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Ask HN: What is the best book you read in 2020?
66 points by cik 5 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 57 comments
What's the best book you read in the current year, and why? For me it was Range, by David Epstein. The combination of surveys, research data, anecdotes, and the ease of reading was fantastic! It helped me see many things in a more positive light than I had before. What about everyone else?

Two books that describe what it's like to be somewhere else, living a different kind of life. I love these books that really transport you there, like having a really good friend explain things to you casually.

First of these is "Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road". What it's like to grow up while having family in a labor camp. What it's like to have your entire business or house confiscated. How hard it is to be a student. Also just plenty of interesting little tidbits on day-to-day life.

Second one is "The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery". It's about a foreigner who leaves his life behind and joins a zen monastery in Japan. It covers in detail the day-to-day experience of it, such as collapsing on temple grounds from lack of sleep during particularly demanding meditation sessions. But monks are human too, and on some occasions sneak over the temple walls for some fun outside.

Both of these transfer to you the "feel" of these places.

1) Non-fiction: Common Lisp: A Gentle Introduction to Symbolic Computation


Entire e-book available free online. The recursion part is especially fun. If you haven't tried Lisp, this is a great book to start with, and it will open your mind to new approaches to computing without the tough academic grinding of SICP.

2) Fiction: The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.

It's dark fantasy. Emphasis on dark. Feels like real life, except less victimology. I find the darkness a palate cleanser, excellent for when I have to deal with the realities of people and their burning desire to avoid responsibility for their own actions.

You can read some short bits by Joe free at the publishers site


I mostly read fiction books (particularly fantasy and sci-fi). Best for me this year was Wintersteel by Will Wight [0]. This is a progression fantasy book (think anime like Naruto, Hunter x Hunter, etc but without fillers, harem, etc). Power-ups, training and fights are the major draw of such books, and Will manages to deliver them nicely along with interesting characters, awesome humor, twists, etc.

See my blog post [1] for other books I enjoyed this year.

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52135463-wintersteel

[1] https://learnbyexample.github.io/2020-favorite-fiction/

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss

I read it after seeing it recommended here on HN. It paid off :)

An interesting phenomenon about this book is when you read it, you start noticing who else read it too.

How so?

The techniques are very unique to the book, and contrast to other negotiation books.

I'm about halfway through both of these, but I think they're both great.

Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson (Book 4 in the Stormlight Archives series)

Love him, or hate him, BS is prolific. He somehow maintains a superhuman level of efficiency in writing. This is the 4th of a planned 10 book epic fantasy series. I can't possibly summarize the 3.5 books I've read in the series so far, since each is approximately 1200 pages. Really they're about 3-4 of an average sized trade paperback each. That's not to say they are too long either, with the exception of the first book (a common/unavoidable problem the with epic fantasy genre, there's just a lot you need to say to get people fully invested), they pick up from the first word on interesting storylines and just keep churning.


Children of Dune by Frank Herbert (Book 3 of the Dune series)

Dune is one of my favorite books of all time. SOmehow, I've never read the rest of them. I re-read Dune this year, and decided to continue the story. I really wasn't a huge fan of Dune Messiah. I don't want to spoil anything for you, but let's just say it's probably because flaws of the main character are too humanly frustrating to watch unfold. Children of Dune is, so far, as good or better than Dune in my opinion.

I want to read rhythm of war but I completely forgot what happened in the prior books :-(

Hate brando sando? O.o

I also read Dune this year and loved it and gave up on Dune Messiah. Will power through if things get better.

I really enjoyed Asimov's Foundation Series and Le Guin's Hainish books (specifically Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness) this year, check them out of if you haven't yet.

I don’t know. Some people don’t like Sanderson. I love him. I still need to get around to finishing Wheel of Time just so I can get to his parts.

I really wasn’t crazy about Dune Messiah. It was just okay. The whole prescient man that can’t accept the future is changeable is so frustrating. The thought it got much better toward the end though. Children of Dune is great so far. His kids are the manifestation of the answer to all my grievances with Paul in DM. I think DM will be one of those books that’s good in retrospect when contextualized within the entire story. On it’s own, it’s pretty meh. It’s short though.

And Foundation is great!

Regrettably, I only read a total of three books in all of 2020, but for me it was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I didn't know much about his life beyond basic knowledge of his work during the civil rights movement and the fact that he had been a reformed criminal. Reading about his circumstances in detail and the whirlwind of a life he lived definitely gave me a better appreciation of him and his evolution. Malcolm's story was that of changes, as he put it (with much better phrasing) to his collaborator Alex Haley, and he being a late bloomer (in some aspects) like myself gives me some hope about my life.

I can narrow it down to a top 4, if that's permissible.

* The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton

* The Oresteia, by Aeschylus

* Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand

* The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan

Oresteia - Aeschylus: is great read!

