I managed to finish 88 books in 2020, the first time since 2017 that I didn’t hit at least 100 books, and the first time that I didn’t hit my target (110 books). But I forgive myself, given the year we’ve all had. Here are my ten best reads for 2020, followed by a handful of honorable mentions.
10. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
Among the half dozen or so long books I read this year (1,000+ pages each) was Caro’s Master of the Senate. Like the previous books, the book was a fascinating, often infuriating portrayal of the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. This book was particularly infuriating. It was one of the rare reads where I had to set the book aside for a time and read other things because I just couldn’t take Johnson’s means of attack to get what he wanted. On the one hand, he was a brilliant politician. On the other hand, he used his powers for good and for evil. Still, the depth of Caro’s research compelled me to finish the book, and I do have the fourth volume queued up for sometime in 2021.
9. The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
I started off the year re-reading some McPhee, and then sought out those books of his that I hadn’t yet read. Of those, my favorite was The Pine Barrens, a fascinating (if dated) look at the large swath of forestland in New Jersey, and the people who lived there. McPhee’s style made this book a delightful, in addition to fascinating look at the lives of people and places you don’t ordinarily catch glimpses of, and a lifestyle which probably no longer exists in those parts.
8. Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah
Baseball, like everything else, was impacted by the 2020 pandemic. Right when baseball should have been in the rising part of its season, the fields were empty, the stands quiet. It was fortunate that I picked up Pessah’s book, Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask. This was a wonderful biography and a great look at Yogi Berra’s life, and came at a time when I desperately needed some baseball.
7. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
I couldn’t possible go through the pandemic year without reading about the last time a global pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. Barry’s The Great Influenza was a fascinating read, terrible in the brutality of the flu and its spread. It was fascinating to read about the response, and see the parallels to today’s pandemic. The race to develop a vaccine for the flu and the science, and scientists behind it was just as fascinating.
6. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub
The Adamses have fascinated me since I first read David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams in the summer of 2001. I’d read biographies of John Quincy Adams before, but Traub’s John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit was the best of them, and indeed, I’d place it among the top ten biographies I’ve ever read.
5. Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America by Stephanie Gorton
I grew fascinated with Tarbell, and McClure’s after reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism back in 2015. So when I saw that there was an entire book coming dedicated to Tarbell and McClure’s, I devoured it eagerly, and I wasn’t disappointed. Citizen Reporters by Stephanie Gorton is the story of the birth of investigative journalism–something that has become increasingly important in the era of fake news and truth decay.
4. The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low by Richard Jurek
Long-time readers know of my interest in NASA and human spaceflight. So when I saw this new biography of George M. Low, I was considerably excited. I was even more excited when I read The Ultimate Engineer by Richard Jurek, and found to be an excellent biography of Low, and of NASA’s evolution during his tenure, which included the Apollo program and the moon landings. It was a necessary reminder of what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it, even in these darker days.
3. Truman by David McCullough
I read this book before, in the summer of 2001, right after finishing McCullough’s biography of John Adams. But in the two intervening decades, much of it escaped my memory. So I picked up the enormous volume, Truman by David McCullough once more and devoured it. The contrast between our current political climate, and that of Truman’s days was striking, of course, but it was still a great read, and I came away with a renewed appreciation of Truman.
2. Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter by Frank Deford
With all of the bad news that 2020 brought, I needed some laughter. Sometimes, I’d just go online and watch blooper reels on YouTube. Sometimes, I’d turn to a writer like Frank Deford to supply the humor. Over Time was the first Frank Deford book I’d ever read, and it was hilarious. It was, by far, the funniest book I’d read all year, and when I finished, I found myself wanting more. Deford’s ability to lift my spirits with his humor is a big part of why this book finds a place near the top of the list for 2020.
1. Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James M. Fallows and Deborah Fallows
Sometimes a book comes along that hits all the right buttons. James and Deborah Fallows’s Our Towns is one of those books. It is a travelogue in the spirit of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, or Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road. It is a book about people you meet along the way, like Charles Kuralt’s America. It has the additional dimension of being a road-trip book for pilots like Stephen Coonts’s Cannibal Queen. As a former (private) pilot, I loved the airplane part of the book. It added a unique element to the typical road trip book. I loved the descriptions of the places and people the Fallows met along the way. So it is no surprise this book made it to the number one slot for 2020.
A few honorable mentions, without comment:
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
- Chariots for Apollo: The NASA History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft to 1969 by Courtney G. Brooks and James M. Grimwood and Loyd S. Swenson Jr.
- Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her by Rowland White
- Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
Did you read any good books in 2020? Let me hear about them in the comments.