What I Read in 2020

5,850 pages across 19 books

What a year it’s been. 2019 was not without its difficulties for me and many of the people in my life. But 2020, sheesh, what a rollercoaster.

Whatever life throws my way, books are among the few things I can reliably turn to for comfort and solace, for few activities are as relaxing as settling into a sofa with a book in hand and few pursuits are as meaningful for one’s personal growth as venturing into the minds of others.

Below you’ll find the books I read in 2020, in the order I read them, including commentary on my thoughts about each one.

Please send me your recommendations in the comments if you have the time. I’m always looking for more good books to feast on. 📚

The Elements of User Onboarding

Samuel Hulick, 2014

I’m so grateful for this book. The content is helpful beyond measure. The Elements of User Onboarding has not only given me some valuable insights into crafting solid user onboarding experiences; it has also helped me better articulate the work I’m doing.

While it’s a bit expensive for an ebook ($50), it really delivers its weight in gold. Hulick is one of the leading authorities on user onboarding and it shows.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Becky Chambers, 2014

This was a fun audiobook listen. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet contains a menagerie of quirky characters who are the central focus of the book. There is very little plot to speak of, which is a shame, since the title would have you believe this is a journey story. It isn’t. It’s more of an examination of the human condition, equality, and acceptance through the lens of a society in which humans and various alien species have met and managed to cohabitate. There’s no obstacle that can’t be overcome and everything is generally fine and dandy — which is the primary problem with this book.

Still, it filled my commutes with good humor and interesting character studies and for that, I appreciate Chambers’ work.

Intercom on Onboarding, 2nd edition

Davin O’Dwyer (editor), 2019

I read the first version of this ebook in 2018 for a project I was doing at the time. Now that I’m tackling a whole new — and much bigger — onboarding project, I saw that Intercom had published a second version, and there’s a wealth of new knowledge to be found within its pages.

If you’re a designer or even a small business person looking to help people interact with your product offering successfully, I recommend giving this book a read. It’s free!

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, 2016

Author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths have written a timely book for the times in which we live. Algorithms to Live By examines how the algorithms computers use to capture and sort data can be used in our own daily, human lives.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, narrated by Brian Christian himself, and found it extremely intriguing, though a challenge to attempt applying its concepts to my life (I think having the print version of the book would have made it easier to refer to).

That’s not to say I didn’t see inherent value in the information in this book. It endeavors to provide algorithms we can use to make better decisions and lead happier lives, and it all made sense to me as I listened. I think I will pick up a hardcopy at some point.

“To try and fail is at least to learn; to fail to try is to suffer the inestimable loss of what might have been.”

— Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By

Weaveworld

Clive Barker, 1987

The first book of 2020 for my book club, Weaveworld is a dreamlike and sprawling epic that I found simultaneously delightful and frustrating. Barker’s writing flows rhythmically from word to word like a transcendental melody. Exhibit A:

“Dawn was close. The weaker stars had already disappeared, and even the brightest were uncertain of themselves.”

— Clive Barker, Weaveworld

The world of Weaveworld is fascinating. To protect themselves, a people known as the Seerkind hid themselves from the rest of the world in what they called the Fugue, weaving their land into a rug where they would hibernate until the time was right for them to unravel it again. Few on the outside know their world exists within the weave. Some are sworn to protect it, and some seek to find and unravel it out of vengeance.

The book excels in its beauty, its depth and its action sequences, and the villains are fantastic—but it’s dragged down by its pacing, length, underdeveloped protagonists, and a few loose strands that didn’t manage to weave themselves back into the story in a meaningful way (a shame due to the novel’s premise).

On the whole I liked it and appreciate Barker’s ambition with this book. It’s immensely creative and swept me along a surprising and expansive journey. It has elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and comedy — a nice, genre-bending mix. If you enjoy lengthy reads, fascinating worlds and mind-bending premises, you should like this book well enough.

“That which is imagined can never be lost.”

— Clive Barker, Weaveworld

The Order of Time

Carlo Rovelli, 2017

The Order of Time is the most beautifully written book about science I’ve ever read. I listened to the audiobook for my first read through, and Benedict Cumberbatch does a phenomenal job narrating. Before I’d even finished listening, I’d already bought a hardcover copy of the book — it’s one I want to keep with me.

