My 5 books of the year, and why (I think) I want to read fewer books in 2021

My 5 books of the year, and why (I think) I want to read fewer books in 2021

I did a lot more reading this year than I have in the past years. According to my Goodreads page, I finished 32 books this year.

This is by no means a humblebrag. I had to give something else up in order to make it happen. I’d guess my book consumption this year was about 50/50 reading and audiobooks. I also know this is peanuts to a lot of others...

To read more books (and I think all but one were digital), I pretty much stopped reading news outside of work hours (considering my job is a news analyst, I may have to rethink this strategy). I also deleted Twitter from my phone, which was amazing for reading productivity.*

To consume more audiobooks, I pretty much stopped listening to podcasts in the second half of the year. Apologies to Kara Swisher/Scott Galloway, Tracy Alloway/Joe Weisenthal, and Felix Salmon/Emily Peck/Anna Szymanski.

Again, I’m not sure if it was totally wise to read more books and basically eschew everything else.

Reading strategy and the relationship between form and value

I generally think that zooming out and reading something that is published less frequently, the more valuable it is. Reading a NYT article is better than reading a tweet. Reading a piece in the weekly Economist is more valuable than the NYT article. Reading a deep dive into something in the monthly Foreign Affairs is more valuable than the Economist piece. Reading a book is more valuable than the long-form article.

The overlap there is to account for the times when there is more value in one form over the next - like a good Tweet thread can be far superior to an article (or even a book). But more often than not, that's not the case.

I also think a lot of books could better be as long-form articles, and a lot of long-form articles would be better suited as short-form articles, and a lot of short-form articles would be better as tweets. But that's another conversation for another time.

Figuring out a better reading balance in 2021

I think I missed a lot of really good shorter-form content by going in deeper in books. I can see that by the huge queue of unread articles I have saved in Instapaper.

But one lesson I did take away from this year is that Twitter won’t ever make its way back on my phone full-time, and that time spent will be replaced by reading books on my Kindle app.

One of my other things I want to explore is to reading more deeply. It it better to read 3 books with incredible depth, or basically skim 30 books? I think it’s good mental exercise to try to practice the former. As David Brooks recently noted in his Sydney Awards for the best writing of 2020,

In “The Erosion of Deep Literacy,” in National Affairs, Adam Garfinkle points out that over centuries people developed the ability to do “deep reading” — patient, slow, creative absorption of complex plots and arguments. But technology now threatens to erode that skill, making us incapable of deep reading and thus deep understanding. “In science fiction,” Garfinkle writes, “the typical worry is that machines will become human-like; the more pressing problem now is that, through the thinning out of our interactions, humans are becoming machine-like.”

A good test will be whether or not I actually read that article in National Affairs, rather than take Brooks’ word for it.

Then again, on their deathbed, has anyone ever said they wish they read fewer books (and more articles from The Atlantic)?

My 2020 in reading

A few notes on my 2020 book consumption:

  • I didn’t read that many books actually published in 2020 - but three of my top five books were published this year.
  • I really need to diversity the types of books I read. I read more fiction books this year than probably any year in recent memory (Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and the first four Harry Potter books). I’ve been saying for years I’ve wanted to do read more fiction, but I don’t see myself actually making that happen.
  • I wanted to focus after George Floyd on reading more Black authors. Any suggestions would be more than welcomed. I read a number of the anti-racism books, which I though were especially valuable in the context of 2020. I also thought that the two James Baldwin books I read this year were even more valuable to better understand the Black experience in America.
  • For my top five books, I’m going to focus on choices that can be placed in the economics bucket, or one of its close academic cousins. This is where I’m best versed, and it’s probably unfair to exclude the books that fall outside of this realm. There’s a lot to learn by reaching outside of your bubble, and I should probably do more of that. But I also don’t want to claim to be an expert in some area and say some piece of work is Good when I only read a one-off book in that area.

First, the worst book I read this year

The 4-Hour Workweek - Tim Ferriss

I honestly don’t get it. I understand that Tim Ferriss is a thing, but this is all bluster and no substance, and there were really no actionable takeaways despite this being written as a collection of actionable takeaways. To say something nice... I do admire his drive to dive deep into some area outside of his realm and try to become an expert in it.

The top 5 list:

5) Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond

I have a hammer, and every nail is inequality. So many of our problems, including our issues around race, could be significantly improved by tackling inequality, rather then letting it run wild. And since housing is often the step to building long-term general wealth, our communities are doing an absolutely abysmal job managing that opportunity.

While the list of policies that it would take to truly tackle inequality is very long, more stable housing would go a long way to helping with some of our biggest issues around race and economic stability.

Red-lining failed an entire group of people, with an impact still affecting the Black community nearly half a century later. This book lays out exactly what that looks like in Milwaukee, a city that is already in structural decline, and it it's hard to read without thinking about how big of a failure our housing policy has become.

4) Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America - Conner Dougherty

More housing, because I'm a housing nerd.

Instead of Milwaukee, this takes place in California, and more specifically the Bay Area. The NIMBYism of wealthy homeowners in places like San Francisco is  strangling the economic dynamism of the cities. It's sad because it's so selfish and preventable.

You should also read this to understand what the next decade is going to look like. The desire to stop building at any costs in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston is going to have a big impact on the rest of the country as people (rightly) flee those high-cost (but high-opportunity) cities for other places like Austin and and Atlanta and Miami. Those places are about to get a nice dose of California culture and the politics that go along with it. I'd argue that's for the better, while many say its for the worse. Just ask anyone you know who lives in Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Denver what that looks like.

3) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari

Reading this is like talking to your absolutely brilliant friend get a few drinks in them, then start making connections between all these seemingly disparate issues that are shocking and leave you in awe. It's a truly exceptional read, as if Jared Diamond and Danny Kahneman and Niall Ferguson and Thomas Piketty were put in a blender, this is what you'd get.

2) Why We’re Polarized - Ezra Klein

I think this was my most depressing read of the year. Klein ends it with a note of optimism, but I've been so jaded by the past few years that I'm in "I'll believe it when I see it mode."

The funny thing is that a lot of the assumptions were sort of debunked by the November election, like the Democratic coalition is less monolithic than Klein believes. But that's not really relevant - the giant chasm splitting the two parties isn't going away anytime soon for a variety of reasons. The toothpaste is out of the tube on polarization, and it will have to take a big change in how people think and operate (like getting people off of Facebook) to even slow down the split.

1) Trade Wars are Class Wars - Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis

The election came down to a referendum on Trump's handling on COVID, but every economic that the Trump White House tried to deal with before February 2020 was wrapped up in this book. Inequality and trade go hand in hand, and it's not something that can be solved by slapping some tariffs on Chinese imports or saying Airbus is being unfairly subsidized.

Klein and Pettis are pretty dour on the dollar's status as the global reserve currency, whereas I ultimately think it's on net good for the US (but not without its challenges). But this book really wraps up a lot of the fears we have around the future of the US economy and ties them together in a very systematic way. If I were to hand one book to incoming staffers of the Biden Administration's Treasury Department and trade office, this would be it.

*Or at least it was deleted about 90% of the time. There were times during the peak of the protests and around the election where I caved.

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