I did like Range (and am biased because I'm a generalist myself so I "wanted" to like it) but found it a bit belabored after the first few chapters, like most non-fiction books.

My pick would be Intrapreneurs by Gib Bullock, a first person perspective of building a new venture in a large business while challenging whether large businesses are good for the world, and ending up in a mental ward from the stressful introspection https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39730555-the-intrapreneu...

Thoroughly enjoyed "Greenlights" by Matthew Mccounaghey. It's a brilliant read (and listen - he's a great narrator). Lots of interesting little stories that made me think about my own life!

Hard to say.

Fiction: Anna Karenina. Recent fiction: The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

Philosophy: From a Logical Point of View by W.V.O. Quine, a collection of concise essays. Or Naming and Necessity by Saul Kripke. Or Being and Logos by John Sallis.

For some reason, I didn't get around to reading new (to me) history this year. This may be because I'm used to stopping by bookstores after work and taking pot luck there. That ended mid-March.

It‘s not a book, but Bret Deveraux‘ history blog is so comprehensive I‘ve probably read several books‘ worth of pages on it: https://acoup.blog/ Also, it pointed me to a number of the „real“ books I read this year.

Aside from that, the book that I enjoyed the most was probably Chernow‘s „Washington“.

Lifespan: Why we age and why we don't have to [0]

It made me realize we probably can stop aging and age related deceases, which changed my view on life.

0. https://www.amazon.com/Lifespan-Why-Age_and-Dont-Have/dp/150...

Alchemy - Rory Sutherland. Written by an advertising executive, it's filled with little gems, especially about signaling.

Honorable mention to The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth, which is a delightfully light read about the patterns in English phrases, but I finished it 2 days before the start of 2020.

Non fiction: The Hundred-Year Marathon, by Michael Pillsbury. A very nice review of China's foreign and domestic policy, written by a retired, senior national security advisor to various (USA) Presidents from Nixon on. He was the China expert, who started young, and learned much over his forty(?) year career.

Fiction: Saturn Run, by John Sandford. Very exciting, great characters, science fiction with great science. I would call it a modern science fiction novel. Very Refreshing.

Science/history/cool: Sunburst and Luminary, by Don Eyles. An Apollo Memoir; very exciting, great explanations about programming and designing the navigation and landing computer of the lunar module, with a neat view into the characters and history of the time. Thanks to other HN posts for these suggestions. Happy New Year!

Barbarian Days probably, it was recommended on here as on from Obama's reading list. I love the sea and surf and it brought back memories of travelling.

From last year (but even more relevant this year), Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh. I must have read it over 20 times when I was going through hard times.

The murder of Roger Ackroyd

For what it is, it was great. Did not read a lot of books this year due to children and covid!

Absolute classic is what it is! Launched a whole sub-genre. Great book. :-)

Tough one! I have to choose two:

"Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" - Samin Nosrat

"Walking: One step at a time" : Erling Kagge

China in Ten Words - really interesting book about China developing after the revolution. Written as a set of anecdotes, I found many parallels to our cultural issues today in the US.

Mom Test - Best business book.

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel was published just a few months ago.

20 short stories about money, how to think about saving vs investing, risk and leverage, time in the market vs absolute returns.

Agree. The psychology of money (https://www.amzn.com/0857197681) is a take on personal finance through the lens of history and human behavior, quite different from the usual in this genre.

I found the postscript absolutely fascinating: 'A brief history of why the U.S. consumer thinks the way they do'. http://reader.epubee.com/books/mobile/ac/acc521dcbf15f206f9b...

Ruth Ware - One by One.

Not only is it a fantastic locked room mystery thriller, but a hilarious satire of entitled tech bros and startup culture. :-)


Just want to share the books I've read this 2020. My favorite is the Netflix book.

Video / Art - The First Fifty Years, by MoMA curator Barbara London.

“Today when I walk along the urban sidewalk, I see pedestrians who are no longer confined to their physical bodies. They circulate among virtual communities, slipping in and out of their online lives using the latest software on their portable devices”

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You. I'm a data scientist and this is a brilliant overview of the promise and peril of real world AI. Doesn't hurt that it's hilarious too.

A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart. If you are someone that has kids and their education is important to you, this book gives you some insight in to what math really is and why it is not taught in schools.


Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell. Very moving.

Piranesi by Susanna Clark. Like her earlier books, it had a strong story + original style + was very inventive.


The Great Leveller - Walter Scheidel

Sid Meier's biography snuck in after Christmas + I really enjoyed that one.

"The denial of death" by Ernest Becker; brings life into a perspective.

The best book I read was the novel “Samlade verk” by Swedish author Lydia Sandgren. I’m quite sure it will be translated to German, English etc. If it does, I can warmly recommend it. It’s a great book.

For me was Stephen Buhner's Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. It changed my perception and gave explanations of things I only knew intuitively. Highly recommended.

