Best books of the Year 2020

This year, I took advantage of the lockdown and some time off work to read. Easily the year I’ve read the most – about 50 books so far – I read about four non-fiction books for every work of fiction.

A couple of months ago, after having read almost entirely non-fiction in the year to that date, I decided I’d had enough of the real world and turned to the world of fiction. I haven’t read much fiction as an adult – usually just a couple of books a year – but after reading ten (or so) fiction books recently, I noticed a few things.

Firstly, fiction books usually start well. What they struggle to do is sustain momentum. Just about every book hooked me in and then didn’t know what to do and where to go, or how to make that journey consistently interesting.

Secondly, they’re typically far too long. Like movies, which seem to have gotten longer in the last couple of decades and often overstay their welcome, authors seem to commit this crime proudly.

These points probably speak more to my taste than an objective fact, but these were my common reading frustrations.

Thirdly, the adult book world is roughly split into genre books and literary books. Genre books are plot-focused and fast, with simpler, more archetypal characters as means of exploring the plot. Literary books focus on character and ideas, have denser, more sophisticated prose and require more attention. So far, the literary books have been light on profundity and heavy on verbosity. (Again, perhaps just my taste.)

Fourthly, the fiction market is driven by women. I decided to have a go at a few popular female-orientated books to see what everyone was reading and raving about. Needless to say, you should just choose what you’re likely to enjoy and learn from.

After this foray into fiction, I’ll probably revert to the unread novels of my favourite authors – Frederick Forsyth, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe – and look for the rare non-fiction story that reads like a novel, in addition to the many unread non-fiction books on my list. But this year reminded me of how much I enjoy non-fiction stories. One of my favourite books – A Civil Action – is a great example of the genre, and there are a few in the list below.

To be on the favourites list, a book had to have an impact on me by adding to my understanding of the world in a substantial way, and simply be enjoyable to read. A book could sneak onto the list by doing either at a high level. Honourable mentions either informed or entertained, or both to lesser degrees.

My favourite books of 2020

Scattered Minds by Gabor Mate

My first read of the year and on the back of reading Mate’s brilliant Hold onto Your Kids at the end of last year. Mate is a brilliant mind and great writer. I devoured this book. I was surprised by the many aspects of ADHD – not previously realising how serious it could be – but also a little skeptical of Mate’s perspective. His contention that ADHD is caused by poor attachment is a single explanation for a complex mental illness, and reflects his own experience. It’s hard to evaluate this perspective, but he’s very convincing throughout the book. So, while I didn’t come away convinced, it was no doubt a brilliant book from a brilliant mind.

Nature Cures by James C. Whorton

This was the book I’d been looking for. Having been treated for an ongoing illness with alternative approaches for several years, I was keen to read a history of their development. One of the questions in my mind was: is mainstream medicine dominant because it is more useful and scientific, or did it out-muscle its competition? There were elements of both in this history, but it seems like the former is more correct. The history of each major type of alternative medicine was fascinating, with the discovery and development of each approach containing very similar features and trajectories. Some of the founders and approaches were quite bizarre, but despite questionable beginnings, some remain commonly used today, although most of these have gained a semblance of respect by adopting science.

Blueprint by Robert Plomin

Probably the book I’ve talked about the most this year, it provides a clear, digestible, and challenging perspective on the nature-nurture debate. There are no doubt things to challenge about this book, and twin studies need to be interpreted carefully, but nonetheless the book contains some powerful conclusions: that most psychological traits are substantially heritable; that each trait is influenced by many different genes, each with tiny effects; that psychological disorders are extremes on a spectrum, caused by the presence of more genes associated with that condition than is present in others; genes are generalists, meaning they can contribute to several different conditions, dependent on the interaction with the environment; the shared environment has little effect, while the non-shared environment matters, and is both random and inconsistent across time; and heritability of school achievement is high where systemic biases are small. Plomin’s explanation of the methods used in making these conclusions was useful, and expertly explained.

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

My second Wolfe novel following Bonfire of the Vanities, this was brilliant from start to finish. Unloved by critics, it clicked with me from the first page, with many astute observations and funny moments. It is a well-structured and -executed cautionary tale. If you’re not into his style, Charlotte Simmons would be an absolute slog, but I inhaled this book. Funny, accurate, enjoyable, I’d be handing this to thoughtful young adults as they head off to university.

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

A fascinating read about a family with the worst luck in the world – six of their 12 children developed schizophrenia, with pretty serious consequences.

Fully Grown by Dietrich Vollrath

A clear and concise analysis of US economic growth. This is a model for how to do this sort of non-fiction writing – clear, concise, purposeful, disciplined.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

An incredible read, beautifully written. Some unique characters and shocking moments. A few critics have criticised it for its political stances, but Vance doesn’t use this book as a political manifesto. He simply makes observations and draws conclusions about the causes of and solutions for the type of culture he grew up in.

Theory and History by Ludwig von Mises

I think by the time I’d finished with this book this year I’d read parts of it three or four times, and completely through twice. Dogged, erudite, brilliant at times, it’s a unique book from a brilliant mind.

Honourable mentions:

The Making of Australia by David Hill

Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden and Steve Jamison

Silent Invasion by Clive Hamilton

How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World by Neil Irwin

Alienated America by Timothy P. Carney

Click HERE for a complete list of books read this year.