In 2020 I read more good books than I’ve read in a long time. Surprisingly, I started and/or completed most of these before the lockdown. Rather than summarizing every book, I wanted to write about how each affected me, the setting in which I read it, and one or two main points that I know I’ll remember for a long time. The books are listed in the order in which I finished them.
Metamorphasis by Franz Kafka
I read this book in high school, and since it was required reading I never paid much attention to it…. until the last few pages. I assumed it was the same boring story:
- Person has a normal life
- Person faces conflict
- Person overcomes conflict and returns to normal life
To my shock as a high school sophomore this was not at all how Metamorphasis turned out. Since that time the book always kind of loomed over me – was it really as weird as I remembered? Did I hallucinate the story and just make it up in my head? Fifteen years later, inspired by my previous summer’s trip to Prague, where Metamorphasis is set, I decided to reread it. Yep, it’s just as strange as I remembered. But on a more serious note, the book makes me thankful for my family. And it makes me solemnly think about people who have been rejected by their closest family members (for whatever reason) – people they love but don’t love them back.
Krakatoa: The day the world exploded by Simon Winchester
At a conference in San Diego in July of 2019, two of my colleagues and I set out to find a taproom with the top ranked beer in the United States: Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing Company. We found it and like good geographers struck up a conversation about volcanic winter, climate change, and good books. One of my colleagues recommended this book in part due to my interest in the eruption of Mount Tambora. Spoiler alert: Krakatoa is even more extreme. The book contains an amazingly thorough description of the loudest event in recorded human history, the politics of the region, and why we have surprisingly detailed accounts of the eruption and tsunami today. As a bonus, the book’s opening pages coincidentally discuss the life of none other than Pliny the Elder (the person, not the beer). He was killed in a volcanic eruption.
The old man and the sea by Ernest Hemingway
This is another book I decided to re-read after my trip to Prague the previous summer. While there, I met up with my college roommate (and good friend to this day), and he suggested we go to Hemingway Bar, just outside of the Old Town Square. That renewed my interest in Hemingway. The first time I read the book I was utterly the crushed at what happens to the Old Man’s catch. Every time I read the book again I think that the story will somehow be magically altered and he will get the fish this time. Alas, it doesn’t happen, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe that the experience of attempting something grand is valuable in itself, even if the ultimate outcome is failure.
Rest: Why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
This is an awesome book about how “unproductive” time is essential to maximizing productivity. This is something that I knew from experience, but the book explains why. Soojung-Kim Pang references empirical studies about how different forms of non-work – sleep, taking walks, exercise, and detachment – complement a person’s craft, while recounting the habits of successful scientists, authors, and artists who have done these things best. He also discusses the prophetic concerns of Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the future of the academy: that it would come to value quantity over quality and that faculty would be overworked and ultimately burn out. I can certainly attest to this.
Early in grad school, I decided to give up playing video games, spend less time playing sports, and simply focus on work. At first I got a lot done, but I quickly became miserable and my productivity declined shortly after. Now I have a better understanding of why. Moral of the story: work hard but not too much, get good sleep and exercise, do things you like to do, and keep playing video games, kids.
Bullshit jobs: A theory by David Graeber
This one takes the cake as my favorite book of the year. According to Graeber, a bullshit job is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” Contrary to common conceptions, the private sector is just as rife with bullshit jobs as the public sector. Graeber brilliantly explains his case for why these jobs have appeared and proliferated. Though this is not a book about UBI, he gives the best case for UBI that I’ve ever heard.
Jesus for President: Politics for ordinary radicals by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw
I heard Shane Claiborne speak at a church retreat many years ago and have always been intrigued by his lifestyle and outlook. A good friend gave this book to me, and up until then I had never read anything by Claiborne. Despite having been raised in a conservative, Christian household I usually feel like a black sheep in the church due to my political and philosophical views. The state of mainstream Christianity just leaves me in a state of despair, but this book really gave me a renewed sense of hope. I read it throughout the politicization of a pandemic, racial protests, and counter protests and finished the last few chapters in Cave Point County Park in Door County, Wisconsin while sitting in a hammock on the the bluffs of Lake Michigan. It was an awesome way to finish a great book. Every Christian in the United States should read this. But beware: if your identity is strongly tied to your citizenship or political affiliation, it will probably make you angry. Consider, for example, this quote from John Adams: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Myth of a Christian nation: Why the quest for political power is destroying the church by Greg Boyd
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw reference this book a few times in Jesus for President, usually in a way that gravely challenges the dominant mindset of American Christians. One of my most meaningful takeaways was Boyd’s observation of this: not only is a religion often adversely affected when it becomes intertwined with the government, but this process often has devastatingly results for the state. Sadly, I feel that most American Christians will take greater pause on the second point above than the first. All this said, the book was a little disappointing, largely because of the high expectations I had after reading Jesus for President. Myth of a Christian Nation is a bit repetitive at times and honestly didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know. I think it could be helpful for a staunch “God and Country” Christian, perhaps moreso than Jesus for President which is a bit less nuanced.
The fall of the faculty: The rise of the all administrative university and why it matters by Benjamin Ginsberg
What an eye-opening and scathing account of university administration this is. If you’ve ever wondered, “What does [such and such university administrator with a really long title] actually do day-to-day? According to Ginsberg, the answer is… probably not much. Or least not much that benefits the university. One of the core problems is that the Board of Directors (or Board of Trustees) – which is supposed to hold administrators accountable – often will give administrators a free pass due to their personal financial interests in a university. After reading the book I was surprised to learn that Ginsberg is a libertarian, at least according to Wikipedia. Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs led me to this book.
Books I tried to read but did not complete
Arguing with zombies: Economics, politics, and the fight for a better future by Paul Krugman
After listening to a number of Paul Krugman’s talks, I was really excited about diving into this one. Unfortunately, it’s basically just short columns recycled from his writings with the New York Times, written for the average reader. I’m not an economist but I was looking for a more technical, cross-referenced work. I have little doubt that Krugman has evidence for his positions; they’re just not referenced here. There’s some useful stuff in here but I wanted more references.
Economic facts and fallacies by Thomas Sowell
I read the first chapter and it was ok. I then listened to one of Sowell’s interviews and he egregiously ignores the effects of geography on poverty, and that made it difficult to go any further. He does have an interesting life story, and someday I might come back to this.
Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul
Ellul is one of Greg Boyd’s favorite authors, and this book is much more theory- and philosophy-driven than either Jesus for President or Myth of a Christian Nation. Ellul presents a radical and enticing version of Christianity that makes you think about the person of Christ and Christendom in a new way. That said, the book was a bit difficult to follow but I’m glad I read the first couple chapters.