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20 Books of 2020

Imagination, synthesis, mastery, history, and persistence against overwhelming odds were themes woven through my readings of 2020. If you have been following me for a while, you know that I share my list of books read over the past year each New Year’s Day. These are not necessarily all new books (see the year of publication in parenthesis) and they are not all books I would recommend, but some you will not want to miss (see score). Let me know what you are reading. I could use some ideas for 2021!

The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life - Todd Herman (2019) (4/5)

Herman is a performance coach for top athletes and others who want to master their craft. He helps his clients develop alter egos to enhance their performance, whether it be for a key business presentation or the Olympics. Beyoncé’s alter ego is “Sasha Fierce,” Kobe Bryant became a Black Mamba (deadly snake) on the court, Bo Jackson assumed the identity of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th on the football field. We could all use a boost in confidence in high-stakes situations. The key to making this work is that it has to resonate with you personally, and you should use it sparingly. His book includes strategies for finding the alter ego that works for you.

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins - Anna Tsing (2015) (4/5)

Tsing uses the matsutake mushroom, highly valued in Japan, as a vehicle to explore global economics, ecology, ethnology, and the precarious nature of many people’s livelihoods in today’s disrupted world. It turns out that matsutake thrive in disrupted ecosystems. They can’t be grown in captivity, and they are often harvested by people living day-to-day at the edges of the conventional economy. I was reading this when the pandemic hit, and life suddenly became precarious for millions. Tsing’s ambitious synthesis is often powerfully poetic. Still, there were times when her deep dives into economics left me behind in the Oregon clear-cut forests, looking for rare treasures among the stumps.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles - Steven Pressfield (2002) (4.5/5)

As a creative professional, I am always looking for ways to conquer the blank page. Author and screenwriter Pressfield offers a swift kick in the pants. He identifies the enemy: Resistance! Resistance is that voice inside our heads that says, “this isn’t going to work.” Pressfield says, “As artists and professionals, it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls.” Then he lays out the strategies for how he conducts that insurrection. His rule of thumb: “The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

Designing for Disaster: Domestic Architecture in the Era of Climate Change - Boyce Thompson (2019) (4.5/5)

This beautifully illustrated book contains a wealth of practical information and examples about how to design disaster-resistant homes, which has long been an interest and practice for my projects. Thompson covers design for resilience in the face of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, landslides, and earthquakes. Many of his examples were homes most people could not afford, but he did include some advice for affordable interventions anyone can incorporate, and the list of resources is valuable. Some of the projects were questionable sites prone to landslides and hurricane storm surge. Perhaps there are places we should not consider building, no matter how clever we think we are. We are the only species capable of designing our own climate-driven disasters, then designing structures to resist the resulting mayhem. Yes, we should design buildings to resist disaster, and we should stop putting buildings, and their inhabitants, in harm’s way.

The Way of Imagination - Scott Russell Sanders (2020) (5/5)

The Way of Imagination is my must-read book recommendation of the year as we continue to live through a global pandemic. I may be biased. The author is a personal hero, and we discussed his book in progress over lunch at the Runcible Spoon before the pandemic made such meetings dangerous. Scott is a beloved distinguished professor emeritus of English at Indiana University and a guest lecturer for many of my classes. He has every right be discouraged about the state of the planet as a sensitive observer of the natural world and as a father and husband dealing with grief over the illnesses of those closest to him. While this book does explore the enormity of the personal and societal challenges we face, it focuses on the way out - through the unimaginable power of imagination. It is a celebration of creativity and the impact of art and innovation. His essay on “Useless Beauty” struck a deep chord for me. This is a book for how to move forward with hope in a year when so many people have hit the wall of despair.

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous - Joseph Henrich (2020) (4/5)

This 680-page tome is in the same vein of “big history” as Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. Henrich, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, leaves nothing to conjecture. Every statement is backed up with graphs and charts from copious research across multiple disciplines, often global in scope. If the charts and graphs don’t convince you there are 200 pages of notes in the appendix that may help. Henrich builds a case that we in the West are very different than other world cultures built on intensive kinship relationships. Westerners were separated from kinship through the Marriage and Family Program of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Middle ages in Europe. Prohibitions against cousin marriage and polygamy had numerous ripple effects resulting in a cultural evolution that impacts the way our brains are wired today. We are more individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, analytical, and trusting of strangers. We are more educated, wealthy, industrialized, urban, and democratic than kinship cultures common in the rest of the world. I found this book both fascinating and exhausting. Can I take the final exam now?

Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, by Richard Westfall (1980) (4.5/5)

Another heavy tome on my 2020 reading list was recommended in a dinner conversation by Bill Newman, an IU distinguished professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and himself an author of a book about Sir Newton’s interest in alchemy. I asked for the ultimate biography of Newton and that’s what I got. We know about the story of the apple and gravity, but Sir Isaac covered so much more ground than I imagined: math, optics, physics, color, theology, gravity, motion, and yes, alchemy. I appreciated Westfall’s deep dives into math and science, even when I was in way over my head. My brain fired some neurons that hadn’t been used since high school geometry class. Newton didn’t just move science forward incrementally, he offered great leaps of insight in our understanding of the universe. Newton’s breadth of curiosity, his depth of rigor, and slightly insane work habits allowed him to synthesize elegant solutions to the most complex problems. Imagination, synthesis, persistence, and overcoming resistance may lead to mastery.

Lake|Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape - Lake|Flato (2014) (4.5/5)

As the subtitle indicates, the appeal of this firm’s architecture for me is their respect for what the site has to offer. In their case, this is not just about view and orientation. Many of their projects draw building materials and the color pallet from the site or the immediate surroundings. This book is about their residential work in their home state of Texas, but their Prindle Institute for Ethics, in Greencastle, Indiana is also a good example of this concept. It looks like it was built from the walls of the quarry next to it.

Fullness - Kiernan-Timberlake (2019) (4.5/5)

Architects Stephen Kiernan and James Timberlake were IU Patton Series lecturers this year, thanks to the proposal by Marleen Newman, associate director of the IU J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program. I had the pleasure of spending some time getting to know Kiernan and Timberlake and their work. They see each project as a unique opportunity for research and innovation, particularly with regard to sustainability and flexibility. No two of their projects look the same and I think it would challenge anyone to identify their style. This speaks to the respect they have for their clients and the depth to which they explore each unique challenge presented to them. Their sustainable design of the U.S. Embassy in London is a highlight of their two-book monograph. One book features images of the finished work, and the other explores behind the scenes sketches and the backstory of each project. Like their partnership, the two parts make up a satisfying whole, or in their words, fullness.

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph - Ryan Holiday (2014) (4/5)

Asked how his IU basketball team came back to win in a game it looked like they would lose, Victor Oladipo replied, “It’s the will, man.” While that quote is not in Holiday’s book, he does outline the path to success when confronting obstacles, which involves perception, action, and will. Holiday pairs classical stoic philosophy with success stories from today. I’m sure 2020 provided many more examples of ways people overcame obstacles to achieve success.

Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results - James Clear (2018) (5/5)

If you are working on your New Year’s Resolutions and hoping to have success dumping bad habits and forming good ones, this is the book for you. I have read many great books on habits, but this one is the most precise and most actionable. Clear presents four laws for making a habit stick: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. He describes the behavioral science behind each law and shows how to break down large goals into “atomic” habits. One key strategy you will want in your arsenal is habit stacking. He offers a cheat sheet at sheet, but you will want the book. My wife and I each covet our own copies.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz - Erik Larson (2020) (5/5)

If you loved Larson’s The Devil in the White City, as I did, you will love his latest masterpiece about how a newly-elected Winston Churchill defiantly led Great Britain through the 12 months of the German Blitz during WW2, May 1940 to May 1941. We get to know this unusual man and his family, colorful entourage, and resourceful team who helped win the war against all odds. We also learn what the Germans and the reluctant Americans were thinking. Personal diaries were mined for detailed, realistic accounts. Larson's writing made me feel, smell, and hear what it was like to be on the ground before, during, and after those horrifying and incessant bombing runs designed to break the will of the people. This is stoicism in action on a grand scale. Great leaders are critical, especially in times of great peril.

Gates of Fire - Steven Pressfield (1998) (4/5)

Speaking of long odds and stoicism. I decided to read this novel about the Battle of Thermopylae after reading Pressfield’s book, the War of Art. A squire, one of three Greek survivors, is the narrator in this historic novel about one of the great battles in history where 4000 Greeks, primarily 300 Spartans, held back an invading Persian army of 2 million for days. The Spartan soldiers were products of a 13-year training program that emphasized disciplined combat, honor, courage, virtue, and esprit des corps. Pressfield took me to that ancient battlefield and allowed me to get to know the doomed. Even the surviving squire dies from his wounds. From the art of war to the war of art. I’ll stick to the latter.

Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving - Celeste Headlee (2020) (3.5/5)

Doing nothing has always been hard for me. Headlee helped me understand why doing nothing might be a good idea, with an interesting narrative on the history leading to our current obsessive work culture. I was not convinced that she had succeeded in breaking away in her own life story and her methodology never resonated with me. She lost me with the recommendation to write down everything I do each minute of the day to see how I spend my time. Thanks, but I prefer to do nothing when I am doing nothing.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art - James Nestor (2020) (4/5)

How many times do you think about the act of breathing? If you are like me, virtually never, unless breath is hard to come by (say, peddling up Boltinghouse Hill). Nestor thinks about breathing a lot! He begins this exploration with an experiment on himself, which involves blocking his nasal passages with silicone plugs and logging his slow decline with various medical tests. Nestor’s rambling exploration moves from catacombs to look at skulls to mystic breathing practices to free divers. About half of us are mouth breathers, which is unhealthy, according to the author. The perfect breath is 5.5 seconds in, 5.5 seconds out, or 5.5 breaths per minute. Lessons learned: breathe slowly and through your nose. Addendum: and through your mask.

Spillover: How Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic - David Quammen (2013) (4.8/5)

Roughly 60 percent of the infections that plague humankind, including the coronavirus, HIV, bubonic plague, and Ebola, originated in other species. Quammen explains that these exchanges increase in frequency as the human population increases and we get in ever closer contact with other species as we exploit and disrupt their ecosystems. The author predicted a pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing. It could be worse next time with a virus that is more infectious or more fatal. I appreciated the deep dive into infectious disease science. Quammen’s writing skill is evident in the tension-building descriptions of the incredible risks researchers and front-line responders take to stem the tide.

Mastery - Robert Greene (2013) (3.5/5)

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink said that what most motivates people is the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work and life. What is mastery and how do we get it? Greene’s rambling book tramples well-trodden ground of past works with vignettes of masters in many walks of life. His path to mastery is difficult to follow, but his message is one we already knew, there is no short cut. I found this book to be full of repetition and unnecessarily discouraging to would-be masters. Read Drive instead.

Dune - Frank Herbert (2005) (5/5)

I enjoyed this “reread” of a science fiction classic as an audio play with actors reading the various characters. While mowing and gardening I was able to journey to the desert planet Arrakis, which offers many lessons for our own, plus some rather interesting wildlife. Add this Nebula and Hugo award winner to your list when you need to be transported somewhere far away. Dune describes an alien world but the personalities are all too familiar.

What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age - Ken Dychtwald & Robert Morison (2020) (4.5/5)

Boomers are reaching retirement age, but we are not necessarily retiring like our parents and there are a lot more of us than there have ever been. Throughout most of human history, life expectancy at birth was less than 18 years. Advances in medicine have allowed many more people to live longer lives. The total world population, when I was born, was 2.7 billion. Now there are nearly 2 billion people over age 60. People over age 50 account for more than half of all spending and control more than 70% of total net worth but are often ignored. Some takeaways: forget past assumptions about this age group, many people today have no plans to stop working, people over 60 are a very diverse group, and there is no typical retiree. Authors make the case that the opportunities to engage this huge demographic are limitless and evolving, and many are looking for ways to volunteer, teach, mentor, and start new careers.

Light of the Stars - Adam Frank (2018) (4.5/5)

Exobiologist Adam Frank takes us on an exploration for life on other planets and what that may mean for life on this planet. We are probably not alone. According to Frank, the chance that we are the only advanced life form in the universe is one in ten billion trillion, but we may never know due to “filters.” Do civilizations routinely evolve on planets that may support life? Do they last long enough to develop the ability to reach out to other advanced societies across the impossible dimensions of space and time? What can we earthlings learn from this exploration of life on other planets? What can Venus and Mars tell us about climate change on Earth? This book has been on my mind recently as I watched George Clooney’s new movie about exobiology, The Midnight Sky, and the recent reception of curious radio signals from Proxima Centauri. Next time you look at the night sky, imagine what it would be like to communicate with another civilization, and hope that our young civilization finds a way to thrive long enough to have that contact.

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