I read just over one book a week this year thanks to making it part of my daily routines around March. Around book ten I also began sharing what I had read with a brief comment on Instagram. A number of people commented with their own book recommendations I might enjoy. This expanded my (already way to long) list of books to read (2021 here I come). As the year comes to a close I’m reviewing the books I’ve read and preparing myself for the purge in January. I plan on selling or gifting most of the books, but keeping those I want to read again.
I’ve picked out my favorites and to make it a bit more fun I invented some (completely serious) award categories. Any of the book on the list are general recommendations. I don’t think you need to be into a specific topic to enjoy it or learn from them. Give it a try and if you have any recommendations for me post a comment or tweet me.
For the really interested the full list is at the bottom or on my 2020 collection at bookshop.org (at least those books that are available there). All links are either the author’s twitter page or affiliate links to bookshop.org where you can support local book stores.
Note: My reading preference is non-fiction, so my list reflects that ;)
Favorite book of 2020
Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes
By: Jessica Pan
Auto biographies are always fun. Even better if they are relatable and down to earth. This one takes the crown because I can relate so much to the premise. Each challenge Jessica undergoes made my stomach turn whenever I imagined doing the same. I love challenges, preferring the ones I do in solitude, but you really get a piece of the excitement just reading about each adventure and some of the hilarious results. I dare say you might uncover some advice along the way (not just for introverts). Super entertaining and constant suspense as to what’s next for the protagonist leaves you screaming “Give me more!”. (Which by the way you can get if you have a look at her Guardian pieces.)
Favorite author of 2020: Jessica J. Lee
I was introduced to this Jessica by the previous author on this list, coincidentally also a Jessica. It was mentioned that her newest book had won an award for non-fiction writing. The mention of Taiwan quickly sealed the deal and so a week later it appeared on my living room reading pile. It skipped to the front of the queue for some reason I can’t recall right now, but what good fortune that was. In the end her other book was already on the way before I even finished the one I had in my hands.
What makes both books stand out is an autobiographic core wrapped in a highly descriptive, almost visual, style of writing that I would expect from a novel. It effortlessly puts you right there in the author’s own experience. Both are emotional journeys and it was hard to put them down each day. In their own way they each conjure up a Wanderlust for Taiwan and Berlin. Unachievable during a pandemic but reading these two books was the next best thing to actually traveling there.
Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts
In her most recent book Jessica goes on an adventure to discover her family roots with a grand portrayal of the Taiwanese landscape and culture. Along the way you learn about fauna, flora and nature which is no surprise if you know her academic background.
You can read the books in reverse chronological like I did, but there’s a throwback to the Berlin years of the first book (below) that won’t be as apparent until you’ve read both.
Turning: A Year in the Water
Closer to home geographically (and linguistically) speaking, this describes an inspiring journey of self healing and mindfulness in the context of a year round swimming challenge. Aligning with my own personality (not the jumping in freezing water part, just the challenges, routines and habits) reading Turning was like a warm blanket where the occasional cold breeze creeps in just to keep you on your toes and remind you of the tougher parts of life.
I was quite surprised by the vast amount of water bodies around Berlin. Makes me wonder if discovering some more of Vienna’s surroundings would be an interesting goal for 2021?
Best business book
Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business
By: Paul Jarvis
I still believe reading about Silicon Valley startups and entrepreneur biographies (even if tainted by survivor ship bias) can be a great igniter for young entrepreneurs. But the negative sides of hustle culture, the lack of the portrayal of down sides soon outweigh the benefits. Jarvis shows that building a smaller company (not just relative to a Valley Unicorn, I mean lifestyle level business) is not only possible, but healthier for soul, mind and body (and often times you are more likely to succeed). Find niches, use your expertise and be a specialist, build relationships and first and foremost care about your work.
Best thinking book
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By: Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling
Rosling’s TED talks are shared a lot and it wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen one without knowing much about the speaker. In this final book of his (finished by his son and daughter in law after his death) you realize how much your glasses are tainted, how much you should actually question what you’re being presented and how the media is misguiding. What sounds like a dystopian summary of the world is quite the opposite. The book leaves you very much with a feeling that the world is way better than you think if you just make the extra effort to understand it a little better. Of course it helps if you have the graphical tools that Rosling and his team are so famous for.
Best entertaining science book
Brief Answers to the Big Questions
By: Stephen Hawking
I had not read a Stephen Hawking book before and after a rather disastrous attempt at trying to understand a physics book made for beginners, I was rather worried this might end the same. But after his death I had an urge to know more about one of the most brilliant scientists of our age.
Turns out he was hilarious. It’s hard to convey just how funny the book is while (as the title promises) tackling massive questions. Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”. Hawking is obviously knowledgeable but has a tremendous ability to both conjure interest and explain the physics of our universe in a simple way. You don’t need really even need high school physics to read this.
Most impactful on my life
By: BJ Fogg
Having read this early on in the year I have since grown my collection of daily tiny habits of improvement based on the methods described here. It’s very easy to start simple, with a no-brainer habit linked to a trigger (e.g. 50 new vocabulary while you let your tea cool down instead of Facebook). They you just keep the momentum going, because it feels so easy and over time the habits compound and the effects are very visible (like going from 10 books a year to 54 *wink wink*).
