I read 158 books last year. I didn’t exactly mean to, and to be honest, I’d rather have read less and traveled more, but due to the global pandemic and being locked down in isolation, along with long solo runs and a multi-week bicycle tour, the titles added up. I reviewed my 2020 reading list and below are a few of my favorites.
First off, a disclaimer. Most of the titles were audiobooks. I’m a horribly slow reader, and for years I’ve been using my public library to access free Kindle and audiobooks from anywhere in the world via OverDrive, Libby, and Hoopla. During the pandemic it seemed like other readers caught on, and as the wait lists grew for library titles I finally invested in Audible.
2020 Reading List
10 Kindle Books
1 Physical Book
Favorite Book of 2020
- Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris
My favorite book of the year was Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, a story about two friends bicycle touring the Silk Road. I love her writing style, a mix of wit and humor, along with interesting history and current events. I liked it so much I listened to it on audiobook, then downloaded the Kindle book to read it again. The duo’s antics and experiences also reminded me of bicycle touring with Ryan Jean, and it definitely made me miss adventuring with friends!
My list of runner-up books starts with 3 around-the-world journeys on two wheels. Both authors are British, though I’m not sure that has anything to do with them making my list, more likely it was because I was reading about them traveling around the world while being “stuck” in Thailand.
- Around The World By Bike by Alastiar Humphreys
- Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon
- Dreaming of Jupiter by Ted Simon
Alastiar’s book would have won my top spot if it wasn’t for Kate. I love his approach to exploration and discovery, simple travel, AntiComfortable adventures, and his writing style is enjoyable and fun, yet thought provoking.
Ted Simon rode a motorcycle around the world for 4 years in the 1970’s, and his stories are incredible. In 2001, at 70 years old, he got back on a bike and did the trip again. I think both books are worth a read.
Other notable runner-ups include…
- The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial
Riveting book, well written, a true and tragic story.
- The Last Wild Men Of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure by Carl Hoffman
Fascinating story of vastly different approaches to exploring indigenous cultures.
- Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
Seriously funny and interesting.
- Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman
Fun read, even better on audiobook narrated by Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent.
- Running With Sherman by Christopher McDougall
Another great McDougall book.
Nonfiction vs Fiction
Probably 98% of the books I read are nonfiction. Occasionally I’ll try a fiction book, but I have a hard time getting into them. My preference is nonfiction, and the 2 or 3 titles that were fiction last year were self help fables, so sort of straddling the fiction / nonfiction line.
In my 20’s I devoured business books, biographies of successful people, and self help or motivational tomes. In my 30’s I’ll read those now and then, but I prefer adventure and exploration nonfiction, especially historical accounts from the 1700 & 1800’s of exploring unknown lands, crossing unmapped continents, or navigating uncharted oceans, with adventure, challenge, survival, and often defeat.
Travel & Adventure
- Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Classic story, a well written account.
- The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
If you don’t know who Alexander von Humboldt is, you need to read this.
- Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan
Made me reconsider my dream of living on a sailboat.
- 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness by Brian Murphy
Reinforced my strong dislike of winter.
History Of The World Through…
- Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik
This has been one of my favorites for years and I kicked off 2020 listening to it again while running around Bali. Unfortunately, I forgot there is an entire chapter about the rabies outbreak on Bali in the early 2000’s, and I listened to the horror stories while being chased by barking dogs on the streets around Ubud.
- Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
I’m not sure how I came across this book, but I loved it. By the end I was sad it was done, and thought that it reminded me of Salt and Cod, two books that I read years ago. To my surprise, Mark wrote those books too, which explains why I enjoyed Paper so much!
- The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard
In-depth history of the world through mosquitos. They may be tiny, but they shaped civilizations!
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
You can’t go wrong with a Bryson book.
Mystery Crime Nonfiction
- The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson
- The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer
- The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean
I started the year with The Feather Thief, somehow came across The Orchid Thief, and finished with The Falcon Thief. I think the Feather and Falcon were my favorites, but all three were captivating, educational, and fun reads mixing current events with interesting history, unlikely criminals, outlandish escapades, and all around enjoyable stories.
