Every year I have gotten into the habit of narrowing down the best books I read to just a handful of the best. These books inspire me to chose the sets of books I’ll read the following year, and commemorate awesome years of reading. While I didn’t necessarily utilize the stay-at-home orders of 2020 to read more, I was able to average about a book a week (which is usually around my yearly goal).

Every year, I try to narrow down all the books I have recommended and read for this email list down to just a handful of the best. The kind of books where if they were the only books I’d read that year, I’d still feel like it was an awesome year of reading.

I know that people are busy, and we don’t always have time to read as much as we like. Nothing wrong with that (though if you want to read more—don’t look for shortcuts—make more time!). What matters is that when you do read, you pick the right books.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Revolutionizing six industries, forever changing the world, Steve Jobs was legendary. 

This book is extremely well written and a great telling of Jobs’ life without a lot of the normal idol worship. It is a very fair and balanced biography and tells the whole picture of the man he really was. Temperamental, often mistreating of staff and employees and used what many referred to as a “reality distortion field,” gaslighting people around him to bend reality to the way he wanted it to be, not necessarily the way it was. 

Hands down the best part of the book for me was the struggle and writing of early Pixar. In an almost hail mary effort, Lasseter (a founding employee of Pixar) gets one final round of funding from Steve Jobs and produces a film about his passion, collecting classic toys. Tin Toy, a short file, wins the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1988. This success inspires Disney to find a way to partner with Pixar to create an entire movie on the story of toys. The book is filled with wonderfully told stories that ended in world-changing and household names like Toy Story, the iPhone, Apple Computers, the ads (Here’s to the Crazy Ones and the 1984 Apple ads).

This book and the story of Steve Jobs is a timeline of the rapid change in consumer technology, and how Apple led in ushering in a new era we’re only just beginning to grasp.

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

Careless People is one of the more interesting books I read this year. Careless People is a book about a book. The book focuses on the social milieu and lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife in the 1920s. Churchwell joins a biography of the Fitzgeralds with interpretations of the Great Gatsby and excavates an unsolved murder that took place in 1922. The murder of Eleanor Reinhardy Mills and Edward Wheeler Hall in New Jersey of September 1922 (which was widely publicized at the time) is said to have influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald in his writing of the Great Gatsby. Careless People talks about how it influenced the Great Gatsby. 

I started reading this book right before the COVID-19 lockdowns started. One doesn’t have to look far to see similarities in the initial lockdowns of the 2020s and the prohibition of the 1920s. The similarities of media frenzy, underground parties, and the overall shift in ages was a very interesting and timely read. It’s a very engaging read that captures the atmosphere of the 1920s, and gives a really enriching view of the Jazz Age. Churchwell makes extensive use of Fitzgerald’s own words from letters, essays, and other writings. 

Clementine by Sonia Purnell

I knew a lot more about Churchill but Sonia Purnell’s examination of Winston’s wife was truly incredible. Churchill said the best decision he ever made in his life was marrying Clementine, and this book will make it clear how right he was. A very interesting woman and period in history, this biography is entertaining, eye-opening, and gives you a good picture of what the household of Winston Churchill was like.

Your Brain at Work by David Rock

I’m writing my own book this year about a new type of project manager called The Project Captain. The style of this book, Your Brain at Work, caused me to re-write most of how I was writing my book. 

The book tells the story of a fictional career couple as they mentally process their workday. Each chapter has a section on one of the characters going through a normal day in a white-collar world. Email overload, vendor issues, project management issues. The story starts with a chaotic scene. Then, the author explains how your brain functions in these specific scenarios. Each chapter concludes with a redo of the chaotic scene, but the character is now aware of how their brain processes and reacts to it.

The book takes the concept of a “play” and uses Acts, Scenes, and members of plays to explain different ways your brain processes things. For any modern knowledge worker, this is an easy ready and very informative book that will help you navigate a chaotic day better. Essentially, once you understand the true nature and limitations of your brain, you can stop worrying about performing beyond your actual capacity and have a better attitude towards the workday (and life in general). 

William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life

I hadn’t read a good book set in the Civil War era in several years and this book was recommended to me by a mailing list a subscribe too. I started reading it in th beginning of the year, and had to set it down and come back to it several times. The correlation between the right vs left of today (especially this year) and the events leading up, during, and after the Civil War were eerie. My favorite line I read this year is worth repeating here:

Most of all he [Sherman] laid the ultimate responsibility for the war at the feet of politicians, north and south, who pandered to the prejudices and ignorance of their constituents and placed the interests of self and party above the well-being of the nation.

How eerily true that line hit me, and I thought of often during the election, different COVID shutdowns, and the like. 

Sherman himself was a very interesting man. He intrigued me because, without the Civil War, it’s unlikely he would have made much of himself. He failed in banking and other various business ventures and was a true soldier at heart. He was a great strategist, relying on his experience in fighting the Native Americans to battle the Confederacy. While he understood politics masterfully, he hated politicians and refused to participate in politics after leaving his post of commanding the general army during Grant’s presidency. 

Great book. Very good recount of the Civil War. An excellent look into the mind of a top general and one of America’s most famous commanders. Very disappointing to see how little American politics and pandering have changed. In many ways, the book really shined an ugly light on how much “Civil War politics” plays in today’s day-to-day as well. 

Other Noteable Exceptions

I read the “Odyssey” for the first time in years again this year. There is a great modern translation by. I also read Ryan Holiday’s “Stillness is the Key,” which is a great book on Stoic philosophies. 

I also read Acid for the Children, Flea’s memoir. I was reminded that, while I love their music, I never really fell in love with the individual members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

This year I’ve been inspired to pick up a few more biographies, and to try and dive more into the fiction realm. I didn’t read nearly as many fiction books as I was hoping to in 2020, and hope to change that in 2021.