2020 book review

Like most people, 2020 was a weird year for me. I found myself retreating into the cloistered comfort of my living room, playing a lot more videogames and doing less reading.

Maybe I just needed the escapism, or maybe reading itself felt more stressful when all the headlines were so dire. Either way, my Switch reports that I spent hundreds of hours on immersive games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Stardew Valley, and Octopath Traveler.

Those are all great games! But since I’ve made a tradition of it, here is a (somewhat shorter) list of the books I read and enjoyed in 2020.

Quick links

Fiction

Nonfiction

Fiction

The Masters of Solitude by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin (1978)

I’ve mentioned it before, but post-apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorite genres. (I’m a natural pessimist, I guess!) This book is a bit of a hidden gem – it’s out of print, and if you check the reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see lots of comments saying that it’s a great book that almost nobody’s ever heard of. It’s also my top pick for 2020.

The book takes place hundreds of years in the future, focusing on a religious conflict between now-dominant Wiccans and minority Christians in present-day America. There are lots of fun, subtle references to places on the east coast: “Shando” I assume is Shenandoah, “Charzen” is maybe Charleston, “Mrika” is America (but not the whole continent, more of a “Holy Roman Empire” kind of thing). The book also keeps you at arm’s length by not revealing too many of its secrets early on.

The mythology and world-building are pretty rich here, and I found myself sucked in even without (yet) checking out the second book in the series. For a moment, you can even forget that it’s supposed to take place in the future, as there are elements of magic and fantasy mixed in with the sci-fi. Overall it’s strongly recommended if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy fan.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler (1993, 1998)

Apparently a lot of people read the Earthseed books back in high school or earlier, but these ones weren’t on my radar until this year. The first book in particular I deeply enjoyed: its vision of the future is disturbing, but frankly it’s one of the more believable sci-fi books I’ve read. It’s less about whiz-bang excursions to Alpha Centauri and more about the daily struggle of life on Earth in a warming climate.

It’s also impressive that this series was written back in the 90s, at a time when climate change wasn’t being taken as seriously as today. Nowadays it feels downright prescient – especially when you get to the so-unbelievable-I-had-to-check-the-publish-date depiction of a populist demagogue being elected on a familiar slogan. Overall I found the first book stronger than the second, but both are worth reading.

The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

An interesting and somewhat maddening set of sci-fi books. Unfortunately I feel that, like a lot of mysteries, the first book writes checks that the later ones can’t quite cash. You’ll probably get the most enjoyment out of it if you read the first book and ignore the rest entirely.

Just let all the mysteries from the first book sit in your mind as a delicious enigma. The second and third books don’t do a great job of clearing things up anyway.

Nonfiction

Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software by Nadia Eghbal (2020)

I’m a bit biased toward this book, since I’m actually quoted in it a couple of times, but I absolutely loved this book. More than just a recapitulation of what I already know after working on open-source software for years, this book actually illuminated some things about modern open-source culture, and even some of my own motivations for writing OSS, that hadn’t really been clear to me before.

In particular, the way she draws a parallel between OSS developers and social media “content creators” was especially eye-opening for me. When you stop treating GitHub issues and pull requests as “contributions,” and start thinking of them more like comments on a YouTube video, the social dynamics start to make a lot more sense. Probably one of the best books on software I’ve ever read, up there with Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Everyday Things in my personal pantheon.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (2018)

This book confirmed a lot of what I already believed, but it’s still nice to see it put to paper in a succinct way. Basecamp seems like a genuinely nice place to work, and a good example for other companies to follow.

If anything, it seems to me that software should be the opposite of an industry where people are encouraged to work 12-hour days, answer emails at all hours, and work on the weekend. The whole point of the job is to automate things so that the systems mostly run themselves. If you get into a purely reactive mode, then it can be a kind of death-spiral where you’re constantly inserting humans into the critical paths of the overall system, which makes everything more fragile and doesn’t play to the strengths of computing in general.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum (2020)

Over the past few years, I’ve been kind of obsessed with the question of why we’re experiencing a worldwide shift towards illiberalism. I think previous entries in my year-end book reviews do a better job of answering that question, but Applebaum’s book is a more intimate, insider’s story of what it feels like to see this shift play out even among one’s closest friends.

I get the feeling that, among conservatives in particular, the Cold War created an odd set of alliances and bedfellows (free-marketers, foreign-policy hawks, evangelicals), that’s starting to break down. This book is worth reading if you’re interested in those kinds of larger ideological shifts.

The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite by Michael Lind (2017)

I picked up this book because it was recommended alongside Ezra Klein’s similar Why We’re Polarized. I didn’t actually finish Klein’s book (probably because I picked up enough bits and pieces from his excellent podcast), but I did read this, and I find it to be maybe a more complete picture of why politics feels so fractured nowadays.

The basic argument of the book is that policy decisions in western democracies are increasingly being made by a technocratic elite, and that a backlash is underway from the broader populace that doesn’t feel represented in the new system. In the broad strokes of history, that may be a pretty familiar picture, but the book tells an interesting story of how we got there. A good pairing would be Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank, about how the Democratic party gradually lost its working-class base.

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