My 2020 in books

08 January 2021

In 2020 I read a total of 79 books - 78 in English, and one in Japanese. With a burst of last-minute reading in December, I managed to just shoot past my goal of 75 books!

I wrote a similar wrap-up post in 2019 when I read 52 books.

My top 5 books of 2020

I gave 25 books 5 stars this year, so it was definitely hard to narrow it down to 5.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Sci-fi is my favourite genre, and this book didn’t disappoint. Like some science experiment gone wrong (or right?) a new breed of aliens live out their short-lived lives on a terraformed planet while an AI watches over them from orbit above. I don’t want to go into too many details or else I’ll spoil things, but I enjoyed how the author smoothly carried you through multiple lifetimes of these aliens as their society grew and adapted to the world around them.

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

This is a non-fiction book that explores the note-taking method of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, a prolific writer of books and articles. It’s aimed towards students or academics, but I’ve written a separate post outlining how taking smart notes can apply to developers too. I will admit that as interesting as I did find the book, I didn’t end up implementing it in my own life - I probably should, but it’s very easy to fall back into bad habits.

Educated by Tara Westover

A gripping memoir that details the author’s life growing up in rural America. Her parents didn’t believe in education, vaccinations or even hospitals. But even though she never received a proper school education, she would go on to attend university, and then receive a master’s degree at Cambridge. For all the ugliness she suffered, she’s never bitter, and there’s a certain beauty in the way she writes about her life story.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

A blend of historical fiction and fantasy. The book paints a vivid picture of the Syrian and Jewish neighbourhoods in 1900s New York and then chucks in a Jinni and a Golem too. Their attempts to integrate and find their place in the world end up as a metaphor for how other immigrants (the human kind) also face similar struggles.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

A very Australian coming-of-age story, set in 1980s Brisbane, filled with a bunch of colourful characters - Vietnamese drug dealers, a bikie gang member, and real-life Slim Halliday ("The Houdini of Boggo Road") who escaped twice from a Brisbane jail. What makes it all the more amazing is the book is partially based on the author's own childhood (Slim was once his babysitter). There are some fantastical elements, and it’s more fiction than true memoir, but the way the author has woven in his own experiences makes this feel very authentic.

Most disappointing book

The most disappointing book that I actually finished was Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Although it was promoted as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it may have been the first draft version of it, which probably explains why it was so poorly written (also there are concerns Harper Lee was pressured into publishing it). I picked this one up at a second-hand book sale, and I probably should’ve realised that the reason there was so many copies of it available was that it was so bad.

The other disappointing book that I couldn’t actually finish was The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The term “black swan event” was popularised by the author, referring to an event occurring that was impossible to predict (like 9/11, or Brexit). I had heard the term before, and so I figured it would be worthwhile to pick up this book. Unfortunately, the author came off as arrogant and rude, and what really drove me over the edge was his constant referring to people in hypothetical scenarios as men. For example, "the ultimate test of whether you like an author is if you've reread him” or when asking me, the reader, to imagine a scenario in which I’ve bought a new car - "People will think, Hey, he has a great car".

I’m not saying that authors always have to use “he or she” or “they” - sometimes authors will interchangeably use genders between different stories or scenarios and I think that’s totally fine. But combining the constant references to “he” with the author’s arrogance and rude tone pissed me off and I gave up on the book halfway through.

My first Japanese book

2020 was notable as the first year in which I read a book in Japanese. I read Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, which inspired the popular Ghibli movie. It’s a children’s book about a girl named Kiki who sets out at age 13 to make a living working as a witch, alongside her black cat Jiji. I’m not yet at the stage where I can read more adult books in Japanese, but that’s a skill I’m planning to work on over 2021. Nonetheless, it’s a big milestone for me to have finally read a book in Japanese 🎉

How I read 79 books

Reading 52 books or 75 books in a year isn’t something that I think all people should aspire to achieve just for the sake of it. For me, I’ve found that I have to read or watch something - and if I’m not reading books, I’m probably going to be scrolling through Reddit, Twitter or YouTube. So forcing myself to read a large number of books essentially takes me away from those less “productive” activities. I also find that reading leaves me feeling mentally happier than browsing those sorts of websites too.

Previous to 2019, I was only reading 10 - 30 books a year, so I think it’s worth noting some of the reasons why I was able to read so many books this year and last year.

  1. Making time to read. For me, I like to read in the evenings. Before COVID-19, this would have been on the train home from work. Now, after I clock off from work, I try to make the conscious effort not to use any technology so that all I can really do is read books. Reading is also great because it’s so flexible. I can read for 10 minutes, then take my dog on his evening walk, then read for another 20 minutes, before I make myself dinner, etc.
  2. Making books more accessible. Previously, I would get the bulk of my books from the library. Usually if I wanted a book, someone else had already borrowed it, so it was a bit of a tedious game of trying to find a book that I wanted that was also available to borrow. Picking up a Kindle has been a game changer as it makes books super accessible, and I can read popular or recently released books (which were almost impossible to get from the library). It does make things more expensive since I have to buy all these books - but it is definitely worthwhile to me. If you live in America there is the option to borrow library books on your Kindle but unfortunately we can’t do that in Australia.
  3. Audiobooks. 10 of the books I read this year I consumed in audiobook format. This lets me get some extra reading in when I'm doing chores or going on walks.

What’s next in 2021?

Even though I hit my goal of 75 books this year, I still spent a lot of my free time browsing the internet (on Reddit, YouTube, etc) which I could have spent reading. So I think I have it in me to read 88 English books in 2021.

I also want to read more books in Japanese, and I figure a book a month sounds reasonable there. So 88 + 12 brings me to a nice round number of 100 books total 💯

I’ll be keeping my Goodreads account updated throughout 2021, so feel free to add me there if you are interested in following my progress.