Jim Collins
Candide by Voltaire
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Lack and Transcendence by David Loy
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk
Big Debt Crises by Ray Dalio
The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Drink? by David Nutt
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett
Hooked by Nir Eyal
Our Great Purpose by Ryan Patrick Hanley
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
The End of Policing by Alex Vitale
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Discriminations and Disparities by Thomas Sowell
World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1 by Arthur Schopenhauer
Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger
The Great Influenza by John Berry
The Pale Rider by Laura Spinney
Quack This Way by Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace
Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi
Intelligence: All That Matters by Stuart Ritchie
The Plague by Albert Camus
Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie
Making Sense by Sam Harris
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
World as Will and Representation, Vol 2. By Arthur Schopenhauer by
The Origins of You by Jay Belsky, et al.
The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
Spent by Geoffrey Miller
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
The Invention of Sound by Chuck Palahniuk
Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson
Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers
American Breakdown by David Bromwich
Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston
Justice for Hedgehogs by Ronald Dworkin
Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Looking for more books to read?

Well, I put together a list of over 200 of the best books to read, organized by topic for The Subtle Art School members.

The School is a collection of 6 brand-new video courses each with a pretty printable workbook, plus 3 bonus courses, ebooks on my favorite topics, commentaries on all my books, and a “library” of best books to read. Oh, did I mention I also do a live monthly webinar with members where I’ll answer all your questions and talk about tacos?

If you’re already a site member, you have full access to the School (just log in). If not, what are you waiting for? Check it out.

I also have an all-time recommended reading list which non-members can access. You’re welcome.

Cover image by matthew Feeney on Unsplash