I read more books in 2020 than I did in 2019—sixteen in total—not much by modest standards, but nearly double what I read last year. I’m happy with that, especially given the length of some of the titles and the circumstances of the year: permanently working from home, alternating childcare with work throughout the day, as the pandemic wore on, month after month after grueling month. Most workdays were incredibly long, starting early and ending at 9:00 or 10:00pm, as my wife and I took turns watching our kids while the other worked. Eking out time to read or write often meant forgoing sleep. Essentially all of my reading time happened after the kids were in bed, or on weekends during their naps.
Though the days were long, I recognize my extreme privilege, being fortunate enough to remain employed, working from a comfortable home, able to weather the storm of the pandemic in a relative good fortune while others suffered tremendously. Lack of time to read is not a complaint, just a fact of circumstances. There’s much more to unpack on the topic of reading and privilege, but that’s for another day.
I managed to read more this year than last because I was more deliberate in my allocation of time. As recommended by Cal Newport in Deep Work, I planned my leisure time. After a long day of work and parenting, it’s all too easy to collapse in a heap on the sofa, whiling away the last hour or two of the day surfing the web or staring at the TV. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but it’s not how I want to spend much of my time.) I resisted the temptation, making my way through an intentional reading list, deciding which evenings I would devote to reading, and it worked. Unfortunately, I started this practice too late in the year, but I anticipate 2021 to be a year of heavier, more focused reading.
My list closely matches the themes of 2020, touching on topics of surveillance, algorithmic bias, racism, and dystopia. In hindsight, I think I should have read more uplifting works to counterbalance the heaviness. What it is. Of the books I read this year, these are my top three:
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport: Newport’s books are easy to read and offer a good dose of inspiration—and practical tips—on more effective use of your time and mental energy. Digital Minimalism offers compelling reasons and strategies on how to ditch digital devices and reduce the psychological “noise” that they introduce, often distracting from focus and more important matters. I had already reduced my use of social media significantly before reading this book, but since reading it I have implemented more stringent “rules” on how I engage with Twitter to further prevent it becoming an unwanted time-sink.
- Known Citizen by Sarah Igo: A detailed—and long(!)—history on how privacy has come to dominate so much of American life and law since the dawn of the 20th century. Incredibly educational for someone like me who knew very little about this history, particularly the American case law surrounding privacy. Though the book didn’t focus on it, I became particularly interested in privacy as a privilege of wealth and whiteness in America, which led me to reading Simone Brown’s excellent Dark Matters on the history of surveillance of Black people.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: This book has been on my reading list forever, but it unfortunately took the murder of George Floyd for me to finally make the time for it. I wish I’d read it sooner; it was eye-opening depiction of white privilege as visceral experience. Coates wrote the book as an open letter to his son and, as a father myself, I occasionally found myself in tears.
And here is the entire list, including subjective rating and medium (printed book or e-book):
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (printed book)
- Known Citizen by Sarah Igo (e-book)
- Dark Matters by Simone Brown (e-book)
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (printed book)
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott (printed book)
- Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (e-book)
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (e-book)
- How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (e-book)
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (e-book)
- Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sarah Wachter-Boettcher (e-book)
- Value Sensitive Design by Batya Friedman and David Henry (printed book)
- Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler (e-books)
- Deep Work by Cal Newport (printed book)