2020 Reading List
My unofficial goal for every year is to read at least 12 books. I don't take it seriously and just read whatever I want anyway. Still, I'm happy to say that this year I've reached and surpassed that goal. In the last few years I've been 1 or 2 titles short, but this time there are 14 books in this list! I think I'm getting better at picking the right books for myself.
If you want to read more but are struggling, that's the only advice I can give: get better at finding the books you enjoy. Don't read what you're supposed to read; read what you want to read. Don't be afraid to stop reading something that feels like work 50 pages in; it's unlikely to get better. There are too many interesting books in the world to waste your time on boring ones.
Here's what I enjoyed reading in 2020.
The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham (Revised Edition)
A treasured classic within value investing movement. Markets have changed a lot since this book was written, so don't expect any practical tips. Read this as a history book instead, an artifact of an era. Comments at the end of each chapter in Revised Edition give contemporary context, which help immensely. I'm gonna be honest, there were a few chapters that I skipped entirely and went straight to comments, it was so frustrating. Still, if you're interested in value investing, this book is not the worst place to start your education. It will not teach you what to do, but it will teach you how to think.
On Writing by Stephen King
Quite personal and witty, it's much more an autobiography than an actual master class on writing. Not that I mind - I was much more interested in Stephen King himself than the lessons on the craft. While the tips seem useful and actionable, it's the honest and charming storytelling that made it a worthwhile read for me.
The Dark Tower series (7 books) by Stephen King
The Dark Tower is a post-apocalyptic-fantasy-western series, which King himself considers his magnum opus. It also ties into many of his other stories. As a benefit of being long-running series, King doesn't have to rush through anything, so you get to spend a lot of time with the same characters. While slow and goofy at times, especially as it's mythology keeps piling on in the later books, it's still highly entertaining. By the end the characters and their journey feel as real as anything - you just can't get that level of impact from a single novel. The ending is supposed to be controversial, but to me it was perfect, and, more importantly, felt right.
It's worth mentioning that King's writing style itself is very compelling to me. The way he structures his sentences and paragraphs, his word choices, his transitions between different tones are just yummy to me. The guy could write a manual for microwave and I'd still enjoy reading it. Appreciating the craft behind writing contributed a lot to my enjoyment of the whole thing.
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed". That's a pretty badass line to open a book as far as I'm concerned. If it captures your imagination too, then you owe it to yourself to give the first book ("The Gunslinger") a try. It's also the shortest one in the series at merely ~300 pages, so not a huge commitment. The Dark Tower series is huge at 4000+ pages, 7 novels in the main storyline (not counting additional ones), so I was a bit hesitant to buy into it, but I'm glad I did.
P.S. bonus points to King for the goodest boy ever put on paper. His first appearance is only in the third book though.
Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman has been awarded Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on behavioral economics. "Thinking, fast and slow" was an instant classic when it was published, and for a good reason. It has potential to change your world-view, and in that dimension can be compared with Sapiens. However, unlike Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel is not as great a communicator, so this book is much more academic and heavy on research, which make it less accessible. I've listened to the audiobook and my understanding suffered from that. I'll be getting a paper copy to revisit it in the future.
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink
I've made a mistake of picking this up right after I finished "Thinking, fast and slow". Initially they seemed distinct enough, but "When" is really explaining a lot of the same concepts that "Thinking, fast and slow" is - only in a shorter and more accessible way. If you're planning to read both, I recommend reading this one first. You'll actually get through it in a couple of days and it holds enough actionable advice to be worthwile. "Thinking, fast and slow" goes much more wider and deeper, but it will also take much more commitment to get through.
Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr, E. B. White (4th edition)
Recommend by Stephen King himself, this is the American English style guide. The original from 1920 was 43 pages long; the latest edition from 1999 has "balooned" to 105, but is only better for it. The main feature of this booklet is how opionated and actionable it is. I'm even playing with the idea of making some kind of software tool to help internalize the rules. That's all to say I enjoyed the book and will be adding this to my permanent library to keep for future reference.
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
This wasn't in my reading list; it was an impulse buy.
I was just browsing Audible, looking to spend my credits that have accumulated over a few months.
This new release caught my eye.
I'm not a fan of biographies. My problem is that usually they concentrate too much on the specific person and not enough on historic context. They make it out as if subject's brilliance and impact was simply inevitable - basically a great man theory - which I just never find convincing.
"Greenlights", however, is a memoir by one of the best voices in Hollywood, so I was willing to give it a try. The recipe here is simple: a bunch of stories and insights of a well-known man told in chronological order. Matthew's life wasn't particularly full of hardship, but he doesn't try to pretend like it was. The story doesn't need life-or-death stakes to be interesting if one is a good storyteller - and Matthew definitely is.
In my experience, most books are better being read than listened. This one is the exact opposite - it only makes sense as an audiobook. The stories would lose half the charm if they were disconnected from the voice telling them.
This book was clearly written to sell copies and reinforce Matthew's status as a cultural icon. It tries to be many things to many people without offending anyone - and that's perfectly fine! I couldn't care less for generic self-help advice or vague spirituality, but thankfully those were pretty short and easy to ignore. Read it for entertainment value, don't look for anything more than that and you will not be disappointed. Makes for a perfect before bed listen, and doesn't try to be anything more than that.
Absolute FreeBSD by Michael Lucas
Easily the most technical book this year, and thus not exactly a page-turner. I've been interested in the BSD family of operating systems for a while now, and have played with them on a few different occasions. There's a lot of overlap with all *nix operating systems, so it always felt familiar. However, this year I decided to put in some effort and get to know FreeBSD in a more structured way. I chose FreeBSD (as opposed to NetBSD or OpenBSD) since it's the most popular, well supported and rounded of the bunch - can perform just as well as webserver or desktop system. Did my research and this book came up as both informative and accessible. The author is a network and security engineering veteran, so definitely knows his stuff. I'm still reading it, but can already tell that it's a good book to keep around.