Category: lists

My Annotated List of Books I Didn’t Finish Reading in 2020

If I have one hard and fast rule about reading, it’s that a book does not get on my list of books I’ve read if I didn’t read the entire thing. If I read half, it doesn’t go on my list. If I read all but the last few pages, it still doesn’t go on my list. I’ve never done a good job of tracking how many books I don’t finish reading in a year, since they never get on my list. In 2020, I made a deliberate effort to track these. Here are the 17 books that I started reading in 2020, but failed to finish for one reason or another.

  1. John Quincy Adams’s Diaries. I dipped into this off and on throughout the year, but didn’t finish the whole thing.
  2. Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett. My sister recommended this, and I started it early in the year, but felt it wasn’t what I wanted to listen to on the 2-day road-trip we were making on our way home from Florida.
  3. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I first read this back in the fall of 1996 (it is book #30 on my list of books I’ve read since 1996). I decided to re-read it because I remember it being so good. I got halfway through before I gave up. It’s not that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it; it’s more that I am a different person now than I was then.
  4. John Adams by Page Smith. I picked up this 2-volume biography of Adams for a few bucks at a church book sale. I love reading about Adams, his life and times, and I made it maybe a quarter of the way through the first volume before other things grabbed my attention. (See: The Butterfly Effect of Reading).
  5. Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf. Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story came out right at the time I started reading this. I paused to read Levy’s book, promising to get back to this one eventually.
  6. A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram. I was deep into a Mathematica phase in the spring of 2020. So I started this book–a copy of which I first bought when it first came out–but then, as now, I didn’t get very far into it before giving up.
  7. An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language by Stephen Wolfram. Programming is a big part of what I do for a living. I never RTFM, but in this case, I made an exception. It turned out that I picked things up quickly enough that I found I didn’t need to finish the book.
  8. The Summer Game by Roger Angell. I was missing baseball in the spring. I think reading The Summer Game was too painful with baseball on hiatus at the time.
  9. Our Game: An American Baseball History by Charles C. Alexander. Ditto.
  10. The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt. Sometimes, I really want to read a book, but I’m in a nonfiction mood and the book in front of me is fiction, or vice-versa. This was a case of the former.
  11. Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger. See nos. 8 and 9.
  12. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: 1837-1861. Like Adams’s diaries, I dipped into this one now and then throughout the year, but never read the whole thing.
  13. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. This is my Charlie Brown football. Gibbon holds it out to me every year, and ever year I take running kick at it, and he pulls it away at the last second. Part of the problem is it is so long, I think of all of the other books I won’t get to read, but that seems like a weak excuse, considering that something like 7 of the books I did finish in 2020 were over a 1,000 pages each.
  14. Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 1 by Joseph Needham. I have a fascination with lifelong projects–the Durant’s Story of Civilization; Dumas Malone’s Jefferson biography. I managed to get ahold of the first 5 volumes of Needham’s magnum opus in 2020, and I found what I read fascinating, but it was slow reading for me, to ensure full comprehension. I think I got halfway through the first volume before giving up.
  15. The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien. In October the kids and I did a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. After it was over, I wanted more, so I decided to re-read the books. I read The Fellowship of the Ring, but that seemed to sate me. I got bogged down in The Two Towers and moved on to something else.
  16. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. I enjoy Meacham’s books and this one had been on my list ever since visiting the Hermitage in 2017. I started it, but got distracted by other things. No fault of the book. I plan on coming back to it at some point.
  17. Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship: The Correspondence of E.B. White and Edmund Ware Smith. I started reading this while on vacation in a remote part of Maine in November. I hadn’t finished by the time our vacation was over, and it felt weird reading this book and not being in Maine, so I never finished it.

In every case, the failure to finish was no fault of the author or the book, but of my rapidly changing attention when I read (seriously, see the Butterfly Effect of Reading), or because the book was too painful to finish given the circumstances (like the baseball books). I wish I could say I’ll do better in the future, but that would be a lie. I’d guess that I fail to finish between 15-20 books a year on average. Some I have eventually come back to and finished. Others, well, I’ll get to them eventually.

My Best Reads of 2020

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.

Honorable Mentions

A few honorable mentions, without comment:

Did you read any good books in 2020? Let me hear about them in the comments.

My Favorite Christmas Songs, 2015 Edition

As it is Christmas Eve day, here is a list of my 8 favorite Christmas songs, listed in no particular order. Plus a bonus song.

1. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Andy Williams version)

2. My Favorite Things (Andy Williams version)

3. White Christmas (Bing Crosby version)

4. I’ll Be Home for Christmas (Bing Crosby version)

5. Silver Bells (Bing Crosby and Carol Richards version)

6. The Christmas Song (Nat “King” Cole version)

7. Oh Holy Night (Andy Williams version)

8. Snow (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Peggy Lee)

And while it is not, strictly speaking, a Christmas, song, this one always reminds me of Christmas because it is part of my favorite Christmas movie, White Christmas:

BONUS: The Old Man / Gee I Wish I Was Back in the Army (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye)