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The Books I Read in 2020

Covers of the books I read in 2020

At the end of each year, I list the books that I have read during that year. Earlier years were 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012. Below, you will find the list of books that I’ve read in 2020. Every year I also include an overview of my other media consumption habits (magazines, RSS feeds and podcasts).

This year, I managed to accomplish my goal of reading one book per week. I read 53 books for a total of 14.241 pages. That is around 35% more than last year.

Once again, only about 25% of the books that I’ve read were written by women. This is what seems to happen when I just follow my interests. About half the books that I’ve read had authors that were born in the US or the UK, close to 20% were from Dutch writers, and only just over 30% came from the rest of the world.

I’ve ordered the list of books into categories that make sense to me (and that are in many ways overlapping and arbitrary). These are the books that I’ve read and what I thought of some of them:

Digital rights and technology

Doctorow’s insanely prodigious mind has produced a wonderfully smart screed against surveillance capitalism. Rasch has written a nearly poetic book about our technological predicament, and Ten Oever has shown that you can write a PhD thesis that is worth reading.

  • Cory Doctorow — How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (link)
  • Jessica Rijnboutt, Marcel Heerink and Pim Kruijt — Ethiek in ICT en techniek (link)
  • Miriam Rasch — Frictie (link)
  • Niels ten Oever — Wired Norms: Inscription, resistance, and subversion in the governance of the Internet infrastructure (link)
  • Richard A. Spinello — Cyberethics (link)

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It was a very slow year for the book club. Žižek had a few key insights about the pandemic, but was mostly rambling otherwise. Arora showed a different perspective on the tech world and provided a solid critique of solutionist and techno-utopian thinking. Ball and Greenberg have both written books that are excellent for a laypersons audience, but that were slightly too familiar for my taste.

  • Andy Greenberg — Sandworm (link)
  • James Ball — The System (link)
  • Payal Arora — The Next Billion Users (link)
  • Slavoj Žižek — PANDEMIC! COVID-19 Shakes the World (link)

Sailing and the sea

While sailing across the Southern Atlantic, I naturally was interested in books about sailing and the sea. Rousmaniere’s book is an utterly complete and practical book about all aspects of sailing. Urbina’s reporting from the extreme edges of the lawless oceans was impressive, and Moitessier reported on how he sailed around the globe in a time before GPS and satellite phone.

  • Ian Urbina — The Outlaw Ocean (link)
  • John Rousmaniere — The Annapolis Book of Seamanship (link)
  • Bernard Moitessier — The Long Way (link)

I enjoy reading about the countries I am visiting while I am in them. So that meant a lot of reading about Brazil. I loved Holston’s critique of Brasília, thoroughly enjoyed Grann’s search for the hidden gold in the Amazon, and learned a lot about Brazil’s culture, economy and politics from Rohter. Baker’s book about St. Helena was unique (like the island itself), and Suzman showed how the indigenous people of Namibia managed to sustain themselves on 15 hours of work a week.

  • David Grann — The Lost City of Z (link)
  • Ian Baker — St Helena: One Man’s Island (link)
  • James Holston — The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília (link)
  • James Suzman — Affluence Without Abundance (link)
  • Larry Rohter — Brazil on the Rise (link)
  • Timothy A. Kerner — Biking São Paulo (link)
  • Oscar Niemeyer — My Architecture (link)
  • Tristan Gooley — The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs (link)

The Pandemic

When COVID-19 hit I too felt the urge to learn about pandemics. I thought Barry’s book would help me understand what a pandemic does to society (it didn’t, it mostly explained what a struggle it was to get any sort of understanding about influenza). However, Giordano managed to write a short and quite insightful essay about the current pandemic.

  • Paolo Giordano — In tijden van besmetting (link)
  • John M. Barry — The Great Influenza (link)

Autobiography and the black experience

All of the following authors have used their personal experiences as a way to tell a larger story about race in their respective societies. These were some of the most impactful books I’ve read for the year. De Kom is a timeless classic, Gargard and Çankaya were both brutally honest, and therefore often quite painful to read. And Noah’s book is absolutely brilliant in how it balances between being funny and absolutely true.

  • Anton de Kom — Wij slaven van Suriname (link)
  • Clarice M.D. Gargard — Drakendochter (link)
  • Trevor Noah — Born a crime (link)
  • Sinan Çankaya — Mijn ontelbare identiteiten (link)

Programming and design

My PHP programming skills were about 15 years old and showed their age (basically I was still solving problems the old school way). Butler and Yank single-handedly managed to upgrade my skills to a 2015 level or so, allowing me to make a search engine for The Big Lebowski quotes.

  • Tom Butler and Kevin Yank — PHP & MySQL: Novice to Ninja (link)
  • Bruno Škvorc — Jump Start PHP Environment (link)
  • Erika Hall — Just Enough Research (link)

Fiction

As ever, the amount of fiction I’ve read in no way reflects the enjoyment I get out of it. Amado’s book reminded me of the joy I once had reading ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ by Naipaul. It has the same type of light and witty tone, while sharply critiquing society. Evaristo has written a beautiful book about the black female experience in the UK of today, while Emezi has written a pretty disturbing book about trauma. Choukri’s book is a haunting account about growing up poor in post-war North Morocco. After reading Tokarczuk, I now understand why she received the Nobel Prize for literature.