The Splendid and the Vile. My favorite non fiction book of 2020.

Erin Morgenstern's "the Night Circus" and "the Starless Sea", and Jim Butcher's latest two Dresden Files books (Peace Talks and Battleground).

Some of my favorites from this year:

- The Brothers Karamazov

- The Catcher in the Rye

- Ender's Game

- Dune

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

Can you elaborate?

Yeah: I'm not religious, but I really enjoyed his writing style & his angles on things as simple as "rules" or even children's fairy tales. Definitely spurred a lot of re-thinking of my own biases/priors, and anything that has that effect is usually at least fun to read.

I think people can pick up the gist of his rhetoric via secondhand sources (eg. "Chesterton's Fence", or simply the idea that Christianity is good), but I think the actual writing and style of his arguments is like 70% of the magic (and more interesting to me than even the substance he's trying to get across).

I stumbled upon it this year via a random link to a specific page in this online version, and basically just felt compelled to read it start to finish: https://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Gilbert_K_Chesterton/Orthodo...

Fiction: The Leopard - Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

Non-fiction: My Life in Christ - St John of Kronstadt

Non Fiction: The War on Normal People - Andrew Yang

Fiction: Name of the wind - Patrick Rothfuss

Wise Man's Fear is also excellent. The Slow Regard of Silent Things was... interesting. I wouldn't say it was bad, but I definitely think it's a love it or hate it kind of book/novella. I liked it, but your enjoyment of it isn't necessarily a reflection of your enjoyment of the rest of the series.

Welcome to the long wait for Doors of Stone.

I wasn't sure if I would continue the series or not based on some of the reviews, but now I think I will give the second book a shot.

Thanks for your comment. :)

The Elephant In The Brain and A Philosophy of Software Design!

Paul Kalanithi - When Breath becomes Air.

and V. S. Ramachandran - Phantoms in the Brain.

David Deutsch: The Fabric of Reality

Can't Hurt Me -- David Goggins

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

'The Burnout Society' from 2015. Kinda post-Marxian thing from a Korean-German philosopher named Byung-Chul Han. Takes dead-aim at the culture of positivity and individual achievement. Fantastic.

12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

Here is my list:


* The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50623864-the-invisible-l...

* Shorefall (The Founders Trilogy #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/45200535-shorefall

* The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34912895-the-great-alone

WOW, beauty and pain mixed together on canvas of Alaska.

* The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21853621-the-nightingale

What an excellent book! It tells about hardship and sacrifices that people experienced during WW2. But considering current situation (corona virus, economy, etc.) it's 100 time better - it teach us to value simple stuff in our life (cup of coffee, laugh with friends, etc) because it may not last. Live here and now!

* The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43521657-the-ten-thousan...

WOW, pure magic on every page!


* Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers by Andy Greenberg - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41436213-sandworm

Excellent book about cyber-security and Russian hacker. If you think it's not related to you, think again! Among their targets were big ports, hospitals in different countries, bank machines in Ukraine, etc. Nobody could be safe with such level of technology spread that we depend more and more each day. USA and Israel did attacks on Iran nuclear program using StuxNet (for excellent account of that check Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon). But apparently not just USA and Israel can do that, China, North Korea, Russia and other countries are using hackers more than conventional weapons now - and it make sense, cheaper and less dangerous for those who initiated attacks. With coming year we'll see more and more of such issues, so read the book to be prepared to what is coming.

* Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic by Ben Westhoff - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44643351-fentanyl-inc

Holy shit, what a ride! Drug users, China chemical producer making precursors for fentanyl (which is legal to produce in China and even government subsidy provided in form of tax cuts), Mexican cartels (main supplier to USA), Chinese gangs in Vancouver (main supplier to Canada), people who try to save kids on rave parties by supplying test kits and get kicked out and threaten to be sued.

According to this book fentanyl is more powerful and dangerous then cocaine, heroine and meth. I've never heard about it before this book, it's like an eye-opener.

* Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32284263-black-edge

The say goes "There are three verdicts: guilty, not guilty and rich". This book shows exactly this. It's better to be rich guy and end up with wrist slap (5% of his net worth - right, it's 800M, but still 5% of 16B). And scapegoat who agreed to help justice will go to jail for long time. Disgusting, but again "greed is good!"

* Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan, Adrian Wooldridge - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38712616-capitalism-in-a...

Excellent book about different stages of capitalism in America.

When I saw the author is Greenspan I've prepared myself to pages full of "quantitative easing" and "irrational exuberance" sentences. The book was very vivid and refreshing, excellent language and information, highly recommended.

* Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41795733-range

* Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34466963-why-we-sleep

Excellent book about sleep and all bad stuff happens to you when you don't get enough of it. Read it!

* The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37877606-the-ravenmaster

March 2018 we went to London and of course visited Tower. In it we saw some beautiful raven with pink ribbon on it's leg. Thanks to the book I know now it was one of the oldest and smartest raven in the Tower - Merlina. Likes this book a lot, quite interesting read.

* Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29496076-killers-of-the-...

First white people stole their land and moved them to some shitty place in middle-of-nowhere. And when oil was found on that land and Osage people become rich from oil leases the same white people was upset and said it's not fair. Some of them went further - they married Osage men and women and started to kill them one by one to get birthright - money for oil.

Another line of that book is how FBI became to be and their first case related to Osage killings.

I was listening to audio version, it's great they have 3 narrators: woman for Osage part, man that sounds like FBI agent (you can hear steel in his voice) and 3rd part narrated by author about his research for the book and other stuff related to it.

Highly recommended!

* Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44526650-crisis-in-the-r...

With current corona-virus outbreak it's good to get some perspective on other deadly viruses such as Ebola. Did you know that 1.5 millions die annually from TB alone? How about regular flu - around 60 thousands gone last year. When was last time you worried about TB or flu? We are scared of wrong stuff, stuff they show us on TV with "Breaking News" red color frame. Read the book and get information and most important of all things - wash your hands often!

* Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37486540-dopesick

* Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13542772-automate-this

Excellent review on how automation impact all directions of our live (investments, health, dating, education, etc) and how it'll eliminate some professions (such as pharmacist) and replace them with robots. Don't be scared yet, but read the book to find what is waiting us behind the corner. Highly recommended, bought it today on BookOutlet for $5.79 you cannot beat the price - planning to read it more times.

* The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43582376-the-body

WOW, what a ride! This books covers everything from head to toes, telling you how different park of your body function and malfunction. Loved it, planning to read many more time, too much info to digest in one time. Highly recommended!

* Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38212124-nomadland

These people didn't choose to live in RVs and vans, they had no choice due to financial problems (bad investments, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, etc). The only way to survive was to hit the road - and they did it. Author has been following nomad people for 3 years on different part of USA (Amazon warehouse in Kentucky which has special program to hire campers for season load, state parks who need people to clean toilets, fill forms, sell campers' stuff, etc, down the south and up to north). It's interesting peek in life of people without home travelling across USA, trying to survive. It shows comradery of people in need, helping each other to survive when times get tough - it could be as simple as loaf of bread or complicated as bunch of mechanics help you to fix your wheels - the only stuff you have to ensure your survival.

When you live day by day sure about where you'll sleep at night or what you will eat for dinner - you don't see life of nomad people, the only way to know it is to read this kind of books - or travel and live with that people (which most of us won't do). So read the book and see other side of USA, one of the richest country in the world where some people are loaf of bread away from been broke.

* The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton, Lara Love Hardin, Bryan Stevenson - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34964905-the-sun-does-sh...

Sometimes your only crime is been a black guy and it's enough to send you to death row.

This book resonates with couple of other books I've read recently (The Guardians, American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City). It shows that sometimes they are not even interested in truth, they just need some scapegoat to put the blame on. It's painful to read about innocent man who spent 28 years behind bar for a crime he didn't commit. On other hand I was amused by his sympathy to other people (KKK guy who claimed to his parents who taught him that way - "this black guy is my friend", organizing book club behind the bar, so you can travel at least in your dreams). This book teaches you to value precious moments of our life, cannot recommend it high enough!

* On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42779084-on-the-clock

Excellent overview of current low-paid labor economy in USA (pretty sure it's the same in Canada, England - check out Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain and everywhere else). She is talking not just about her experience of working for Amazon, calling center and McDonald, but about what's wrong with such low paying jobs (insecurity, level of stress, etc). She did excellent job on connecting dots from low-paid job to elevated level of stress, inability to plan your future (and how could you if you shift can be revealed less than 24 hours before it starts), level of medicine these workers can afford (never would imagine going 4 hours to pick some left-overs of antibiotic, try to fix swallowed tooth by myself, or using horse/dog/fish antibiotics because that all you can afford without medical insurance).

Another sections I liked a lot are related to how stress works on your body (fight-or-flight preparation from the body) and history of Wanda (how technology/society became to be).

I wish they make this book mandatory for kids to read in school so they would pay more attention to home works and getting into universities/colleges (I think kids just don't know what alternatives are - like flipping burgers at McDonald - may be cool when you are 16 years old, but not so cool when you are 30+ and have wife and kids to support - so swallow you pride, smile and get back to work).

Great book, highly recommended to everybody - just to get a perspective what some people going through in their life to put bread on the table. After reading that book you will look different at somebody who takes your order in McDonald, speak to you over the phone about issues or find stuff that you ordered from Amazon. These are people with their problems and troubles which we don't see, so read the book to at least get glimpse of what they are dealing with, such as customers throwing things at you or screaming over the phone.

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