Books I loved in 2020, and why you should read them too (updated)

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to make lists like these. But on the other hand, I love to read these curated lists myself. Exciting reviews and recommendations always inspire me to buy books for myself. So here’s a list of the books I think you’ll love as much as I did. The list is as random as my reading habits. I sincerly hope I can succeed in triggering your curiosity to buy at least one of these books.

Update January 25th 2021: How could I forget not to include “The Invention of Nature”, the biography of Alexander von Humboldt! Check out why below.

Tom De Bruyne

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Category: History

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science. 

The Invention of NatureThis book blew me away. Von Humboldt’s life is marked by an endless curiosity about understanding the world and the principles of physics, biology and nature. He lived in an era that marked the beginning of scientific enquiry and in a way he was the posterchild of that era. Von Humboldt combined an insaturable curiosity with total fearlessness and a sense for adventure. One of the best biographies I ever read. Highly recommended.

 

HHHH by Laurent Binet

HHHH - Laurent BinetThis year I read this book for the third time. The best way to describe the book is that it’s the journey of a neurotic historian who gets into a conversation with his readers about his struggle to tell the story of the assassin of Heinrich Heidrich in Prague. It’s hilarious and fascinating. If I would have had a history teacher like Binet in high school, I’d probably become a historian. I also re-read The Seventh Function of Language. I love this book, but you have to have a bit of background in French philosophy to appreciate his mockery of the scene around Foucault, Derrida, Jakobson, Lacan and others. I also loved his latest book Civilizations, a thrilling fictitious history of what would have happened if Columbus failed and the Incas would have conquered Europe.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in ChernobylThis book made a significant impression on me. It tells the story of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. You get a deeper understanding of how the Communist System shaped the behaviours that eventually lead to the nuclear disaster in 1986. The story of Chernobyl is the story of a system that produced layer upon layer of bureaucrats that only wanted to hear good news and who were obsessed with success and glory at all costs. 

I previously wrote a blog about this book here.


Several books by Philipp Blom

Wicked Company - Philipp BlomThis year I discovered the historian and philosopher Philipp Blom. What a lucid writer. A Wicked Company, the forgotten Radicalism of the Enlightenment takes the reader to the Seventeenth Century philosophical salons where Diderot, D’Holbach and their famous guests like David Hume lay the radical intellectual groundwork for a new theory on humanity that doesn’t require a God.

Fun fact: The famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the writer of Emile, a famous treaty on education, got five kids with his mistress and got rid of all babies. He was also a paranoid, vicious man, quite in contrast with his philosophy.

What’s fascinating about this history is that one salon in Paris created the circumstances in which the greatest minds of that era connected, cross-pollinated and pushed each others thinking and writing. If the saying is true that “you are the average of the five people you hang around with”, then this was the place where the 0.00001% of lucid minds came together. A great reminder that brilliance is the product of creating the right context. 

Other books I enjoyed by Philip Blom (in Dutch):

  • Wat op het spel staat. The book hasn’t been translated yet. A highly recommended read on the challenges we’re facing today due to climate change and robotization, where Blom shines a historical light on the challenges we’re facing.
  • Het Grote Wereldtoneel. A marvellous essay on the battle between the stories that define our view on the world. Blom argues that we need new collective narratives to deal with the current challenges.

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Category: Economics

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

Alchemy - Rory SutherlandWhenever people ask me to recommend a book on behavioural science, this is the one I recommend. Alchemy is witty, creative, sharp. Rory Sutherland knows how to make you fall in love with the intriguing world of behavioural economics. His book challenges flawed human understanding in the way we think about designing products, services, policies and our private life. When you embrace irrationality, you will come up with highly counterintuitive ideas that can make a huge difference.

Tip: You can also listen to Alchemy as audiobook on Storytel, read by Rory himself.

 

Angrynomics by Marc Blyth and Eric Lonergan

AngrynomicsI have written about Mark Blyth several times. He’s a Scottish-American professor in political economy at Brown University. He wrote a lot about austerity, arguing that austerity is the dumbest solution to an economic crisis. Angrynomics is a relatively short book in which Blyth and his co-author Eric Lonergan attempt to build up an economic theory on why we’re witnessing so much anger that has been captured so well by populists. I loved the book because it read like a little masterclass in economic theory. Blyth is also fascinating and funny to watch or listen to online.

 

Fantoomgroei by Sander Heijne and Hendrik Noten. 

Fantoomgroei - Sander Heijne en Hendrik NotenI sincerely hope this book is going to get translated into English. Hendrik and Sander did a fantastic job exploring a simple question: Why is it that the economy is booming, but less and fewer people benefit from this boom? They explore how we became obsessed with the economy while forgetting that the economy should be instrumental in shaping society. Fantoomgroei inspired my liberal friends and me to think about how the rules and the beliefs underneath the current economy produce growing inequality. It explores how to fix it through more cooperative ways of thinking.

 

Category: Science

How Innovation Works – Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley - How Innovation WorksI discovered Matt Ridley this year after listing to the interview that Naval Ravikant did in his podcast. His most recent book, How Innovation Works is an excellent history of innovation. A highly counterintuitive insight is that invention is never the product of a lone genius. On the contrary, innovation is somewhat in the air at some point in history. And for every great invention, several inventors were working on cracking the problem at the same time. Ridley is one of those great minds, comparable with Yuval Harari. I started reading Genome, a book about our genes’ history but didn’t finish it yet. His 2010 bestseller The Rational Optimist blew my mind. You can think of it as a history of human problem-solving capacity and if you need some antidote to apocalyptic climate change fearmongering, then this is your book.

 

Category: Creativity

Obliquity by John Kay

Obliquity - John KayFascinating book. It’s a bit of a cult book in the planning community. Obliquity makes a strong case for approaching goals indirectly. If you want to get rich, never go after wealth. If you’re going to get happy, never chase happiness. If you want to learn how the pursuit of financial goals time and again turns out to be the fastest path to oblivion for companies, read this intriguing little book. 

 

Range by David Epstein 

Range - David EpsteinThis book was one of the most recommended books by the Farnamstreet blog learning community. It’s a great book about how we learn. The core idea is that true mastery is all about combining skills, instead of focus on learning just one. Real outperformers seem to combine know-how from multiple disciplines. But the book is much richer than this elevator pitch. Tons of insights on how to learn. For instance: You will learn much faster if you try to apply the theory and fail. Failing fuels your curiosity for the right approach, and as a consequence, your learning experience becomes much more profound. This is a book I’ll have to re-read multiple times.

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