  • Jorge Amado — Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (link)
  • Bernardine Evaristo — Girl, woman, other (link)
  • Mohamed Choukri — Hongerjaren (link)
  • Akwaeke Emezi — Freshwater (link)
  • Olga Tokarczuk — Flights (link)
  • Kiley Reid — Such a Fun Age (link)
  • Barry Smit — De zaak-Mulder (link)
  • Hannah van Wieringen — All Over – acts of love (link)

Non-fiction

There was a lot to like in this category. If you ever wanted to learn how to cook then I can’t recommend Nosrat’s book highly enough (so much richer than her four episodes on Netflix). Pollan is probably my favourite non-fiction writer and his book about psychedelics was a treat. My ‘strijder’ Massih Hutak has written a full frontal and heartfelt attack on the gentrification of his beloved Amsterdam Noord. Kaner, Lind, Toldi, Fisk and Berger’s guide to facilitation is a must-have for anybody who works with groups of people towards a common goal. Rueb’s retelling of the story of a young girl who traveled to the caliphate and managed to escape was magistral. Tooze’s history of the 2008 economic crash taught me a lot about global finance and Malik has provided me with a global perspective on ethics. Brown has written an accessible guide to Stoic thinking and Perel’s book is an interesting take on relationships.

  • Samin Nosrat — Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (link)
  • Michael Pollan — How to Change Your Mind (link)
  • Massih Hutak — Jij hebt ons niet ontdekt, wij waren hier altijd al (link)
  • Sam Kaner and Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk, and Duane Berger — Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (link)
  • Thomas Rueb — Laura H. (link)
  • Adam Tooze — Crashed (link)
  • Kenan Malik — The Quest for a Moral Compass (link)
  • Alexander Wolff — The Audacity of Hoop (link)
  • Derren Brown — Happy (link)
  • Esther Perel — Mating in Captivity (link)
  • Nadia Benaissa — Liefdeswetten (link)
  • Scott Berkun — The Year Without Pants (link)
  • Shell International B.V. — Scenarios: An Explorer’s Guide (link)
  • David J Schwartz — The Magic of Thinking Big (link)
  • Linda de Greef and Ger Post, Christianne Vink, Lucy Wenting — Designing Interdisciplinary Education (link)

My consumption of other media

Due to the pandemic, I felt a high need for keeping up to date with the news. I therefore subscribed to the digital edition of the NRC and read it quite religiously up until about October. I was also subscribed to The Economist (mostly for their daily ‘Espresso’ update), the New York Review of Books, WIRED (digital only), and De Correspondent. I’ve newly subscribed to Logic, and am trying to find the time to read their in-depth pieces on technology.

I strongly prefer to keep up to date through RSS instead of through email newsletters. But I can’t escape email fully and read the newsletters I get from Rick Pastoor (about productivity), Dipsaus, Audrey Watters, and the local neighbourhood I live in. My favourite curators still are Cory Doctorow and Stephen Downes. Both provide me daily with interesting links (thankfully via RSS).

Authors I follow via RSS include Kashmir Hill, Zeynep Tufekci, Evgeny Morozov, Jaap-Henk Hoepman, Karin Spaink, Ben Thompson, Linda Duits, Maciej Cegłowski, Ian Bogost, Matt Taibi (only his free posts), Harold Jarche, Wilfred Rubens, Aral Balkan, Axel Arnbak, Matthew Green, and Bruce Schneier. Organizations and blogs I follow include Colossal, The Hmm, Bits of Freedom, EDRi, Controle Alt Delete, Bij Nader Inzien, XKCD, EFF, The Markup, The Intercept, The Black Archives, Stop Blackface, and Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter. I keep up to date with technology news through Guardian Tech and Tweakers.

My podcasting playlist has not changed much this year. I still listen to all new episodes of This American Life, Een Podcast over Media, This Week in Tech, Cautionary Tales, Dipsaus, Ear Hustle, Strangers (the free episodes only), Radio Rechtsstaat, Reply-all, and (new this year) Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin. When an episode looks interesting I will listen to Code Switch, De Correspondent, Freakonomics, Intercepted, Glitch, Nextcloud Podcast, Philosophy 24/7, Philosophic Disquisitions, Philosophy Bites, Planet Money, RadioLab, The Tim Ferriss Show, and Your Undivided Attention. My friend Inge Wannet created a short and initially daily COVID-19 related theatrical podcast called Binnenwerkjes, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I still love 99% Invisible, but am running at least 8 months behind.

There were quite a few one-off podcasting series that I listened to this year: I finally managed to get to the first season of Serial, I thought that De plantage van onze voorouders was incredibly well done, listened to The Missing Crypto Queen in one go, and similarly to De laatste dans. The Scaredy Cats Horror Show made laugh, while Nice White Parents and Kleine jongens steken niet were two very insightful pieces of journalistic work. Finally, I still have some episodes of Together Apart to go.

What will I be reading in 2021?

As I write this, I have currently started 18 books that I’ve yet to finish. I am hoping I will finish at least a few of those in the next couple of months. I don’t have a lot of reading intent for the coming year. I want to read at least two books by Toni Morrison, and I will likely read quite a lot of books about data/AI/technology ethics and about the relationship between technology and racism. Finally, I am hoping to up-skill my thinking on economics through reading Piketty’s Capital and Ideology and Kelton’s The Deficit Myth.