Sometimes I wish I could lay down on the couch and read. For a few years.
It's no secret I like to read. I used to be able to read anything and everything. And I'd usually persist to the end regardless of whether I liked the book or not—sunk cost fallacy in action.
Sunk costs refer to already invested time, resources into action, or a behavior. Economists ask us to disregard "sunk costs" when we make decisions. Another way of saying, "Don't throw good money after bad money." But, as I had described in an earlier post, we are Humans, not Econs. As a result, I'd will myself to finish a book just because I had spent some time on it already.
Anyway, life has a way of self-correcting—I have become a little more discerning in terms of which books I start and even more judicious regarding which ones I finish.
Between 2017 and 2019, I averaged 100+ books each year. But this year, I've read 52, with a couple still in progress. This precipitous drop in my reading volume is primarily due to two reasons:
- I started writing more and wanted to avoid being influenced by what I read
- I had to read a lot more articles and blog posts (because I was on a steep learning curve), as opposed to actual books
Excuses, excuses! I know. But don't they sound legit?
Top Ten Reads for the Year
Books are meant to be shared. And that's what I'm trying to do here—share my top ten reads for the year with you.
Before I proceed, let me start with boulder-sized caveats and disclaimers. This is a personal and subjective list. You may disagree with me, and that's okay. But, I hope that one or two books on this list pique your interest enough for you to want to try them.
Also, some of these were physical books, some e-books, and others were audiobooks. After a lot of time dissing audiobooks, I drank the kool-aid, and I'm now a convert.
Books here are listed in chronological order I read this year and not by ranking.
1. Rise of the Ultrarunners – Adharanad Finn
Firstly, the author, Finn, has impeccable street-cred. He is the assistant production editor for 'The Guardian' and an excellent runner himself. You can't go wrong when you have a gifted writer describe a craft he's intimately familiar with.
The book is about ultrarunning—any foot race longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon distance, but more typically a 50-mile or 100-mile race. This book is about why and how ultrarunning is slowly gaining its place in mainstream sports.
Rise of the ultrarunners isn't just a third-person account of what ultrarunning is. It's a profoundly personal account of the author's transition from a runner to an ultrarunner. Having a front-row seat to that journey is exhilarating and moving.
This book is not just for runners, although I think it should be required reading for all runners.
If you were ever looking to define the phrase "dig deep," you need to read this book. The book is an antidote to the "comfort zone of living" we all tend to fall in to. The stories illustrated here depict how we, mere humans, can transcend our mostly ordinary and baneful existence to achieve what we never thought we're capable of.
I switched between the written and audio versions of this book. I'd recommend the author's self-narrated-audiobook if you have a choice. The author's engaging style, the no pretense/ no airs approach, the vulnerability, and that charming, English accent make it one engaging listen.
2. Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
This book is a treasure. It's a treatise on Sleep. The author answers some fundamental questions on why Sleep, why Sleep is essential, and what happens if we don't. The author does a phenomenal job covering all aspects of the science of Sleep and its implications for humankind
I personally found this book quite revelatory. I feel the need to do so much during the day that any time sleeping seems so wasteful. My refrain, time and again, has been "I'll sleep when I'm dead." I would love for nothing more than survive on five hours of Sleep and function brilliantly the next day.
I know, though, that it's quite the opposite. I'm aware that I function poorly with consistently reduced Sleep. I tend to get quite dull (dimwitted?), lethargic, moody, irritable, and not fun to be around when I short my Sleep. This book explains why that is.
3. Olive, Again – Elizabeth Strout
I didn't realize the book "Olive, Again" is a sequel until after reading the book. Olive Ketteridge, the protagonist, was new to me. Though the books are related through their characters, the content and experiences belong to two different periods. So, I was quite glad that I didn't miss any continuity in the plot line by reading the second book out of sequence.
The book is beautifully written with equal parts humor and pathos. Some stories are intertwined with the main plot, while others stand out almost like independent short stories, yet they all seem to fit in. This is one book I wasn't looking forward to ending soon. Elizabeth Strout deftly handles the many mature subjects in this book—aging, disease, death. There are so many layers to the characters and so many nuances to explore, this book isn't just entertaining, but I found it very teachable.
4. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Surprised to see a classic here? This article is a list of books I read in 2020. They weren't necessarily written or published in 2020. In fact, Little Women was written in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. How's that for vintage?
Yes, there was a movie this year based on this. No, I did not watch the film. I saw all the hoopla about the movie and instead decided to read the book. I have no intention of watching the movie. I've created my own film of this book in my head, and it's quite satisfying.
I have read almost every Austen there is. But I was curious to try out an American author of that era (though technically Austen preceded Alcott by over half a century).
Little Women is a literary classic for the ages. I was transported to the early 19th century as I read this book. I crave the simplicity of those times. What comes shining through this book is that human values and human nature don't change much, even if the world we live in has changed significantly.
In my opinion, this book should be mandated reading for all teens. I know there are some religious undertones, gender biases, and some outdated references to how a woman should behave. However, given how inundated our adolescents and teens are with all sorts of information, a good dose of old-fashioned thinking will do no harm.