- The Answer Is… : Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek
- The Simple Faith Of Mr. Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor by Amy Hollingsworth
- The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger
- Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
- Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life by Michael Caine
- The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe
- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
- Sixty Meters To Anywhere by Brendan Leonard
Author Deep Dives
- Erik Larson: Erik writes fantastic historical accounts and I’ve read several of his books previously. Last year I completed The Splendid and the Vile, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, and Isaac’s Storm, which I think was my favorite.
- Wade Davis: I love Wade’s writing and lectures on anthropology, culture, civilization, and humanity. This year I dove into The Serpent and the Rainbow and The Wayfinders, as well as many videos of his lectures online. His work was often referred to in other travel, exploration, and anthropological books I read last year, so I intend to read more of him in 2021.
- Paul Theroux: Paul has made a name for himself as a travel writer, often traversing vast landscapes on trains. He too is featured in many books that I’ve read, and last year I enjoyed The Old Patagonian Express, On The Plain Of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, and am working my way through Deep South, but it’s on Kindle, and I’m an amazingly slow reader.
- David McCullough: I still remember when my Great Uncle Jim recommended that I read David’s book John Adams, which is one of my all-time favorites, and whenever I see another McCullough title I add it to my list. This year I read The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal and The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.
Current Events: Pandemic
Even before the winter of 2019-2020 I’d already read several books about pandemics, including The Great Influenza about the 1918 flu, but as COVID-19 locked me in place, I turned my attention to as many historical accounts of past pandemics as I could find.
- Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
- Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright
- Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic Of 1918 by Albert Marrin
- Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah
Current Events: Inequality via Race, Religion, Nationality, Class, Gender
In addition to reading about racism following the tumultuous events in America, I challenged my thinking with books about caste, class, indigenous people, ancient cultures vs. today, the East and the West, and people’s and community’s struggles around the world.
- At The Dark End Of The Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance-a new history of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire
My friend Molly sent me to Bali with this physical book, the only paper book I read all year. It was painfully challenging, but eyeopening to the history of my own country, and humbling to better understand the conversations that need to be had to work toward righting so many wrongs.
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
An intense book diving into inequality from America to India, the Nazis, slavery, and more. A very deep look into culture today.
- Kaffir Boy: The True Story Of A Black Youth’s Coming Of Age In Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane
I still feel sick to my stomach about how horrible humans can be to each other.
- Surrender, White People!: Our Unconditional Terms for Peace by D.L. Hughley
Covering all the same race related issues, but with a bit of humor.
Current Events: Politics
If 2020 is remembered for something, it will probably be COVID-19, but for me the year was also about political discord, and at times it was devastatingly depressing to watch people in my home country tear each other apart online, and in person, just because we believe different things. In an effort to better understand ALL sides, as well as figure out what is making so many people hate each other, I devoured political books from as many angles as possible. My favorite was…
- Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
I found several other titles incredibly interesting, but they lean toward my own political beliefs. I read accounts and viewpoints from the extreme left, extreme right, and in between. Instead of unfriending people on social media who posted things I didn’t agree with, I clicked and read their articles and the comments in an effort to better understand where everyone is coming from. I’d like to say that I’m optimistic about our political future, but that might be a bit too optimistic.
Speaking of the future…
Current Events: Sustainable Future
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
After reading Yuval’s books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, this was another insightful look into our world, and I plan to re-read all three books again soon.
- The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking by Roman Krznaric
Recommended by my Uncle Jim, Roman talks about how living our lives with an extended outlook centuries into the future would drastically change our actions today.
2021 Reading Wish List
I’ve never done a year-end recap of my reading list before, but being “stuck” on a Thai island during the pandemic has given me plenty of free time, and I enjoyed looking back at the notes I took on the titles I read.
If you have any books you’ve read lately that you think I might find interesting, send the titles my way. Happy Reading!
The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey
Nonfiction story about great white sharks. Fascinating read
Isaac’s Storm was also my favorite Larson book.
Thanks for the message, looking up that book now! Yeah, I really enjoyed Isaac’s Storm, all of Larson’s books are good, but that was especially interesting! Cheers!
The Overstory by Powers, Richard
American War by El Akkad, Omar
Homegoing by Gyasi, Yaa
Thanks Mark, I’m adding these to my list and looking forward to diving into them. Thank you!