I read 45 books in 2020. These were my favorites. (Thinking in SwiftUI was not in the running because I’m biased.)
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019). If you pick up one book from this list, make it this one. I think everyone working in the tech industry should read it, it’s so important. Shoshana Zuboff takes apart the business model of the big tech giants and the many unethical (and at times possibly illegal) things they have done and continue to do to preserve it.
If we ever manage to regulate the digital surveillance industry that pervades modern life (as we eventually did with the factory owners who exploited workers during the industrialization), this book will become a classic as a major contribution to that effort.
Circe by Madeline Miller. A beautiful reimagination of a Greek myth. I bought this book because I fell in love with the cover design of the UK edition without knowing what it was about and I’m glad I did. Madeline Miller’s writing was a challenge for my English skills, I had to look up so many words. But it was totally worth it.
Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined by Stephen Fry (2017). Circe led me to Stephen Fry’s delightful retelling of the Greek myths. This is part one in a series. The sequels, Heroes and Troy, are on my list for next year. I bought the US edition because I liked the cover design better than the UK version. It’s a very pretty book.
Permanent Record by Edward Snowden (2019). Snowden’s memoirs, recounting his work for NSA contractors up until the covert meeting with journalists in Hong Kong that led to his exile.
A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout (2018). Very approachable (short and easy to read) and contains a lot of solid advice for designing and maintaining complex systems. Two good reviews about the book: Gergely Orosz’s review matches my own thoughts. James Koppel’s take is more critical (but still positive) and very insightful.
The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard Hamming (1996, new edition 2020). Beautiful new edition of Hamming’s 1970s lecture series converted to prose. Themes include some technical topics, such as Hamming’s invention of the error-correcting code named after him, but the majority of the book is advice how to approach scientific work and how to build a successful career. The final chapter is a version of Hamming’s famous talk “You and Your Research”, which gives a good impression of the character of the book. The 2020 Stripe Press version is very pretty. Typography, illustrationsm and paper quality are all top-notch.
Deutschland Schwarz Weiß by Noah Sow (2008, updated 2018). Racism in Germany. How white people advance and strengthen racism by not thinking about our actions. Bad typography, but I otherwise liked it.
Fake Facts: Wie Verschwörungstheorien unser Denken bestimmen by Katharina Nocun und Pia Lamberty (2020). An inside look into several conspiracist milieus in German society, from Holocaust deniers and antisemitic ideologists to anti-vaxxers and esoterics. Highly relevant these days.
March (Book One to Three) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013–2016). The late US Congressman John Lewis recounts his extraordinary life in the US civil rights movement in comic book form. Reading this deeply impressed me. The struggle Black people fought then (and are still fighting today)! The courage and determination it took to take humiliation after humiliation, beating after beating, arrest after arrest, murder after murder, without fighting back with violence. I had known this before, but seeing it from the perspective of someone who experienced it firsthand was something else.
MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman (2011). Reading March led me to a comic classic: Maus (1985 and 1991), Art Spiegelman’s two-part story how his parents survived the Holocaust in Poland. I liked the comics, but I felt I didn’t really understand why they were so famous.
MetaMaus is essentially a 230-page interview with the author in which he takes his work apart in detail: how it came to be, how he approached certain scenes (including tons of draft sketches), Art’s complicated relationship with his father (which plays a major role in Maus), the many layers of hidden meaning in his drawings (most of which I missed when reading the comics). Reading this gave me a much deeper appreciation for the original work. Kudos to Hillary Chute, who went through Spiegelman’s archives and asked fantastic questions.
Berlin Jason Lutes (2018). Another comic classic, published as a magazine series in 2000, 2008, and 2018. A 550-page tome that describes life in Berlin from 1928 to 1933, during the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Recommended if you’re interested in that period.
Brüder by Jackie Thomae (2019). The story of two brothers who get separated as children and grow up to live very different lives, each a tragic figure in their own way. Themes: racism, East and West, 1980s and 1990s Berlin, provincialism vs. cosmopolitanism, how a single mistake can destroy a life.
Im Sommer wieder Fahrrad by Lea Streisand (2016). Autobiographical novel. The author (in her thirties) narrates her fight against cancer and memories of her grandmother who led a nonconformist, emancipated life in pre-, mid-, and postwar Germany.
Side note: publisher websites are terrible
I dread compiling this list every year because finding good links and cover images for the books is a pain. Most publisher websites are terrible. It’s very likely many links on this page will no longer work in a few months or years. The idea of not breaking URLs seems foreign to most companies that have products to sell. When a book goes out of print, it may well just disappear from the catalog. I preemptively apologize for that.
Nonetheless, I don’t want to link to Amazon if I can help it. If you decide to buy a book from this list, please buy it from a local bookshop or another retailer that isn’t one of the most powerful companies in the world. Let’s try to not make Jeff Bezos any richer. (Yes, I see the irony that the print version of my own book is only available on Amazon. Sorry.)