Looking back on this maddening year, I found I read a lot of poetry that inspired and a lot of page-turner novels that distracted. It would be easy to make half this list collections of Mary Oliver poems, but I subtracted poetry from the list altogether to focus on the craft of the written novel or book. Still, I like to bend the rules, so in making my list of top ten favorite books for the year, I chose eleven. This was a nod to Charlie Mackesy, who spun a bit of magic in a year where it was essential. Illustrating the timeless nature of books (or perhaps how far behind I am in catching up), only four of the eleven were released in 2020. These eleven books are listed in no particular order, largely because there’s a bit of wonder in each of them. Each informed and delighted me.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
“The more oxygen life can consume, the more electron excitability it gains, the more animated it becomes. When living matter is bristling and able to absorb and transfer electrons in a controlled way, it remains healthy. When cells lose the ability to offload and absorb electrons, they begin to break down.”
I find myself thinking often about breathing after reading this book. Waking up with a dry mouth reminds me I need to be better at nasal breathing, when hiking I try to control my breath and focus on how I’m taking in oxygen, and when I chew almonds I crunch with satisfaction, knowing it helps release stem cells and increase bone density. This book is highly informative and strongly recommended for anyone, well, breathing.
The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More With Less by Richard Koch
“Equality ends in dominance: that is one of the messages of chaos theory. The 80/20 Principle’s message is different yet complementary. It tells us that, at any one point, a majority of any phenomenon will be explained or caused by a minority of the actors participating in the phenomenon. Eighty percent of the results come from 20 percent of the causes. A few things are important; most are not.”
This was the most highlighted book of the bunch. Honestly, there were chapters I skimmed over because they didn’t sing a tune I wanted to hear, but the theories here are sound. I wish I’d read this book at the beginning of my career, but it’s not too late to implement the core principles in many aspects of my life.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Hitler wanted still more force applied against Britain. America seemed increasingly likely to enter the war but would do so only, he reasoned, if Britain continued to exist. On March 5 he issued another directive, No. 24, this signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW), aimed mainly at how Germany and Japan might coordinate strategy under the Tripartite Pact, which both had signed with Italy the preceding fall. The goal, the directive said, “must be to induce Japan to take action in the Far East as soon as possible. This will tie down strong English forces and will divert the main effort of the United States of America to the Pacific.” Beyond this Germany had no particular interest in the Far East. “The common aim of strategy,” the directive stated, “must be represented as the swift conquest of England in order to keep America out of the war.”
We all grew up sort of knowing about The Blitz. This book neatly sums up just how tenuous the situation was. I fancy myself well-informed about World War II, but I learned far more from the The Splendid and the Vile than I expected to. For all our complaints about the pandemic, most of us have no idea what real sacrifice is. Larson brings us closer to understanding with this book.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” asked the mole.
“Kind,” said the boy.
A beautiful, simple book. I picked this up for my daughter as a gift and read it quickly before wrapping it up. If 2020 kicked you in the ass, read this. Then read it again. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is art, meditation and a warm hug disguised as a book.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved The Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by David Sobel
The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child’s play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma—one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.
I’ve danced around this book for years, never getting around to reading it. And then I went to Greenwich and saw the chronometers ticking away in their plexiglass cases and resolved to get right to it when I returned home. This is a story of perseverance solving what was believed to be the impossible. A delightful book.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
No longer mindful of the debt they owed the Pokanokets, without whom their parents would never have endured their first year in America, some of the Pilgrims’ children were less willing to treat Native leaders with the tolerance and respect their parents had once afforded Massasoit.
Living in New England, you can’t really get away from the story of the Pilgrims. But the part we seem to forget with the Pilgrims is how much they relied on luck and the strategic kindness of Massasoit to survive at all. It seems I’m a descendent of a Pilgrim (or two), so I’m told, and that lineage makes me all the more indebted to the Pokanokets who assured that those first few years here weren’t the last for the passengers on the Mayflower. As the quote above suggests, that indebtedness seemed to skip the next generation, paving the way for the tragedy of King Phillip’s War.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
“That four-to-one ratio in writing time—first draft versus the other drafts combined—has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks. There are psychological differences from phase to phase, and the first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that, it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional. Days go by quickly and not a few could be called pleasant, I’ll admit.“
Reading McPhee, like reading Hemingway, it’s easy to get just a bit intimidated. The beauty of this book is that he pulls back the curtains to show you the way. Great research, editors and fact checkers smooth out the rough edges and polish the story, but the work you put into it makes the finished product shine.
Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau
“The ocean there is commonly but a tantalizing prospect in hot weather, for with all that water before you, there is, as we were afterward told, no bathing on the Atlantic side, on account of the undertow and the rumor of sharks. At the lighthouse both in Eastham and Truro, the only houses quite on the shore, they declared, the next year, that they would not bathe there “for any sum,” for they sometimes saw the sharks tossed up and quiver for a moment on the sand. Others laughed at these stories, but perhaps they could afford to because they never bathed anywhere. One old wrecker told us that he killed a regular man-eating shark fourteen feet long, and hauled him out with his oxen, where we had bathed; and another, that his father caught a smaller one of the same kind that was stranded there, by standing him up on his snout so that the waves could not take him. They will tell you tough stories of sharks all over the Cape, which I do not presume to doubt utterly,—how they will sometimes upset a boat, or tear it in pieces, to get at the man in it. I can easily believe in the undertow, but I have no doubt that one shark in a dozen years is enough to keep up the reputation of a beach a hundred miles long.“
This book, like Philbrick’s Mayflower, informs the native New Englander about the places that once were the places that now are. I have a stack of quotes from this book that I’m saving for other blog posts, but the one above reminds us that the question of sharks has been around a lot longer than we might believe. Like Thoreau I’m much more concerned about undertow when swimming in the surf, but hey, you never know…
Siddhartha: A Novel by Hermann Hesse
“Were not all sufferings then time, and were not all self-torments and personal fears time? Weren’t all the difficult and hostile things in the world gone and overcome as soon as one had overcome time, and as soon as time could be thrust out of the mind?“
I’ve heard enough people recommend this book that eventually I had to read it, and I finished it in 2020. Amazingly, it feels like I read this a decade ago, for all that’s happened this year. Like The Alchemist, it’s a story that teaches you a bit about yourself as you wade through it.
Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All The Facts by Annie Duke
What makes a decision great is not that it has a great outcome. A great decision is the result of a good process, and that process must include an attempt to accurately represent our own state of knowledge. That state of knowledge, in turn, is some variation of “I’m not sure.”
How do you make decisions? How can you make better, more informed decisions when you don’t have all the facts? And what is a game of strategy versus a game of chance? This book uncovers some of these answers. As with anything, there’s book smart and there’s street smart, and reading about it and understanding it in real life are different things. Duke sprinkles in some street smarts hard won on the poker tables.
Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character by James G. Stavridis
“The contemporary malaise is the unwillingness to take chances. Everyone is playing it safe. We’ve lost our guts. It’s much more fun to stick your neck out and take chances. The whole attitude is to protect yourself against everything, don’t take chances. But we’ve built this country on taking chances” (Quoting Rear Admiral Grace Hopper)
A quick, enjoyable read that offers lessons learned from some of the great “Admirals” in history. This is examination of character in ten short biographies, but also an unflinching look at racism and sexism in the Navy and how that battle continues to be fought to this day. And there’s no mistaking the Admiral’s feelings about character in certain political leaders we currently suffer through. A timely message for all of us.