It Was Quite The Year (Incl. My Top 10 Books + A Playlist)
I don't know where the line is between superlatives and hyperbole, but one thing I do know is that 2020 has been a year unlike the others. A powder keg in the perfect storm, 2020 will be a hub year, (like 2001) where the spokes of life’s changes radiate outwards from it, and our collective memories forever triangulated towards it.
The year started off with a win for me in January as I gave the final talk at TEDx Salem. Fitting that my theme was how "planned grit" (purposeful forays into cultural or geographic discomfort) can prepare us for the unplanned grit in life. Little did we all know that a viral package of unplanned grit was already out for delivery.
And then Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were just a few of the unnecessary losses that dragged “whiteness” out of the shadows and in for its mugshot. I dove into the topic: What I Learned About The Invention Of Race.
All this in the run up to a general election.
As we looked for a steady hand to navigate this Jenga Tower of societal angst, we instead got a president who offered wayward pokes at the teetering structure.
And yet here you still are. I hope the memories of 2020 aren't all grim. I hope there were silver linings of slowing down, of pet projects, of more time spent with family, or just taking pride in how resilient you are, you adaptable SOB, you!
I hope you were kind to yourself and I hope you found comfort in your escapes (whenever you could find them). My daily escapes were books and music, so I thought I'd share the words and tunes that got me through 2020.
Top 10 Books I Read This Year
Stop Living on Autopilot - The Book You Can’t Read Yet
My good friend and colleague, Antonio Neves, has been hard at work for two years on his book Stop Living On Autopilot. I’ve been lucky to see this thing germinate and morph into what it is today (I got a galley copy). For anyone feeling like they have been a passenger in their own life for a while, this book is a Eureka Moment of steering wheels and stick shifts. It comes out on Jan 21, but you can get it now. Buckle up. Our dreams have an expiration date if we don’t act on them.
Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking Of America - The Book That Synthesizes “Now”
It’s like House of Cards meets history class. I’ve read a lot of books that talk about why politically things are the way they are in America, but no book nails the last 60 years quite like Evil Geniuses. If you want to know how the rich get richer you have to know how the rich got rich in the first place. Before the strings could be pulled they had to be laid, and before they could be laid they had to be sewn. Kurt Anderson introduces us to the tailors that have shaped the American political and financial systems to their advantage through a sleight of hand called “nostalgia.”
A Gentleman In Moscow - The Fiction Book
Some writers are so good you are left giggling and shaking your head by their ability to wrap parts of the human condition—so ordinary, so seemingly monochromatic—in a bouquet of light and color. Whether it’s a metaphor, an analogy, a feeling, or a description, Amor Towles’ mastery of each is on full display. This book (about a man on house arrest in one of the grandest hotels in Moscow in the early-to-mid 20th century) gave me all the feels about life, the things we hold dear, the impact we have on those we meet, and the power in everyday choices.
It’s the book that 2020 needs.
Think Like A Rocket Scientist - The “That’s What I’ve Been Saying!” Book
If Antonio’s book is the alarm clock, this is the daily planner. Ozan Varol is, in fact, an ex-rocket scientist. He brings forth nine strategies from the discipline to, as I like to say, control what you can control both at work and in life.
True stories, fun anecdotes, and sharp as a Ginsu, Varol enlightens us in how to break down the improbable into what’s merely possible.
It was on all the “Best Of” lists for 2020.
How To Hide An Empire: A History Of The Greater United States - The “History Is Fun!” Book
While Evil Geniuses looked at the past 60 years of American history, How To Hide An Empire looks at how America built its global brand through hidden imperialism (that is, amassing land without all the politics). It’s a chapter of American history—The United States outside The United States—that we aren’t ever really taught.
Crazy little tidbit: Before the Haber-Bosch process unlocked our ability to create nitrogen for fertilizer in the early 1900’s, bird poop was more valuable than gold. Without the guano, we literally couldn’t grow enough food to sustain our nation. So we commandeered 94 islands in the Pacific (to stockpile dung to “feed” our soil back home). There was even a "Guano Islands Act" passed by Congress in 1856.
It's a book chock-full of “Get out of here, I didn’t know that!” stuff.
