This year, I read 52 books or so, including 14 novels with the balance non-fiction. This metric has gotten more complicated to compute over the years — I have deliberately attempted to re-read some books and ditch others faster, so a true census is infeasible.
There were two recurring intellectual themes across my reading. The first was around climate change and natural disasters, which I was heavily reporting on at TechCrunch before decamping to Lux Capital. The second theme centered around the future of truth and reason (and by extension, democracy). The two actually have a lot of overlap, and it was enjoyable to juxtapose them together.
While I was fortunate to read many amazing books, there were also several that didn’t meet my admittedly high expectations for them. I don’t generally highlight things I don’t like (why bring attention to them in the first place), but they were sufficiently interesting to ponder on their flaws that I felt it right to include them at the end.
First Place: A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne
This was a surprisingly staggering work from the late 1970s on the history of the French-Algerian War. Over the past two years, I have been reading most of Albert Camus’ bibliography, and I wanted to get a broader understanding of the milieu in which he lived. This is one of the canonical books on the conflict in English, and so I purchased it without much expectation. What I got was a masterpiece of historical writing, and a paragon of what great narrative history can offer.
Horne has a critical advantage compared to most historians in covering a contemporary war: access to nearly every player on all sides of the conflict who are remarkably open about their motivations and actions during the
Every year for a while (last year’s edition is here), I have compiled a list of the “best articles” I read in that calendar year. Typically, I choose a top five, and then a long, long list of honorable mentions (last year’s list came out to 26 honorable mentions!)
This year, I read just as much if not more than usual. And yet, scanning through the hundreds of feature pieces and profiles I read this year, I can’t help but feel that the collective corpus of our cultural creative energies was wanting. So much of the in-depth coverage this year was directed to the major topics of the day: coronavirus, the summer of police brutality and civil rights protests, the 2020 presidential election, and more. History is happening in the moment, and journalists and essayists covered these events with alacrity and heart.
And yet. I read profiles from April that might as well not have been read in the first place. Coronavirus articles that were the best in their genre just a few months ago have all but expired. The incredible reporting from the frontlines of protests this summer feel like a distant memory. And the election analyses were mostly wrong before the election, and still feel completely wrong after it.
Part of my goal with these lists is to highlight pieces that have staying power, and if I am being honest, there just didn’t seem to be all too many pieces this year that fit that bill. So it’s a slimmer year, and let’s hope for a quieter 2021 where everyone can write pieces without the gush of deadline pressure.
This year, I read 42 books give or take, including 13 fiction novels and short story collections as well as 29 non-fiction books. I’m currently reading Albert Camus’ The Rebel, along with the original Korean edition of The Plotters (설계자들), whose English translation I put on my top three book list last year.
One pattern I noticed this year is that I did start and quit reading more books than I have in the past. Growth by Vaclav Smil, for instance, is extremely ambitious and elucidating, but my god, I don’t have the patience for that kind of turgid academic writing no matter how many accolades the book has garnered.
I also filtered much more aggressively this year than in the past — heading toward enduring classics and award winners, where I used to want to be more on the edge. Maybe given the sheer amount of news coverage I had to read for work — there was something enticing about having the ability to just return to works of trans-generational quality.
That makes choosing “ the best books of the year” a bit of an obnoxious exercise. At least twenty of the books I read this year were amazing and deserve all the accolades and status they have received. Others were fine, although by no means bad. I do believe in forcing choice and filtering though, so here are three ranked books plus honorable mentions on what I thought were the best from the bookshelf this year.
First Place: Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
This is undoubtedly a major classic of American history, a powerful narrative and synthesis to comprehend America’s peculiar intellectual politics. I expected it to be much more polemical, and was instead deeply enamored with the way that America’s particular development created the
Over 2020, I wrote 308 articles, including Equity podcast episodes. According to a quick command line check, I wrote about 250,000 words this year in published form across TechCrunch, my blog here, City Journal, and elsewhere, or about five business books in 12 months.
I don’t know how to process my work, since so much of it ended up being on autopilot this year. But here are a couple of stabs at picking out the gems from the rubble.
