In part thanks to Covid-19 I read more this year than any other, over 300 books, nearly double my previous annual best. A third were fiction, a quarter history, and a fifth travel books. By genre but in no particular order here are the best books I read in 2020…
Full Tilt : From Dublin to Delhi With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy
An engrossing and almost unbelievable account of the 32 year old Murphy cycling solo in 1963 across Europe, through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, finishing in India. An absolute classic, this is essential reading for anyone interested in travel, and what is possible with determination and guts.
North Korea Journal by Michael Palin
A slim volume and easy journey by his standards, but well timed with the brief opening of North Korea in mid-2018 during negotiations with the US. This gave him an unusual level of access to this highly secretive country. It’s a beautifully crafted book, full of photos, and is a fitting epilogue to his likely retirement from travel writing.
Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Everything by Polish journalist and author Kapuscinski is worth reading, and Imperium is one of his best books. Published in 1993 it is an evocative travelogue in three parts around the furthest reaches of the Soviet Union, including Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, filled with observations and insights into a now lost world.
My Desert Kingdom by Jill Koolmees
The joint best book I’ve read on Saudi Arabia, alongside Dave Egger’s A Hologram for the King. There are many books covering the geopolitics of the country and region, but this gave an insightful view from first hand experience living in the country, particularly as a woman.
Darklands by Tony Wheeler
Founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler is quite a character, never short of an entertaining story or two. There are plenty of them during his travels to the less touristy parts of the world – Congo, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Israel / Palestine, Haiti, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea.
Three Tigers One Mountain by Michael Booth
Primarily a history book in the guise of a travel book, Booth covers Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan, and the complex relationships between them all. He provides welcome historical context, and fresh perspectives as someone relatively unfamiliar with the region. His previous book The Almost Nearly Perfect People : Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia made my best books of 2015 post.
History / Politics
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
The best of several books I’ve read on Chernobyl, the most comprehensive and well researched. It tells well the incredible story of the world’s worst nuclear accident, how it was inevitable, and could have easily been much worse. I read it after visiting Chernobyl itself, a sobering experience.
Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers by David Runciman
I’ve read a lot of books on politics, and this is one of the most insightful I’ve come across. In a series of short essays on recent US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Runciman nails what made them tick, and what led to their political downfall.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
An obvious choice, but it lives up to it’s reputation as an incredibly powerful and well written tale of young and complicated love.
Stoner by John Williams
A beautifully melancholic tale that didn’t make much impact when it was published in 1965, but it’s reputation has deservedly grown since to be regarded as a classic.
The Embassy of Cambodia and Grand Union : Stories by Zadie Smith
I’m not a huge fan of Zadie Smith’s novels, but she really excels at short stories and novellas, as these two demonstrate. It probably helped that I listened to both as audiobooks, rather than read them, with narration from Doc Brown and the author herself bringing the stories to life.
A Fabulous Creation: How LPs Saved Our lives by David Hepworth
Probably the most entertaining book I read (or listened to read by the author) this year, which helped hugely with the long drive moving from Auckland to Wellington. It tells the story of the long play album, with a particular focus on the golden age of the late 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who appreciates the music and history of the period will love this book.
I’m Not with the Band: A Writer’s Life Lost in Music by Sylvia Patterson
Part cathartic memoir of a tough personal life, part perceptive encounters with the biggest names in rock and pop over the past three decades, and always brilliantly written and engaging.
Miles Davis : The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr
Lives up it’s title as the definitive telling of the life a giant of 20th century music. It is equally strong on Miles Davis’ tumultuous personal life, and his constant pushing of the boundaries of jazz over a career stretching over five decades.
Blockbuster by Tom Shone
A very readable account of how the blockbuster has evolved over thirty years, since Jaws in 1975. Filled with anecdote and colour, it explains how the once magical has more frequently become banal and soulless.
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
A powerful and thought provoking exploration of what it means to be British for a second generation immigrant, particularly one whose mother was Ghanaian. Hirsch faced challenges whether in Wimbledon or West Africa, and talks about them compellingly, raising to the surface issues that many people in Britain would rather not talk about.
Humans : A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up by Tom Phillips
An entertaining and informative history of how much the human race can mess things up, whether intentionally or not. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years, only the consequences have become more severe as technology has developed, which is a scary thought.
Classic Krakauer : Essays on Wilderness and Risk by Jon Krakauer
One of the most perceptive writers about the outdoors, and the people who explore it. I’ve yet to read anything by Krakauer that isn’t first rate. The ten pieces in this collection are no exception, bringing together some of the best stories he wrote for The New Yorker, Outside, and Smithsonian magazines.
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland by A. Kendra Greene
An absolute gem, exploring in poetic language small museums in Iceland. It’s an unusual idea for a book, but one that works brilliantly, thanks to the quality of the writing, and the human stories behind the collections.