I’ve built a little audience by writing about travel and outdoor adventure across the last decade, but to be honest, in 2020 travel’s been off the books and outdoor adventure hasn’t been much beyond a coping skill. Like most of the world, I’ve been sheltering in place and holding on to any solid object that I can find. Or hiding in a cave while the storm blows over. Or sheltering on the rocks while the tide recedes. Whatever analogy you want to use, I haven’t been doing much of the stuff I’ve tried to encourage people to do in previous writing. I’ve mostly just been sitting on the couch and working since, like, January.
The 2020s have been a cluster that have felt entirely out of control - the waiting out the storm analogy seems apt. A lot of times I haven’t had a lot of ideas about what to do. As part of feeling burnt out from social media making things worse and to give myself something more productive to stare at than the internet, I decided at the end of 2019 to get back to reading seriously. It’s one commitment I’ve kept, and I have restarted a habit of plowing through about a book a week. I started without a real goal, but as the decade has progressed, this reading project has focused primarily on books that help make sense of the changing world. I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve found a lot of books that have helped give a sense of rhyme and reason to the things that have been happening lately. It’s been a really complicated decade so far, but not a totally inexplicable one. It’s made me feel a little less out of control if not entirely hopeful.
So, I want to share a top 11 list of the most important books I’ve read that have helped make sense of the world, so hopefully you can make a little more sense of things too.
1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
In summary: A book about how Viktor Frankl maintained a sense of humanity and meaning in a Nazi concentration camp.
What’s this do? Provides perspective. Buck up - if it’s possible there, it’s possible anywhere. Short, densely packed wisdom about how to survive with dignity, hope and purpose in a screwed up world.
2. The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah
In summary: Makes a case for migration from a scientist’s perspective.
What’s this do? Refreshingly avoids any pearl clutching, views the positive functions of migration historically and biologically. To my mind a good reminder that borders are a man-made (and recent) phenomenon, and a good argument that open borders will be part of what it takes to save the human race. A book about a topic that’s caused a lot of pain that gives you a sense of hope by viewing it from a non-standard angle.
3. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
In summary: Makes sense of a dizzying number of historical trends by focusing on the way that disaster has been used as a way to reshape society in order to allow a few powerful people and companies to make a lot of money.
What’s this do? Tells a page-turner of a story about one of the key strategies that bad people have used to entrench bad policies at the expense of billions of people and for their own benefit - from Pinochet to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. Makes a solid case that the bastards have been scheming for years to take advantage of people when they’re down, and will continue to do so.
(Honorable mention to No is Not Enough, by the same author, which contextualizes and updates a lot of the ideas for Trump’s America, among a bunch of other things.)
4. Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
In summary: A great, story based argument that modern drug policy is based in archaic and baseless ideas, and is producing disaster for pretty much everyone involved.
What’s this do? Makes sense of the drug problem. Makes a convincing case against the end of the drug war, prohibition and criminalization and for intelligent management and a medical/mental health approach. Refreshing in that it’s not just about the US, but tells stories and experiences from around the world. Lays out the stark costs of the drug war (to me, most memorably for Mexico) and the possibilities of better policies in the future.
5. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer
In summary: How and why have billionaires been bankrolling the modern American “Conservative” movement.
What’s this do? Mostly it’s about the Koch Brothers. More importantly it helps make sense of why terrible economic ideas (which have largely been tried and rejected in much of the world) have maintained so much publicity and political influence in the US - largely from people who are negatively impacted by the policies.
6. Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson
In summary: Who are all of these lunatics?
What’s this do? It’s more lighthearted than a lot of these books. But it answers the question of why people believe crazy things by telling lots of stories about who the people are that do. It’s not about QAnon or 5G conspiracies, but it puts QAnon and 5G conspiracies in context with a range of other bizarre beliefs.
7. Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi
In summary: How and why African Americans have been forced into service to white people since the inception of America, and how racist ideas keep the system going.
What’s this do? Maybe the book that’s changed the way I personally think about the world the most. It’s a history of racist ideas in America that convincingly argues that racism has been an ingrained element of American culture that is intimately tied up with our economic, political, criminal justice, and social systems. On the flip side, it makes the convincing argument that all of this is completely insane, that there is nothing wrong with black people biologically, socially or culturally. It’s the book that made the most sense for me of where the American form of racism came from, how it functions, and why.
(Honorable mention to How to Be an Antiracist by the same author, which is full of practical advice on pushing back against the history of racism in the US and makes a compelling argument for treating racism as a set of processes and structures vs. just a set of ideas.)
8. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
In summary: America has a caste system that’s similar to the ones found in India and Nazi Germany, and produces many of the same terrible outcomes for everyone involved.
What’s this do? Maybe the best book I’ve read all year. On a similar topic to Stamped from the Beginning, but a bit more accessible. It makes sense of the way that American society works when it comes to race and class. It’s full of stories comparing (and contrasting at times) the social caste system of American society to Nazi Germany and the Indian system. An extremely convincing argument that America’s racial and political problems are part of an ingrained system that reinforces traditional roles, solidifies inequality and injustice, and produces tragedy again and again, most importantly for the people at the bottom of the social structure - African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos.
9. Deadliest Enemy by Michael T Osterholm and Mark Olshaker
In summary: How and why pandemics arise, and why we should expect and prepare for more.
What’s it do? Published 3 years before Covid, it predicts that Covid was coming, and explains exactly why things shook out like they did. It didn’t predict that the US would screw up as thoroughly as it did, because who would have, but it gives a lot of perspective into what should of happened. It’s sobering, because it makes a solid argument that Covid was not the worst case scenario by any means, and that more pandemics are coming. It’s hopeful in that it’s a reminder that smart people know enough to prevent another Covid-level catastrophe, but depressing in that it’s a reminder that they’ve known enough to prevent catastrophe for decades but the sociopaths in charge may well not listen to them.
(Honorable mention to Spillover by David Quammen - a really readable book on a similar topic that may be a more accessible introduction. It does a great job of demonstrating the connection between pandemic and environmental destruction. I just didn’t read it this year.)
10. Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
In summary: How to control social media so it doesn’t control you.
What’s this do? Have you watched that Netflix Documentary “The Social Dilemma”? This book is basically that, but with less of a societal focus, and more suggestions that are actually helpful in breaking the technology habit at a personal level. Makes sense of the doomscrolling trap we fall into over and over, and gives a sense of control over the social media that seems so often to control us.
11. How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
In summary: Observations from history and contemporary examples of how democratically elected leaders can go on to destroy the democracy that elected them.
What’s it do? Makes me freaking depressed, but also is probably the most important cautionary tale I read for the year. Describes historic processes through which democracy has eroded and been abandoned in various countries and contexts. Presents a convincing argument that many of the same processes are at work in the United States. It isn’t entirely pessimistic and makes a series of suggestions about how the US can start turning the tide away from oligarchy and authoritarianism, and back towards democracy.
What's to gain from these books?
This body of knowledge has helped me make sense of why there’s so much unrest in American and the world as a whole, and why the US can’t seem to make progress on race. It addresses the question of why the conditions exist that have created Trumpism, and why Trumpism seemed to come out of nowhere and to get so deeply dangerous and entrenched. It addresses broadly why people believe crazy things, why Covid happened and why and how we need to prepare for it to happen again (and maybe worse). These books have given me stronger opinions about which direction is up on migration and drugs, and given me tips (which I haven’t always followed) about how to keep social media from ruining your life. And maybe most importantly, a sense of how to keep a sense of meaning and purpose through the ongoing shitstorm.
What's up next?
I'd love to hear your suggestions