The seventeen best books I read in 2020

As I did last year, I’m compiling a list of the best books I read in the last twelve months or so. Once more, these are books I read this year, not necessarily books which were published this year, and the list is in no particular order. Again, I couldn’t pare my choices down to the traditional ten, hence the unusual seventeen. Finally, the list is highly subjective and the format/rules are highly capricious.

  1. The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (2013). An excellent overview of Enlightenment thought and its enduring relevance.
  2. George Orwell. This was hard to pare down to even a few, let alone one, so I heartily recommend everything he wrote. In particular, I suppose, the ever-insightful, not to mention ever-relevant, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Also Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell’s account of his experiences in Spain during the Civil War. His earlier novels are also not as terrible as is sometimes argued, especially Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939). And, of course, his essays. Some of my favourites include: ‘Shooting an Elephant’, ‘Bookshop Memories’, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, ‘The Art of Donald McGill’, ‘Politics and the English Language’, ‘Why I Write’, and ‘Notes on Nationalism’. All of these writings combine deep insight with some of the best prose ever put on the page. Orwell’s way of thinking is so very needed right now.
  3. Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act Now by Joshua Wong with Jason Y. Ng (2020). Joshua Wong is one of the brave Hong Kong freedom fighters who have risked everything in their opposition to Chinese oppression. In fact, he has just been imprisoned again. I reviewed this book for Areo, which is a moving memoir of resistance to as well as a call to action against the rising authoritarianism of China. I also corresponded with Joshua on Letter. I hope he is well. I encourage you to read his book and stand by him and the many other dissidents, both well-known and nameless, in Hong Kong.
  4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958). A re-read, this, and a very good one too. It is better than the film, which completely changed the relationship between the narrator and Holly Golightly (though the film is still sweet fluff). It’s a great, as well as a short, read, full of wistfulness and wildness, as funny as it is moving.
  5. Incitement: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Western Jihad by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (2020). I reviewed this for Areo, too; it’s a scholarly but limpid account of the career and influence of one of the most important jihadist propagandists to ever slither into the public square. I’d also recommend various collections of jihadist writings, including and especially The ISIS Reader (2020), which I also, you guessed it, reviewed. Also, a bonus: Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (2006) is a taut, well-researched, and incisive telling of the story of al-Qaeda and September 11, 2001.
  6. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord (2020). Another one I reviewed for Areo, this is a beautifully written ode to the possibilities of our species and a philosophically and scientifically rigorous warning of the dangers we face.
  7. Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible by Jerry A. Coyne (2015). Coyne is one of my favourite writers; his website Why Evolution is True is a daily source of interesting and intelligent writing. Faith Versus Fact is a continuation, it could be said, of the New Atheist stuff- and it is devastating. A carefully argued put-down of ‘sophisticated theology’ and championing of science (‘broadly construed’) as the only ‘way of knowing’, it is a delightfully well-written and learned deconstruction of religion, a riposte to those who dismissed Dawkins and the rest for not having dealt with the inanities of the ‘sophisticated’ votaries of faith. (I’d also recommend Victor J. Stenger’s 2009 book The New Atheism for an overview of that movement and a defence of it against its many critics, whose critiques, such as they are, are almost all as well-worn as they are empty).
  8. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953). An epic, episodic masterpiece by one of the greatest of American writers. As with Orwell, there isn’t much to say except: read it!
  9. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity- And Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (2020). Pluckrose is my boss at Areo and, I hope, a friend, but, as I said in my review of this book for the New English Review, I take my reviewing duties seriously- and this really is a great book, despite the extremely unwieldy subtitle. If you want to understand the ideas behind wokeness, their effects, and how to fight them, this is the book for you.
