Kanonical

Best Books of 2020

December 31, 2020

Last year I put together a short list of some of my favorite books for the year, along with an (as usual) longwinded explanation. I’m doing it again this year - it was fun - but without a diatribe as a preface. This list excludes some favorite books I re-read this year.

Here they are:

  • The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri was not just good, it was good in weird ways that made me think about meta-things like curation and publishing houses. It’s rare to read a book that so frequently makes you think, “so that’s why that happens.” And not little things either; things like the election of Trump or the Arab Spring. Gurri strings historic paradoxes together from the last few decades and makes them make sense. We really are living in a brand new world.

  • Dignity by Chris Arnade is like the opposite side of The Revolt of the Public. It made me think and realize things about the USA, poverty, drugs, and luck that I’m just very fortunate not to encounter very often. In the very first chapter, he describes McDonalds as the center of Back Row America, and I scoffed for about two paragraphs before I realized he’s right. The striking photography adds another haunting and emotional dimension to the book. This is a must read.

  • Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens is one of the most spectacular and unselfconscious memoirs ever written. Every time I picked it up I felt like I was sneaking chocolate cake or binging some high-brow comedy. Hitchens is one of the masters of polemic in the English language and this example has a somewhat private feeling, as if he’s speaking right to you. I aspire to be contrarian at all times, so when someone so adept talks about one of my highest aims— well, it’s grand.

  • Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. I really didn’t expect this one to be on the list. Fiction has been much more hit or miss with me for a few years, and this was definitely a hit. I read it fast and then it just stuck with me and kept sticking with me. I feel like I know Pino Llela and it’s been too many months since last we spoke; it’s got that kind of intimacy. Great read.

  • Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. I wouldn’t say I liked this book per se. It’s more that it just felt incredibly important to read. There’s a whole new culture war being fought in the last few years that - at the same time - feels incredibly important, like it comes from a place of deep empathy, and also like a crackpot power play. This book traces the historical path of the academic and philosophical underpinnings of that culture war from the Frankfurt School in 1920s Germany through postmodernism and it’s application of power into the 21st century. I love this brutal description of postmodernism in the review by Richard Dawkins:

    Is there a school of thought so empty, so vacuous, so pretentious, so wantonly obscurantist, so stupefyingly boring that even a full-frontal attack on it cannot be read without an exasperated yawn? Yes. It is called postmodernism. If you sincerely want to understand what postmodernism is, read this exceptionally well-informed book by two noble heroes of the enlightenment project. If you have better uses for your neurons and your time, stick to science. It’s the real deal.

That describes a lot of what we see these days coming out of too many academic departments and spilling into too many other institutions.

  • Socialism Sucks by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell. This is just a fun book about a serious subject: why socialism sounds so good and always ends up so bad. They go to some crazy places, including the borders of Venezuela and North Korea, drinking beers the whole way, and explain where things go wrong. It’s an easy 1-day read.
  • Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen. Another Stripe Press book, in this case by one of the most widely read and broad thinkers of our day. Tyler presents a wonderfully coherent argument on exactly why maximizing economic growth over time is so important and represents a moral good.
  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi. He’s hilarious and inventive and writes some of the most human science fiction I’ve read. The last in The Interdependency Trilogy, this one includes one of the biggest one-liner payoffs ever, built up over all 3 books. I laughed out loud, put the book down, and did a jig when it happened.
  • More From Less by Andrew McAfee describes one of the most underrated and unknown trends happening in our world today: the dematerialization of our economy. For the last three hundred years, growing our economic growth meant using more natural resources and there’s a finite amount of those. But over the last several decades that trend has decoupled and growing the economy no longer seems to need ever more resources - in fact it needs less. Where Tyler Cowen describes why economic growth is a moral good for humans, Andrew McAfee describes why economic growth will not continue to be a net negative for the natural world.

Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.