My Top Books Of 2020 And A New System For Reading Without Guilt

Corey McComb

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Every year I write a post-year write-up of my favorite books and tell myself it’s going to be the last time.

One reason: these lists are everywhere. Even Barak Obama shares his every December. Most people don’t read more than a few books a year. And those who read more tend to have their own list they are trying to get to. This is why it’s such an honor when someone takes the time to read my book.

I’m also suspicious of the idea that writers are the best people to recommend books to non-writers. Writers are impressed by different aspects of books. While you might be measuring the cabinets to see if your plates and bowls will fit, we’ll be busy admiring the woodwork, wondering how the carpenter got the edges so smooth.

The best book recommendations will probably come from someone who knows you well and who doesn’t typically care about books.

Another problem I have with these lists is that they take a long time to write. And I’d rather be writing original work than talking about someone else’s. But then I stop and remember how much the books I read in 2020 impacted me. And then I think about where I heard of them in the first place. Yep, someone else’s reading list.

So rather than hoard my favorites, I feel obligated and grateful to be in the position to pay it forward and share the books that hit home for me. Because a good book can change your life.

I won’t do a write-up for all of the books, but I will share some of my favorites and provide takeaways. That way, even if you don’t read any of the books, you can gain some new ideas by reading the email.

But first, here are a few things that helped me read more and enjoy more of what I read.

New Reading Habits

One thing I did last year was ditch books without guilt. Meaning, if the first few chapters didn’t resonate, I moved on. I did a lot of flipping around — reading key paragraphs rather than full pages. If it was a book that I know many people love, I’d give it 100 pages, but if it didn’t grab me by then it was bye-bye birdie. (I’m looking at you, Devil in the White City).

Wrestling your way through books you don’t enjoy is a bad habit from high school. There’s no syllabus here. Chapter 21 won’t be on the final. The key to reading more is to find yourself the page-turners, the ones you can’t put down.

I’m not on board with this as a general approach to reading. When I pick up a new book, I am hoping to read it cover to cover as the author intended. But allowing myself to flip and ditch without guilt did improve my reading experience this year. And I think it exposed me to more books I may not have picked up otherwise.

Another thing I haven’t done for years is to track the overall number of books I read. This is a trap and will limit the way you choose and consume books. You don’t count the number of shows you watch on Netflix each year do you? No, you scroll for an hour and eventually watch The Office ;)

Instead of counting titles, I recommend committing to reading a certain amount of time each week. 20 to 30 minutes a day is great for me. And if you do this consistently, you’ll end up reading a few books a month — which is plenty for most people.

If you want a reading challenge that goes along with this thinking, Alex and Books has a fantastic newsletter about books and reading and set up a 2021 reading challenge that is in line with this type of approach.

Another thing I’m happy I made time for this year was to re-read a few books I loved in the past. Re-reading and re-watching is a beautiful act, in my opinion. It’s fun to revisit a world you first traveled to years ago. To see how it’s changed since you were there, and more importantly, see how it might have changed you. I’ll shout out the few books I re-read at the end of this email.

Top Books — Fiction and Non-Fiction

#1 — Fiction

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

This was my favorite novel of 2020. It’s an around-the-world-in-eighty-days adventure about falling in and out of love, getting older, and travel. Beautifully written and a great story that will warm your heart and probably make you cry at the end (it got me!). It also won a well-deserved Pulitzer in 2017.

I dog-earned many long sections but here’s one line I highlighted:

“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.”
“Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”

#1 — Non-Fiction

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

This was a tough category. I read a lot of great non-fiction this year, but Range stuck with me throughout the year and made me think differently in many ways. It also re-affirmed decisions I’ve made in my life that felt like mistakes at the time but turned out to probably be the best thing that could have happened.

This book challenges a lot of common conceptions around what it takes to an elite athlete, musician, or CEO. It makes a very strong case for having a wide breadth of knowledge that can be applied to multiple disciplines, rather than a narrow field of expertise.

Narrow discipline or overspecialization in a single skill or domain is not only disastrous in our new, fast-paced world, it’s actually never been a good strategy for life. This book is filled with fascinating stories and its ideas are backed up by solid research.

If you know anyone graduating high-school or college this year, give them this book!

“Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines.” -Range, David Epstein

Six More Top Books

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, by David Brooks

This book was powerful for me. It pointed out some ways of thinking I’ve been using that weren’t serving me anymore — particularly around the idea of trying to optimize my life for options rather than commitments. The best things in life are born out of commitments, and being hyper-individualistic can really leave us feeling aimless on the long tail. Lots of great ideas here about doing meaningful work that gives back to others, and it’s given me a new framework to think through when choosing how I spend my time.

