The good ones

I started the year with a few books from my reading list that I hadn’t yet found the time to read.

  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Maybe a little late to the party with this one, but I did read it this year, and it is a fantastic and enthralling read. I recommend it to anyone interested in human history and civilisation.
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. There’s no denying the brilliance of this book. People more intelligent than I have been praising it since it was first published. Having now read it, I understand the acclaim. It’s a great if challenging look at our knowledge of the universe and the laws of physics that govern it. Anyone interested in science should read this.
  • The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter. This book gives a fantastic overview and introduction to the field of statistics, and more broadly, the use of data in our modern world. Everything we do today relies upon and generates enormous amounts of data, and as a society, we must understand how this affects us. If I were to recommend one book for everybody to read this year, it would be this.

The not-so-good ones

I try to be somewhat selective about the kinds of books I read, so I don’t often come across ones that I thought were utterly terrible, but there are still some that I didn’t enjoy very much.

  • Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. I didn’t hate this book by any means, and in fact, there are some parts that I thought were good. Overall, however, my impressions are that the author is rather smug and self-aggrandising, in that sleazy, second-hand car dealer kind of way. There’s also rather too much “rich people are super smart, and if you’re poor, it’s because you’re too stupid to be rich” kind of attitude in certain places for my taste.
  • The Scarlett Plague by Jack London. I thought this might be an interesting read given the state of the world in 2020, but I couldn’t get into it. The whole book felt like a slog, and it became a chore to read. I don’t think it’s a bad book per se, just that I did not have a good time with it. It’s all the more strange given that I read Call of the Wild also by Jack London this year and enjoyed it tremendously.

Some others in no particular order

  • War is a Racket by General Smedly D. Butler. Besides having what might be the most fantastic name I’ve ever seen, General Butler was a remarkably prescient man. Written after the first world war, the book talks about how certain parts of society (i.e. wealthy industrialists) made extraordinary profits during the war. It discusses how if unchecked, the kind of relationship between industry, the military and politicians described in the book could lead to an endless cycle of wars to profit the wealthy at the expense of everybody else. Sound familiar at all?
  • The Iliad by Homer. One of the best books I read this year and by far the oldest, telling the story of the very end of the Trojan War. It also has an extremely graphic depiction of the violence involved in bronze age melee combat. However, there’s a reason we still read it thousands of years later, and I think I will be returning to it many times to come.
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand. This book is the first, and so far only, work of hers that I have read, and until I’ve read more, I will pass judgement on her philosophical and political views. The book itself is interesting but not exactly subtle. Although I didn’t know anything about the book before starting, it still surprised me.
  • Propaganda by Edward Bernays. I found this book to be very challenging, not because of what it said, but because of how much I wanted to hate it and how difficult it is to do. Edward Bernays is one of the most interesting people that remains mostly unknown to the general public. His ideas about manipulating and controlling people are pretty terrible. Yet he used and refined them throughout his entire career, which was long and highly successful, so he wasn’t necessarily wrong, which is all the more frustrating.

This year, I began reading many ancient Greek works, starting with Homer and then working my way through their plays towards more philosophical works such as Plato and Aristotle. I am aiming to slowly read my way forwards in time, eventually reaching the present day. I’m curious to see how our ideas of storytelling, philosophy and science have developed over time.

I don’t know how long this will take me, and I don’t have an exact list of works to read, but I have a general outline, and I’m excited to see where it leads. I also don’t plan on sticking precisely to ancient books since there are plenty of new(ish) ones that I’d like to read also, so I may jump back and forth when necessary. My 2021 reading should be a blast.

Note: These aren’t the only things I read this year, just a sampling of interesting ones.