Rovelli, Italian theoretical physicist, shares his research through pleasing, poetic prose. The Order of Time is accessible in a way that so few books on the sciences are. You can literally get lost in time reading about time.

In this book, Rovelli explores the nature of time—what we know about it from a physics standpoint to how we perceive it as human beings—by including his discoveries alongside those of Newton, Einstein, and many others. He sheds light on concepts such as “the present doesn’t exist” and “the world is made of events, not things.” He quotes the humanities—poetry, philosophy, prose—to lend an additional human element to his work.

I can say only this: Read it.

“For a moving object, time contracts. Not only is there no single time for different places—there is not even a single time for any particular place…. “Proper time” depends not only on where you are and your degree of proximity to masses; it depends also on the speed at which you move.”

— Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

Matthew Frederick, 2007

Simple, encompassing, and yet surprisingly deep, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School is not only an insightful trip into the world of architecture, but a book that speaks profound truths about design itself, independent of industry or specialization. I gleaned more important lessons from this short, delightful book than I ever expected going into it.

Why did I read it? A few reasons:

  • It was recommended by a friend who’s a UX designer
  • I wanted to explore in greater detail the crossover between physical architecture and that of digital systems
  • I wanted to learn some things about architectural techniques and process for concept work for my novels, which I’m slowly working on in my spare time. Visualizing the physical manifestation of the places I’m writing about helps ground my imagination.

Each spread in the book is dedicated to one of Frederick’s 101 concepts about architecture. There’s an illustration on the left page and text on the right. I read 1–5 pages each day, depending on how in depth each page’s concept was.

I loved this book.

Reality is Not What It Seems

Carlo Rovelli, 2014

Rovelli has really reinvigorated my interest in physics this year. I mean, when you learn about how you can time travel by being close to a black hole for a few minutes so that millions of years pass beyond its grasp, it really messes with your mind.

In Reality is Not What It Seems, Rovelli explores how our concept of reality has evolved from ancient times till present day. It’s a journey through history with the philosophers and scientists who have shaped and continue to shape our perceptions of what constitutes the reality around us—even diving into the quantum realm.

There was some overlap with The Order of Time in this book (or I guess it’s the other way around, since The Order of Time was written second), but it’s a worthy read in its own right, full of centuries of thought and discovery distilled into 256 pages.

Rovelli puts big ideas within the reach of non-scientists, and I appreciate him for that.

“I believe that this example demonstrates how great science and great poetry are both visionary, and may even arrive at the same intuitions. Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated: they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty of the world.”

— Carlo Rovelli, Reality is Not What It Seems

Strategic Writing for UX: Drive Engagement, Conversion, and Retention with Every Word

Torrey Podmajersky, 2019

This is the book I wish I’d had to reference back in 2018 when I was writing a voice and tone guide for the company I was working for. I did alright without it, but Podmajerky brings an elegant depth to the idea of voice and tone that I, in my rather novice experience with the subject at the time, really could have benefited from. The good news is that I’m assisting with voice and tone once again at my new company, and am currently the primary person responsible for the way we communicate within our product, so Strategic Writing for UX is proving useful.

Podmajersky’s techniques for developing a consistent, actionable voice for UX writing takes a bit of time to formulate up front, but it’s wonderfully prescriptive once the groundwork is complete. She dedicates a fair amount of time to demonstrating how to utilize the guide once you’ve built it, both in the practice of writing interface copy and applying its principles to heuristic UX evaluations (a practice of auditing how usable a product is).

I sincerely believe writing is among the most vital and useful tools in a designer’s toolkit. The more clearly one can articulate one’s ideas and decisions, the more effective one’s work will be. On that note, this is a useful book for every UX writer or designer to keep at their desk.

The Blade Itself (The First Law #1)

Joe Abercrombie, 2006

While the action beats were few and far between, the characters were all quite unique and deeply layered and the conversations they had with one another were consistently interesting, full of tension and twists.