  10. Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007). And also her other books, from The Caged Virgin (2004, in Dutch; 2006, in English) to Nomad (2010) and Heretic (2015). Infidel is a beautiful book, a heart-rending memoir of abuse as well as a paean to a flawed but still loving family. It is also a tale of enlightenment and freedom- of triumph against religious barbarism. Hirsi Ali is one of the most unfairly maligned people alive today. She is also one of the bravest and smartest. I had the opportunity to meet her, kind-of, at a virtual book club discussion hosted by Yasmine Mohammed. In person, she was as gorgeous and intelligent as she is in pictures and on the page.
  11. The Wind in my Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran by Masih Alinejad with Kambiz Foroohar (2018). Another brilliant and beautiful dissident woman who I also got to meet at another of those book club events. Alinejad’s courage and ebullience are quite extraordinary to behold. Her tenacity in opposing the morbid theocracy of Iran makes her one of the people I most admire. I’ve thought before that either the theocracy will fall and the women of Iran will be free or that, if the regime is forced to relax the compulsory hijab, it will collapse shortly thereafter. Alinejad is one of the greatest combatants in the fight for a free Iran and her memoir is a testament to her bravery and intelligence.
  12. Leaving the Allah Delusion Behind: Atheism and Freethought in Islam by Ibn Warraq (2020). Yet another book I reviewed for Areo, this is a detailed, learned history of dissidents and rebels in Islam from its early days to the present from another great modern champion of human rights and freedom. There is a stir in the Islamic world, not just of reformists, but of those who reject religion tout court. These people might just be the best hope against the oppressive Islam so common today.
  13. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge by Paul Preston (2006) and The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G. Payne (2012). I cheated slightly here because both of these books are well-written, scholarly but accessible accounts of one of the most important and divisive conflicts of the twentieth century. Preston is the better writer, but both are excellent books, especially to see the arguments made by two different sides: Preston is anti-Franco, pro-Republic while Payne is much more conservative. Reading these books side by side is an interesting way to see how the same events can be told in very different ways. I’d love to see a debate between these two; I gather there is little love lost between them.
  14. Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001), Why Orwell Matters (2002), Hitch-22 (2010), and Mortality (2012) by Christopher Hitchens. All re-reads apart from the Orwell treatise, these are all finely written books, witty and sharp and furious and moving. I disagree with Hitchens on the quality of Orwell’s earlier novels but his staunch defence of Orwell and the elucidation of his ideals, especially the importance of how he thought, are as relevant now as when they were written. Contrarian is a love-letter to the radical tradition in many ways but also a trenchant argument for the necessity of independent thinking. Hitch-22 is a funny and emotional tour of the highs and lows of a life well lived and Mortality is a hard-headed meditation on terminal illness and death. All well worth reading, like all of Hitchens’s books and essays.
  15. The Second Plane: September 11: 2001-2007 (2008) and Inside Story (2020) by Martin Amis. The former is a collection of essays and short stories dealing with the attacks on New York in 2001, Islamic terrorism, and the post-September 11 world. Every piece is an insightful and literary look at the horrors of jihadism and the evils of religion and the book represents a great example of the writer engaged in the issues of his day. There is a lot more insight in this slim volume than in several academic tomes. Inside Story is an autobiographical novel of epic proportions, dealing with everything from Saul Bellow’s decline and Christopher Hitchens’s illness to the Iraq war, how to write, the limits of literature, and much else besides. A veritable trove of wisdom and a captivating panegyric to life, love, and literature, it is a demanding but rewarding read. I also reviewed it for Areo.
  16. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). A disturbing novel of terrorism, madness, and grime both moral and physical, one of the great man’s masterpieces.
  17. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974). Le Carré died quite recently so now might be a good time to look back at his very long backlist. Tinker is one of his best, a story of bureaucracy and betrayal, very complex and very good, with one of the best spy protagonists ever devised: George Smiley. It is ambiguous and sometimes disturbing. Books like this allow me to just about forgive le Carré for his cowardice and idiocy over Salman Rushdie.

P.S. I’d also like to give a shout out to Shada (2013) , the novelised reconstruction/adaptation by Gareth Roberts of the brilliant Douglas Adams’s ‘lost’ Doctor Who story. It’s a very funny adventure.

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