What stood out to me is how life's little lessons are woven into these stories. The book does have surprising twists and turns, unexpected, for sure. Also, the author does not hesitate to address rather heavy subjects such as death. The characters are lovely and stay with you for a long, long time. This book touched my heart in a way many modern books don't.
5. Until the End of Time—Brian Greene
A contrast and change of pace from historical, literary classic to physics.
Until the End of Time is a book by a physicist about the beginning, growth, and future of the cosmos. I discovered this book when I read an interview in Time magazine with the author. What caught my attention was the author's line about how divergent his science-based views were (about the meaning and purpose of life) to that of his brother, a Hare Krishna devotee. That resonated deeply with me because I've currently enrolled in a Gita-study program myself. It's always interesting to understand where the convergence and divergence of science and spirituality occurs.
This book is encyclopedic in its coverage, with many particle-physics concepts explained to a layperson. To be quite honest, some of these were beyond my grasp, but I got the gist.
I was taken back to my college courses on Thermodynamics and Modern Physics and fervently wish now that I had paid more attention then. The word Entropy has taken on a whole new meaning in my life, and I'm very grateful for that.
I stopped the book midway to google Schrodinger's essay 'What is life'? Although some content is beyond the scope of my understanding, I have the utmost regard for the wonderful men and women of science who make it their life's work to bring a little more clarity to our understanding of the cosmos and our place in them.
This book will make you appreciate science. I find it illuminating to read these scientific theories while also exploring spiritual concepts. A lot of times, they are quite contradictory. The phrase "keeping an open mind" is continuously tested during these times.
That, in itself, is an objective worth pursuing. In short, Until the End of Time, though quite heavy at times, can be an excellent read for a scientifically-curious mind.
6. The Body—Bill Bryson
Disclaimer: I'm a Bill Bryson fan.
Bryson does it again—hits it out of the park with The Body. This book is enlightening in so many ways and a delight to read. So much information is interspersed with a good dose of wry humor and anecdotes.
While this is an excellent book on human anatomy, encyclopedic in its coverage, it's also a reminder to treat our bodies with more compassion and care. Reading this will make us question why we take something as exquisite as the human body for granted.
In addition to the understanding of our bodies, there are other reasons, highlighted in the book, that should make us grateful to be living in the times we do. Several medical treatment protocols have only evolved in the last half-century or so. Before that timeframe, something even as sedate-sounding (literally) as anesthesia was quite barbaric, in comparison.
The best part about this book is how the author has made science so accessible to a layperson—you don't need a science or anatomy background to understand any of this.
7. Eat and Run—Scott Jurek
Two running books on the list? Before you move to the next on the list, hear me out, though.
Not just is Scott Jurek's the world's best ultra-athlete, he is also a gifted writer. The book is inspirational, educational, and thought-provoking.
This book covers two subjects I'm interested in—veganism and running. It is a memoir of Jurek's days from his childhood to becoming the world's best ultra-athlete. The author does a phenomenal job of documenting his journey from a traditional American diet to a plant-eating one.
If you are looking for healthy eating inspiration or running inspiration, or both, then this book will have you covered.
8. Rodham—Curtis Sittenfeld
I have read other books by Sittenfeld.
Rodham stood out because the book uniquely blends fantasy and fiction. You think you know where the story is headed, and boom, it's off on a completely different trajectory. In a year where politics was front and center, I enjoyed the escapism this book offers, at least to us in America.
9. Who gets in and why —Jeffrey Selingo
This is a fascinating book about college admissions in the US by someone who had a front-row seat to the admissions process at multiple colleges.
Let me state at the outset that I'm entirely unfamiliar with the college admissions process, not having put a child through college yet. But I've heard many rumors about what does and does not happen with admissions, and of course, after witnessing the news coverage on the college admissions scandal earlier this year, I was keen to know more.
Selingo's book did not disappoint. It contains something that's a rare commodity—facts (can be useful, sometimes).
10. Is this Anything—Jerry Seinfeld
At the risk of dating myself, I will say l loved watching the iconic TV show Seinfeld when it originally aired. I loved the show's unique concept, based on nothingness, an idea that catapulted Jerry Seinfeld to an icon in the field of comedy.
I'm usually not one to invest time reading celebrity biographies, but this book is a collection of five decades of jokes the comedian has written.
The pandemic and general bleakness of 2020 had me scurrying for some comic relief, so I got on the waitlist at the library when I heard about this book's release. The audio version was available before the book version was, so I ended up listening to the book rather than reading it.
In a way, this is the perfect book to listen to—what's not to love about a comedy icon telling you jokes as you run? If you're looking for a pick me up, this book is worth listening to or reading.
Here are a few other books I liked this year that could have made the cut but did not for various reasons.
- The moment of Lift – Melinda Gates
- Talk to me – Mira Jacob
- The Library Book – Susan Orlean
- Pelosi – Molly Ball
- Tiny Habits – BJ Fogg
Note: I’m half-way through (and loving) Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. Thanks to my laziness, this book now will get a spot on next year’s list instead of this year’s.
I can get distracted when reading a book, but only when I find another equally attractive book around.
The library and the book store are my happy places. They can be yours too.
Hopefully, this list inspires you to incorporate some more reading in your life. Explore the world of books and try something new (but beware of the sunk-cost fallacy).