I think about this book all the time and have recommended it to a few friends who recently turned 30.

From my notes:

“Individualism says, You have to love yourself first before you can love others. But the second-mountain ethos says, You have to be loved first so you can understand love, and you have to see yourself actively loving others so that you know you are worthy of love. On the first mountain, a person makes individual choices and keeps their options open. The second mountain is a vale of promise-making. It is about making commitments, tying oneself down, and giving oneself away.”

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor

This book is a lot of fun and will absolutely get you pumped up on practicing breathwork. I was also impressed with the way the author took a somewhat cumbersome topic and made it so interesting. The power of our breath isn’t a boring topic, but books that rely on data and studies to make their case run the risk of getting dry. In Breath, Nestor balanced narrative, data, and simplicity perfectly.

This book is also filled with actionable exercises to incorporate, which is why it’s listed high on the list: It changed my behavior in a positive way (daily breathwork).

I also learned a lot of new stuff about human evolution and the physiology of the body. And if you’ve been meaning to make breathwork a part of your life, my wife is the creator of the very popular, Academy of Breath.)

Quote summary:

“The greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.” -James Nestor, Breath

The Night In Question, by Thomas Wolff

I love short stories and think they are the pinnacle of the writing craft. I heard about this collection in Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing (see below), where he praises Wolff as a master of the short story.

The stories in The Night In Question cut deep, and reading them feels as if you are reliving a memory from a past life. That’s what I love about fiction. It can become a part of you in ways that non-fiction cannot. It reveals itself slowly, over time, and the lessons change you in your soul. If this sounds like something you might be searching for in the books you read, pick this collection up (I’ll be re-reading it this year).

From childhood friendships, marriage insecurities, and going from hopeless to hopeful, The Night In Question is a book about people.

One of my many highlights:

“The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time” ― Tobias Wolff, The Night in Question

Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, Scott Adams

This book breaks down the persuasion tactics used by the Trump and Clinton campaigns in the 2016 election. It’s a deep dive and fun ride that mainly proves humans are hardwired to respond to emotion, not reason.

The point of the book isn’t about whether Trump is right or wrong, good or evil, it’s about how the tools of persuasion make the world go round, and knowing how to spot them is an important skill in a world of feeling-based media.

This book is a great primer for learning how to recognize confirmation bias in ourselves and others. As well as the principles behind cognitive dissonance, mass delusion, and general manipulation.

Warning: You won’t be able to “unsee” the lessons in this book once you read it. And if your identity is tied up in modern politics, it’ll probably make you angry.

“If you don’t understand confirmation bias, you might think new information can change people’s opinions. As a trained persuader, I know that isn’t the case, at least when emotions are involved. People don’t change opinions about emotional topics just because some information proved their opinion to be nonsense. Humans aren’t wired that way.”
“We humans like to think we are creatures of reason. We aren’t. The reality is that we make our decisions first and rationalize them later….Your illusion of being a rational person is supported by the fact that sometimes you do act rationally.”
― Scott Adams, Win Bigly

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve always loved Chuck’s work and bought this the day it came out. It’s a book on writing that does what all great books on writing should do: Make you want to stop reading and start writing!

Chuck gives away so much here. Lots of high-level strategies and ideas for writers of any level. Not sure if I’d recommend this book if you’re not a writer or have plans to write, but if you want to explore Chuck’s novels, Survivor, Fight Club, and Choke are all amazing.

I don’t have any notes on this book because it was clear from the first few pages that I was just going to re-read it every year.

Here’s one interesting highlight for everyone:

“By writing, people present their lives as fiction and tackle their issues as a craft exercise. By redeeming their protagonist, they find their own redemption .” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Consider This

Leadership: In Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This book could easily be number one on my list. I’m tempted to move it up higher as I write this. It follows the lives and presidencies of Abe Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, F.D.R, and Lydon Johnson. I learned a ton about each individual and how they connect. More than anything, Goodwin provides an amazing view of the society, events, and main characters that shaped America.

I think the best way to understand what’s happening in America today is to look backward. If you’re struggling to find patriotism in yourself right now, I think this book can add some perspective on what it means to be an American and where we can go from here. And obviously, if you’re in any type of leadership role, this book is filled with gold.

“With public sentiment, nothing can fail,” Abraham Lincoln said, “without it nothing can succeed.” Such a leader is inseparably linked to the people. Such leadership is a mirror in which the people see their collective reflection.”
― Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership: In Turbulent Times

Ok, this is a good place to stop.

Two more shoutouts just to make it an official list of “10 books I loved”:

Both of these were 5/5 stars for me.

Ok, whew. It was a great year of reading. Let me know which of these you’ve also enjoyed, or which you’ll be adding to your list in 2021.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA
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