Honorable mention: Atomic Habits by Jason Clear is very much the more pop sci interpretation of the same subject matter, albeit with less of the science IMHO. Depending on the reader’s inflection Fogg is more suited for those willing to dig into the science, and Clear is more for the casual reader. Both are great books.
Most eye opening
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
As someone who designs, implements and sells software for a living it’s easy to overlook some inherent biases in the choices I make. Even by adopting best practices others employ, that does not shield me from also adopting their biases without even knowing them. This book only barely scratches the surface of a deep rooted problem but presents examples in such a blunt way that you can’t help but remember them the next time you are thinking about technical (or any other for that matter) systems. One of those book that should be re-read over and over again.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company
By: Bob Iger
Despite what the book title says the story actually begins much earlier and you read about the journey right up until his role as CEO of Disney. Really entertaining read with insights into the entertainment business (specifically the media business which was a large part of his life), with a bunch of learnings and the book does not shy away of the low lights.
Bonus: My all time top recommended books
Excluding those I’ve mentioned above and in no specific order, these are just must-reads and some of the books I’ve gifted the most. Two of these are so popular that you’ve probably heard of them or even read them, but I hope “Why We Sleep” will join that club soon enough.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
By: Matthew Walker
Surviving on too little sleep is just that. Surviving. You don’t use the term “survival” for an ideal situation, you use it for a border line functional state. And getting more sleep may well be one of the most important and easiest things you can do to improve your health. Walker presents the most up-to-date science on sleep and it’s effects in a compact and easy to understand book. It has such an effect on me that for one year after reading this I stopped using an alarm clock all together to observe the effect. And getting sufficient regular sleep has been a top priority ever since. (See also his great episode on the Kevin Rose podcast if you want a summary).
The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
By: Tim Ferriss
The book may be dated and you should definitely interpret Ferriss’ teachings for your own situation (which applies to any mentors and teachings really). But it still holds a lot of value in my opinion and a special place in my heart. It kicked off the “lifestyle business movement” for me that is still on-going and sees new interpretations all the time (like Company of One by Paul Jarvis, see one of the top books this year above).
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
By: David Allen
While I’m in no way a full GTD disciple in the sense of the book, I have over the years adopted many ideas into my own task management. Where the approaches and supporting software have changed to suit my chapter of life, the core idea of freeing your brain of the burden of remembering things still is at the core. One inbox and one calendar is bare minimum, but I recommend reading the book to get inspired.
The full list
|1||The 1-Page Marketing Plan||A. Dib|
|2||Everything is figureoutable||Marie Forleo|
|3||The ride of a lifetime||Bob Iger|
|4||Company of One||Paul Jarvis|
|5||Work trips and road trips||Kanokova Monika|
|6||How to||Randal Monroe|
|7||Tim Cook||Leander Kahney|
|8||The World As It Is – Inside the Obama White House||Ben Rhodes|
|9||Humble Pi||Matt Parker|
|10||The Body – A Guide for Occupants||Bill Bryson|
|12||Breakfast with Einstein||Chad Orzel|
|13||How to think like Obama||Daniel Smith|
|14||Tiny Habits||BJ Fogg|
|15||Atomic Habits||James Clear|
|16||How to argue with a racist||Adam Rutherford|
|17||Invisible women||Caroline Criado Perez|
|18||The moment of lift||Melinda Gates|
|20||Little book of Ikigai||Ken Mogi|
|21||Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race||Reni Eddo Lodge|
|22||Talking to strangers||Malcom Gladwell|
|24||Sorry I’m late, I did’t want to come||Jessica Pan|
|25||Technically wrong||Sara Wachter-Boettcher|
|26||How to fail||Elisabeth Day|
|27||A history of the world in 100 objects||Neil McGregor|
|28||What the most successful people do before breakfast||Laura Vanderkam|
|29||White Fragility||Robin Diangelo|
|30||How to live a good life||Skye Cleary, Daniel Kaufman|
|31||The attention merchants||Tim Wu|
|32||How to stay sane in an age of division||Elif Shafak|
|33||Brief answers to the big questions||Stephen Hawking|
|34||Doughnut Economics||Kate Raworth|
|37||Radical Honesty||Brad Blanton|
|38||The Power||Naoli Alderman|
|39||The obstacle is the way||Ryan Holiday|
|40||Sapiens||Yuval Noah Harari|
|41||Women don’t owe you pretty||Florence Given|
|42||Friendship .||Lydia Denworth|
|43||Vital friends .||Tom Rath|
|44||Brain rules||John Medina|
|45||The rules of people||Richard Templar|
|47||Big friendship||Aminatou Sou and Ann Friedman|
|48||Two trees make a forest||Jessica Lee|
|49||Joe Biden: American Dreamer||Evan Osnos|
|51||You are a badass every day||Jen Sincero|
|52||Turning – Lessons from swimming Berlin’s lakes||Jessica J. Lee|
|53||This idea is brilliant||John Brockmann et al.|
|54||The 100 thing challenge||Dave Burno|