My Five Favorite Books of 2020
I spent a fair amount of time reading books in 2020, and I hope to spend as much time—if not more—doing the same in 2021. Of all the books I read throughout the year, below are my five favorites spanning all genres and categories. Included are my thoughts on why they landed in the top five, as well as the brief reviews that I shared for each of them throughout the year in my weekly newsletter. You can find a full list of everything I read in 2020 here.
1. The Power Broker - Robert Caro: To me, 2020 personified everything that New York City stands for. Both the good and the bad. Togetherness. Stubbornness. And above all else, resilience. In a year where NYC took center stage more than once, I found it fitting to have started the year by reading what I now believe to be the quintessential book about NYC. As 2020 revealed many of the true qualities of NYC, so does The Power Broker. To fully understand, and appreciate, NYC, one must live here for some period of time—there’s really no other way about it. This is true for most cities, yet none more so than New York. You need to live it to feel it and believe it. Any New Yorker will tell you the same thing. Yet, to understand how this city came to be what it now is, there’s a cheat code. And that’s reading The Power Broker.
As I’ll tell anyone who asks me, Robert Caro is the best biographer ever. Period. Words can’t do justice in describing the unique ability he has to chronicle the lives of the subjects he’s written about. I learned more about New York and how it became the city it is today through this book than by living here for the past six years and spending my entire life around it combined. Robert Moses had an unfathomable impact on shaping modern-day New York, and this book succeeds beyond any expectation that can be set in telling his story. (5/5)
2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values - Robert Pirsig: It wasn’t until after I finished reading this book and started to look back on my notes that I realized how powerful it really is. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn’t the easiest read, but it’s one of the most rewarding. Had I not also read The Power Broker this year, this would have easily captured my number one spot.
This book is a gold mine of philosophical quips and metaphors, but it’s not always easy to get through. You need to really be focusing to extract the full value of the ideas that Pirsig presents, and if you’re even the slightest bit distracted you’ll find yourself constantly having to go back and reread what you just read. Even when you are fully focused, it’s still helpful to reread much of his writing to ensure you’re capturing the full breadth of his thoughts. That being said, this one is a modern-day classic for a reason and it’s well deserving of that status. (4.5/5)
3. The Lessons of History - Will Durant: This was the shortest book I read this year, yet it packed the biggest punch. The fact that this book covers 5,000 years of history (adequately) in 128 pages still astonishes me every time I think about it. The more I reflect on my notes and highlights from this book, the more valuable I realize it is.
The Lessons of History is nothing short of a masterpiece. Will & Ariel Durant’s achievement of distilling the most important lessons of over 5,000 years of history into 128 pages is truly remarkable. There are very few books I’ve read that offer as many interesting takeaways on a per-page basis. This is a book that I’ll repeatedly be coming back to my notes on for a long time. (5/5)
4. Master of the Senate - Robert Caro: In a year fraught with political drama on a rather unpreceded scale, I yet again found it fitting to have read one of Robert Caro’s timeless works in 2020. While the central focus of Master of the Senate is of course the U.S Senate, it’s an incredible source of knowledge on our political system in general. As politics in our country continue to seep further into everyday life, I’ve found it incredibly valuable to have somewhat of working knowledge of how our current system came to fruition. Reading this book went a long way in helping me develop that.
After finishing Master of the Senate, I’ve now made it through ~2,750 pages of Robert Caro’s masterful The Years of Lyndon Johnson series. Clocking in at 1,200 pages, Master of the Senate is one of the most detailed and impressive chronicles of the U.S. Senate ever published. While I encourage, and highly recommend, reading the entire series, Master of the Senate can easily be read on a standalone basis. It’s a phenomenal read that will leave you with a working knowledge of how our legislative system truly works. As I have said before, and I’ll say again, Robert Caro is the best biographer to ever put pen to paper. (5/5)
5. Essentialism - Greg McKeown: When historians look back on 2020, I believe a fitting term for the year will be: The Great Pause. Life as we knew it came to a standstill. And as a result of that, hundreds of millions of people across the globe were forced to reckon with what was really important to them. For many of us, quality time and relationships with family and friends emerged on top. While always important, the events of 2020 made it abundantly clear how important they are. Essentially, 2020 highlighted what was truly essential to us. And in reading Essentialism, I learned quite a bit about focusing more time and energy on the things I deem essential while avoiding distractions.
Essentialism is a book that I wish I knew about much sooner. Greg McKeown’s philosophy of essentialism is a powerful antidote to the craziness of our non-stop world. McKeown lays out the argument that we can actually accomplish more by doing less through the relentless pursuit of focusing on what’s essential. By setting out on the path to essentialism, we can all make the highest possible contribution to the things that really matter to us. Essentialism was an impactful read that will now be high up on my list of recommendations. (4.5/5)