I read at least 41 books in 2020. Here are some highlights.
Intellectual History (?)
This is the category I’m using for my two overall favorites for the year, although it doesn’t quite fit. I love books like this that tell the stories of historic figures in unusual ways.
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines - Janna Levin
This is generally described as a “philosophical novel”, a description which is both accurate and suitably vague, as the novel is difficult to describe. Janna Levin is famous for a lot of things: she’s possibly the most influential living black hole physicist, an author of a number of well-known books, and a well-known science communicator. This was her first book (I think), and doesn’t seem to be particularly well-known despite being an amazing work.
It’s a fictionalized account of the lives of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. The writing is alernately strange and beautiful. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Weil Conjectures - Karen Olsson
I read this back to back with the previous book, and they will always be connected in my mind although they don’t intersect except for a few biographical years.
The book explores the lives of the French writer Simone Weil (who died young and was little known during her lifetime) and her brother Andrew Weil, an influential mathemetician who survived to old age. The biographical stories are interwoven with meditations from the author’s own life as a mathemetician turned writer. Also beautifully written, it tells the stories of historic figures who deserve to be better known.
I only read two books in this category this year, and I’m noting one:
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
At some point this year I realized that even though I had read this 30-ish years ago, I couldn’t remember a thing about it other than “Lizzie” and “Darcy”. I’m always curious about whether I feel years later that classics or old favorites stand the test of time. This one certianly does. After the re-read, I went on to binge watch all the screen adaptations I could find, including the Keira Knightly film, the two BBC adaptations, and the remarkable “Lizzie Bennett Diaries” modern-dress series on YouTube. They were all great fun, but the Keira Knightly film is my favorite.
I didn’t read a lot of SF this year. My single pick is:
Binti - Nnedi Okorofor
I read the whole trilogy, but the first was by far my favorite. It’s just so different from any other SF novel I’ve read in recent years that I enjoyed every page. Somehow it manages to fit five or six classic archetypal stories into a very short novella.
This was by far my largest reading genre this year. I read so many great books in this category that it’s hard to narrow them down, but I’ll try. Maybe I’ll get crazy and do a separate blog post on this topic; you never know.
Active Measures - Thomas Rid
This history of disfornmation campaigns (mostly but not exclusively Soviet-bloc and Russian) is justifiably a huge 2020 bestseller. Anyone working in social media, politics, intelligence, or any related field should read it carefully. There’s a lot of misinformation about disinformation out there, but Rid cuts through it brilliantly.
The Main Enemy - Milt Rearden and James Risen
This is a long, detailed history of the KGB/CIA “spy wars” from roughly the mid-1970s to the fall of the Soviet Union. I’ve read a lot of books about this period and have more on my list, but this is the best survey that I’ve read thus far. In order to reduce mandatory CIA pre-publication review problems, the authors wrote their respective conributions separately and Rearden (a CIA veteran) submitted his half for review, while Risen (a journalist) did not. In the final version, though, they don’t call out the authors of each chapter, so it’s hard to keep track of what’s first-hand reporting and what’s not. I highly recommend the book for its thoroughness and the quality of the writing, but if you intend to study the period in depth it’s important to realize that there’s a lot of opinion in the reporting here. It’s a good idea to read other books about particular cases or periods to better understand the controversies surrounding some of the stories.
Circle of Treason - Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille
I’m calling this a “bonus pick” because the writing is a bit rough and repetitive in places, but it’s written from an analyst’s perspective rather than a journalist’s or ops officer’s perspective. I read a number of good books about the Aldrich Ames case, and I think it’s worth getting the take from the analysts who worked the case most closely. This also provides a useful counterpoint to some of Rearden’s opinions.