I read The Blade Itself with my book club buddies, who all seemed to enjoy it far more than I did. My problem with the book was that parts of it — conversations, events, etc. — drone on for far too long. The pace is just a little slow for my liking.

But the world, my gosh, the world is beautifully written (sans the map, which isn’t in the book — a major flaw for a sprawling fantasy novel). The characters were deep and interesting and the big events — the highlight action sequences — were breathtaking. Abercrombie just forces you to slog through a bunch of slow moments to get to the excitement.

Overall, I am intrigued where the trilogy will go from here. I feel like this was just setting things up.

“But that was civilization, so far as Logen could tell. People with nothing better to do, dreaming up ways to make easy things difficult.”

— Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Carlo Rovelli, 2014

Short and sweet at just 81 pages, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics incites a wonderful first read and then becomes a useful, bite-sized reference guide. I read it on vacation and enjoyed every minute of it, although the closing chapter had some terrifying predictions about where humanity is headed. The seven lessons are titled as follows:

  1. The Most Beautiful of Theories
  2. Quanta
  3. The Architecture of the Cosmos
  4. Particles
  5. Grains of Space
  6. Probability, Time, and the Heat of Black Holes
  7. Ourselves

It’s a great little book and my final journey with Rovelli this year. I think I’m running out of things to read from him.

“We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy we are being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world.”

— Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818

I’d never read it before. Now I know why it has endured for so long.

Once you get past the flowery, poetic 19th century writing style, you find much more than a mere monster story. Shelley’s novel was, in many ways, ahead of its time. From its multi-narrator approach to its deeply introspective exploration of the soul, it gave existentialism a whole new meaning. How does an unnatural-born creature cope with its existence and place in the world when it’s seen as nothing but a monster? How does it find love, happiness, or social connection when it’s the only creature of its kind?

Frankenstein is a tragic and poetic vision of a creator who regrets and abandons his work and a creature lost to his sense of belonging. It’s philosophical, psychological, and perhaps even prophetic: Over two centuries ahead of its time, leading a discourse about the mental, emotional, and physical stresses that could haunt those born in a lab.

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me …”

— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The Art of War

Sun Tzu, 5th century BC

I’d been meaning to read this one for years and I don’t know why I didn’t till now. Tzu’s 2,500-year-old war treatise is a short, quick read, and it’s packed with wisdom relevant to business, leadership, and of course warfare. While the latter doesn’t really apply to my situation, there’s quite a lot I’ve gleaned from The Art of War in terms of leadership; and while written as a guidebook on war tactics, much of its content is relevant to marketing strategy and dueling with business competitors.

I’m glad I finally read it.

“Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction

Neil Gaiman, 2016

It was in the watching of Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass that I was reminded of The View from the Cheap Seats. Since its release in 2016, the book had materialized again and again as recommended reading on my Kindle and Goodreads.

In a particular segment of his MasterClass, Gaiman explains the importance of consuming the non-fiction work of other writers and of writing non-fiction pieces oneself. He gave a nice list of essays to read, some older, some more contemporary. Where better to start, I thought, than with some of Gaiman’s own essays. He’s a writer I admire, after all.

The View From the Cheap Seats contains an assortment of essays that have appeared in various publications over the years, as well as a poignant commencement speech he gave at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012. The subjects of the essays vary widely, from the things he believes, to musings, movies, music, and more.

I found an immediate fondness for an essay titled “How to Read Gene Wolfe”. I adore Wolfe’s work but have always found his books to be a uniquely peculiar challenge. Gaiman’s essay on how to read Wolfe’s stories brought some things into perspective and gave me a good chuckle. I’ll probably return to this one the next time I venture down Gene Wolfe Lane.

The View From the Cheap Seats is a fun read. It isn’t one that needs to be read all at once. For me, it serves as a looking glass into the mind of one of my favorite writers. I really should do more of this kind of reading.

“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.”
— Neil Gaiman, The View From the Cheap Seats

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Ed Catmull, 2009

When I started reading this book, I was in the process of interviewing lots of people for a position I was hiring for. I’ve read many leadership books over the years, but since this was to be my first official direct report, I wanted to make sure I was doing my due diligence. Creativity, Inc. had been sitting on my shelf for over a year, and it finally felt like the right time to crack it open.