Between The World And Me - The “You Just Have To Read This” Book
If you live in America, chances are you’ve at least heard about this book. If you haven’t read it, read it. “National Book of the Year”...“One of the most influential books of the last decade”… The accolades go on and on from every news outlet you’ve ever heard of.
The World In A Grain - The Best “A Topic You’ve Never Thought About” Book
Sand. What do you know about it? Probably not that much. Turns out, our modern world can’t exist without it. Glass is melted sand. The elastic in your underwear is made of silicone, which is derived from sand. Concrete is sand and gravel glued together with cement. But not just any sand. Can’t be desert sand, silly. It’s too rounded. No, you needed pointy sand so it adheres to the cement and gravel.
Read this book if you like facts like:
The construction industry consumes $130 billion of sand..per year
There is a sand mafia
Rome’s Pantheon was built 2,000 years ago and is still the largest concrete structure (w/o reinforcing steel) in the world.
Computer chips have to be 99.99999999999 percent pure silicon (which is derived painstakingly from silica/quartz sand)
Quartz sand is arguably the most abundant substance on the planet’s surface, and we are running out of it.
The Splendid & The Vile - The Historical Non-Fiction Book
Winston Churchill. The Blitz.
Historical fiction is Erik Larson’s thing. I’ve gobbled up his Devil In The White City and Dead Wake. The Splendid & The Vile is one of his best.
Giving color to heavily researched events, Larson puts us in London, not to mention in Churchill’s head, during the Blitz in WWII.
Churchill: “I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
This isn’t a story of soldiers and battle, but the people who made the decisions, and the everyday folks who suffered the nightly bombings by the Luftwaffe. One woman was quoted explaining the anxiety of the daily bombings:
My heart misses a beat whenever a car changes gear-up, or when someone runs, or walks very quickly, or suddenly stands still, or cocks their head on one side, or stares up at the sky, or says ‘Sshh!’ or whistles blow, or a door bangs in the wind or a mosquito buzzes in the room. So taken all round my heart seems to miss more beats than it ticks!!
A war with endless stories has one more on its shelf.
The Power Of Myth - The “I’m Late To The Party” Book
If you’re a storyteller of any ilk, someone has inevitably asked you, “Have you read Joseph Campbell’s The Power Of Myth?” If not, you’ve certainly heard terms like, “The Hero’s Journey.” Yeah, that’s Joseph Campbell.
One of my favorite lines from the book, "You’ve got to say yes to this miracle of life as it is, not on the condition that it follow your rules."
The Body: A Guide For Occupants - The “Any Bryson Book Would Make My Top 10 List” Book
People used to tell me that they have read books multiple times. I always thought that bizarre (and this coming from a guy who’s seen the movies Bad Boys, Major League and Christmas Vacation at least 50 times each). A book just feels so long and such a commitment that there could never be a book that I would want to read twice. That was until Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything. That’s the first book I’ve ever read twice.
Since then, I’ve read everything he’s written. He’s deep dive meets observational prowess, covered in comedic subtlety.
His latest book, The Body, did not disappoint. It’s a story about all the crazy nooks, crannies and happenings of our body, told in a way that makes you feel like you are experiencing yourself for the first time. It’s science class encapsulated in wonder.
Years ago, I scoured the internet for new music to create monthly lists for my friends. I’d title them something cheeky like, “May Day,” “June Swoon” and “Caesar Augustus.”
I don’t share monthly lists anymore, but this year, homebound and trying to drown out the sound of my wife on her Zoom calls, the music I turned to the most was house/trance/instrumental chill.
The hypnotic beats (and “mostly” lack of lyrics) are like audible Adderol for me.
But some of the heavier, “nn-ss” tracks, the ones you find in Ibiza, had a pleasant side effect: joy. They’d take me back to simpler times; the late nights with friends on crowded dance floors in whatever city, celebrating birthdays, weddings, reunions, foreign festivals, or simply...life.
I’d smile and I’d throw out some fist bumps at my desk, stuck in my apartment during a global pandemic.
So here's 55 songs to hopefully spark your own wild memories of good times and bad decisions. May 2021 bring back those opportunities to celebrate life and each other. Godspeed. Stay safe out there.
Sincerely, Your Music Maitre D’.