On the scoop side: Palantir’s IPO
In terms of just raw reporting power, my best story series of the year was a set of 12 articles covering Palantir’s IPO. First, I secured the company’s entire S-1 SEC filing before the company filed and made it public, garnering a nice series of mentions in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg.
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My analysis Zoom-ed in on the rise of Chinese innovation, and how American policymakers are increasingly using the toolbox used by Chinese officials to block market access. TikTok was forcibly sold with very little due process, over the implication that it might hold national security concerns. Those concerns have never been proven, but even if you give the government the benefit of the doubt, the ribald shutting down of a Chinese upstart against American incumbents like Facebook and Twitter shows just how far America has fallen from its ideals.
Clearly, the article hit a nerve. Seven figures of readers, hundreds of DMs, emails, and messages, and a good pile of vitriol to boot as well.
It’s not always easy for us to confront our own weaknesses and faults. Certainly, China has been brazen in using everything from industrial espionage to market barriers to shape its economy and grow against its global competitors. Yet,
The French Revolution is simultaneously one of the most defining moments of the modern era as well as one of the most elusive. Its architecture and patterns set the stage for much of modern politics and economics, from the very concepts of “left wing” and “right wing” to standard weights and measures to the foundations of human rights that are still at the heart of Western liberalism.
Yet, the French Revolution is … involved. Convoluted. Inchoate. It both shocked the monarchy and destroyed that vestige of the past, but led to a sequence of emperors and rulers and republics on and off that continues to this day. A singular event, but just one in what in retrospect was a rapid gush of history.
There’s been a lot of new historical work on the subject, so I was excited to read Jeremy D. Popkin’s A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution. French history is something that I have studied a bit for years, and the book has been billed as sort of a “most up-to-date” look at this pivotal event.
The book is adequate for its task. It covers the lead up and the context for the French economy and its foreign relations, walks through the major events, and heads to the other side. Of special note is the book’s deeper connections to the events in the French Caribbean colonies such as Saint-Domingue, where Toussaint Louverture led a slave revolt that eventually ousted the French and created the modern state of Haiti. Placing the Revolution in broader context makes for a more balanced story.
Yet, one can’t help but be overwhelmed in a book written like this at the sheer weight of the history that is going on here, or just how scrambled the politics
Wirecard and me: Dan McCrum on exposing a criminal enterprise (Financial Times) — This is going to be an amazing book whenever it gets written and released. How the Financial Times and McCrum outmaneuvered Wirecard, who was hell bent on doing whatever it took to protect their fraud scheme. If you are hiring a former head of Libya’s intelligence agency, you are probably not the good guys.
Back at Stanford, we had this split in the student body between “fuzzies” who studied the liberal arts, and the “techies” who studied, well, tech. Back when I attended a decade ago, there was a bit more balance between those two groups, although recent enrollment data shows that Stanford students are aggressively moving to the more technical disciplines (as an interesting aside, international relations has taken the biggest relative loss by far over recent years).
That tension between Stanford students is really a core fight in our modern, computational big data world. Humans and their societies are complex, diverse, particular, challenging, and dynamic. Approach that tapestry from a statistical lens though, and you reduce down all of those complications to a handful of comparable metrics. That’s the quandary explored in social science works like James Scott’s Seeing Like A State and Alain Desrosières’ The Politics of Large Numbers. Do you see humans? Or do you see numbers? How do we reconcile these two approaches with each other, particularly as the scale of our civilization continues to grow ever larger?
Christopher Beha, who is the editor of Harper’s Magazine, explores this conflict in a character-driven drama entitled The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. The title refers to a statistic developed by the sabermetrics founder Bill James (the academic theorist behind what became "moneyball"), which tries to encapsulate all the mistakes and idiocies a baseball player can make while playing. Beha asks a simple question: given all the data we have in the world and all the knowledge we have learned, why do humans keep making the same mistakes over and over again?
The key foil (and there are many foils in this novel) is between Frank Doyle, a former long-time baseball and politics newspaper columnist who was forcibly retired
Formerly, I was managing editor at TechCrunch and a venture capitalist at Charles River Ventures and General Catalyst. I'm a Harvard PhD dropout and a graduate of Stanford in Mathematical and Computational Sciences.
The things I think about every day:
The Rise of China
Data Sovereignty and the fracturing of the internet