Ed Catmull did not disappoint. From the very beginning I felt waves of wisdom crashing upon me, soaking into my brain. My highlighter moved furiously from page to page.

Creativity, Inc. is about managing creative teams. It’s about being excellent to people. It’s about providing them the environment to do their best work. And it’s so much more.

I’m glad I read this when I did. It’ll be a good companion, sitting always within eyesight of my desk in the years to come.

“I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am. … Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”

— Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

The Silent Patient

Alex Michaelides, 2019

My girlfriend and I listened to The Silent Patient on audiobook while on a road trip in October. We were instantly captivated by the stellar voice acting and writing. During our trip, we’d occasionally talk about the characters and what was happening in the story. We couldn’t wait to dive back into it every chance we got.

The sharp plot feels like a confined, twisting corridor, one with a thick strand of yarn running down its center; around each corner, the yarn frays and unravels until by the end it’s made of just a single, unmistakable fiber. Part thriller, part mystery, part psychoanalysis, The Silent Patient felt unique, quite unlike anything I’ve read before.

I highly recommend it.

“You become increasingly comfortable with madness — and not just the madness of others, but your own. We’re all crazy, I believe, just in different ways.”

—Alex Michaelides, The Silent Patient

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Suzanne Collins, 2020

Too many songs. There are too many of the same songs repeated over and over and over again in this book. That’s the first thing I think about when I think about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I mean, I get it. The title itself screams “There will be music in this book.” But the music felt overly contrived. It didn’t feel real to me.

I loved The Hunger Games. But Collins’ prequel book doesn’t hold the same magic for me. Yes, it has its exciting moments, and yes, it gives us some backstory, showing us who President Snow was before he was President Snow.

But this is a question I find myself asking for every prequel story I encounter (at least, those which come after the main meal was already served): Do we really need this? Sometimes, the mysteries about what came before are part of what make a story powerful. Revealing everything has a tendency to cheapen everything.

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law, #2)

Joe Abercrombie, 2015

Now we’re getting somewhere! My opinion of The Blade Itself was that it was awesome at times, but mainly too slow. And my deepest wish was that its sequel would speed things up a bit.

It did. Before They Are Hanged moves much faster than its predecessor. With the characters and world already established, Before They Are Hanged grew wings and took those characters places. They became deeper, even more believable people. And really cool things happened.

I’m in it to win it now. On to the final book in the trilogy: Last Argument of Kings.

“Anyone can face ease and success with confidence. It is the way we face trouble and misfortune that defines us.”

—Joe Abercrombie, Before They Are Hanged

Common Sense

Thomas Paine, 1776

The book description from Goodreads:

Published anonymously in 1776, this landmark political pamphlet spread across the colonies more rapidly than any document of its kind ever had before. Its words were read aloud in town squares, its pages affixed to tavern walls. Both a clear-eyed, plainly stated case for separation from Great Britain and a stirring call to action, Common Sense sparked the imagination of a fledgling nation and played a decisive role in the march toward revolution. Thomas Paine’s masterpiece is a crucial reading for any student of American history.

I read most of Common Sense in October before the election and finished it shortly after. It struck me how a single document could influence both a revolution and a new school of thought for government, shunning monarchies and advocating for governance by the people. Many of its principles found their way into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in some shape or form.

Common Sense is a short read that provides insight into the philosophies of the time in which it was written, many of which I find quite timeless (ahem, common sense), and many which a fair number of Americans seem to have forgotten — things that make the US Constitution unique, special, powerful.

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…”

—Thomas Paine, Common Sense

And that’s that. This was the first time in four years I didn’t meet or exceed my reading goal, but there were more vital pursuits to attend to in 2020.

Again, any reading recommendations you can share with me and other readers in the comments would make you one awesome human.

Thanks for checking out my reads. 😊

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Designer, writer, and photographer dwelling in Los Angeles.

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Brandon Smith

Brandon Smith

Designer, writer, and photographer dwelling in Los Angeles.

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