The Best Books I Read in 2020

Date: December 11, 2020

By Peter Neumann, ScD, Director

As regular readers of this essay know, I’ve been posting my annual “best books” list for a number of years. But 2020, the year like no other, changed the nature of my selections. After the pandemic gathered steam in early March, I read several books about viruses, about which I knew lamentably little. And amid the summer’s social unrest, I turned to books by Black authors that I may have bypassed in prior years. As always, I appreciate comments and recommendations for future reading.

The British are Coming, Rick Atkinson. Having read my share of histories about the American Revolution, I was reluctant to begin yet another book on the topic. But The British Are Coming, which covers the period from 1775-1777 and is the first in a three-volume series on the War of Independence, was so well reviewed that I couldn’t resist. A superb historian, Atkinson has the soul of a novelist. Beyond recounting familiar battles (Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, Trenton, and Princeton), he provides a soldier’s-eye view of the boredom, dread, and terror, not to mention the smallpox, dysentery and lice. He also—by putting you in King George III’s shoes —presents the British perspective.

The Great Influenza, John M. Barry. After its publication in 2004, this commanding account of the flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which killed some 50-100 million people worldwide, served as a cautionary tale. But in the year of COVID-19, it also serves as a lamentation. One hundred years later, too many elected officials have still not absorbed history’s lessons. The public health playbook works, but you must play by its rules—face coverings, distancing, avoiding crowds. The Great Influenza details how the misnamed “Spanish flu” spread from overcrowded World War I training camps to cities and towns around the world, and how many public officials ignored or downplayed its warnings. It also describes the uneven but persistent progress in science, medicine, and public health in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Yellow House, Sara M. Broom. I have been to New Orleans many times, to visit relatives across Lake Pontchartrain or to attend conferences, which meant a hotel stay downtown and jambalaya in the French Quarter. But I’d never been to New Orleans East, which Sarah Broom describes as a neglected, hardscrabble place by industrial waste sites. In this surpassing memoir about growing up in “the East” with her large, tight-knit Black family, she describes the daily cruelties and casual injustices they experienced. She also depicts decades of broken promises and poor planning by local public officials and the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, which floods the yellow shotgun house of her childhood, and shatters and scatters her family.

Saving America’s Cities, Lizabeth Cohen. Walk through the wind-swept and barren Government Center plaza in Boston, and you wonder who could have thought this architecture a good idea. And if you descend the stairs of the MBTA station, you’ll see a large black and white photo of the plaza’s previous incarnation: densely-settled Scollay Square, which was razed in the 1950s to make way for the present Brutalism. It’s as though 1960s activist Jane Jacobs herself had planted the photo there in reproach. But as with everything—it’s complicated. Scollay Square had its own problems. And, as Cohen recounts in examining urban policy in post-World War II New Haven, Boston, and New York City through the story of chief architect Ed Logue, the “slum clearance” policies came from well-intentioned liberals desperate to staunch the flood of white citizens fleeing Boston with jobs and business. Mistakes were made with long lasting consequences.

The City Game, Matthew Goodman. Even if it hadn’t been written by my high school classmate, Matt Goodman (Great Neck South, NY, 1979), City Game would have landed on my list. Closely observed and briskly paced, it recalls college basketball in the late 1940s and early 1950s (set shots, underhanded free throws, weaving and passing, no 24-second clock) and a unique moment for City College of New York, the tuition-free commuter school of strivers, where the Bolsheviks would debate the Trotskyites in a corner of the cafeteria. It was also a time of bookies in every luncheonette, mobsters looking to fix games, vulnerable young players willing to shave points for easy money, and ultimately a tainted championship.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Robert Iger. Memoirs of business leaders can be dull affairs, bromide-ridden and either self-congratulatory or excessively humble-bragged. But The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger’s account of how he led Disney from 2005 to 2020, acquiring Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, and Lucasfilms along the way, is refreshingly honest and worthy for its lessons on leadership, risk taking, and relationship building. Iger’s predecessor at Disney, Michael Eisner, had feuded with Apple’s imperious Steve Jobs, even while Disney partnered with Job’s company Pixar. In contrast, Iger cultivates and befriends Jobs and then acquires his company, which subsequently reaches new heights. Iger ends up as Job’s trusted colleague, even speaking at his funeral.

The Great American Drug Deal, Peter Kolchinsky. Anger over rising prescription drug prices are understandable but misplaced, argues Peter Kolchinsky, a virologist, investor and author, in this provocative, timely, and well-reasoned book. As Kolchinsky sees it, we should consider the long view: that the purpose of the pharmaceutical industry is to create a “mountain of inexpensive generics” to help humanity in perpetuity. From that perspective, he argues, today’s high drug prices are much less worrisome. The real problems are: (1) a flawed health insurance system that imposes undue cost-sharing requirements on needed medications, and (2) certain products that “can’t or won’t go generic.” He proposes a “biotechnology social contract” to reform practices of health insurance and pharmaceutical benefit managers. He also calls for selective government involvement (essentially, a form of price controls) to ensure generic competition once patents or exclusivity for brand name drugs expire.*

These Truths, Jill Lepore. This masterwork one-volume history of the United States interprets the contradictions and dueling narratives of the American experiment since Columbus, as lofty ideals coexist with denials of basic human rights to many of its inhabitants. An evolving conception about who is a citizen (women? Black Americans? Indigenous Americans? immigrants?) is one of the central issues Lepore explores. To read These Truths is to marvel at how much the author has packed into its 800 pages (not to mention how she pulled it off while writing frequent New Yorker pieces and other books). It is also to wonder at the quality of its prose, which skims along like a leaf in a stream. Come for the history, stay for the writing.

Becoming, Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama’s memoir provides a backstage pass to Barack Obama’s rise to power and presidency and her own experiences as First Lady. But the best parts cover her childhood as the dutiful daughter of salt-of-the-earth parents on Chicago’s South Side. When she is 10, a cousin from a poorer neighborhood asks her why she “talks white” – she is taken aback but understands. And so it goes in this honest, gracious, and perceptive book, as then-Michelle Robinson blazes a path through Princeton, Harvard Law School, and elite law firms while never forgetting her heritage and own good fortune while striving to help others in need.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. I don’t read much fiction, but I’m glad I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow, one of the best novels I’ve read in years. In 1922, the Russian aristocrat Count Rostov escapes capital punishment for transgressions against socialism, and is sentenced to life confined at the upscale Metropol Hotel in Moscow, a place of proud if fading traditions. The permanent detention would have depressed the spirits of an ordinary individual, but the irrepressible Rostov finds adventure and purpose at the Metropol, while subverting the Soviet bureaucracy. Read during one’s own version of confinement during COVID-19, the novel is an uplifting and life-affirming companion.

Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker. Most of us get too little sleep. Worse, society seems to encourage the idea that sleep is a waste of time: we admire the CEO who rises at 4:30 a.m. and the programmer who pulls an all-nighter. This book will persuade you otherwise. Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Berkeley, presents abundant research demonstrating the profound consequences that lack of sleep has on memory and performance. Moreover, almost everyone seems unaware of this reality, assuming one can “get by” with six hours. Almost none of us can. Car and truck crashes and industrial accidents are one result, not to mention long-term consequences for one’s mental, physical, and emotional health. Why We Sleep is filled with facts and insight: on differences between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, and why early high-school start times for teenagers are wrongheaded. It also offers advice on how to get better sleep (go to bed and get up at the same time every day, lower the thermostat, and cut down on alcohol). Reading it will improve your health and make you an evangelist for a good night’s sleep.

Other great books I read: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander; Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe; Flu, Gina Kolata; The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson; Lifespan: Why we age and why we don’t have to, David Sinclair.

And in case you missed them, here are my best books lists from 2017, 2018, and 2019.

*Disclosure: after reading and admiring the book, I reached out to Kolchinsky, whom I did not know. His firm, RA Capital, now supports one of our Center’s research projects.

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