This year will probably go down in history as the one we would all rather forget. Fortunately, there were many amazing books being published to take your mind off things for a moment. As I expected, this was a somewhat less productive year, where I read and reviewed 74 books.
For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking books I read during 2020.
“There is a vast, arterial power humming all around us, hiding in plain sight” (p. 320). With these words, geographer Laurence C. Smith concludes his engaging and impressive book on the environmental history of rivers. Touching on a multitude of topics, some of which I did not even know I cared about, I found my jaw dropping more than once.
Some encounters change the course of your life. For young American Peace Corps volunteer Jonathan C. Slaght, it was a chance sighting of a rare owl in the Russian Far East that turned him onto the path of wildlife conservation. Hidden behind the conservation plans and the data there are amazing personal stories that are not often told. Owls of the Eastern Ice is a spellbinding memoir of determination and obsession with safeguarding the future of this bird of prey that firmly hooked its talons in me and did not let go.
With that warning in mind, this book examines the question that has deprived philosophers of sleep since times immemorial: do we see the world as it truly is? Professor of Cognitive Sciences Donald D. Hoffman answers with a firm “no”. The resulting case against reality that he constructs is both speculative and thought-provoking, but I also found it a winding, confusing, and ultimately unconvincing read.
The subtitle of this book could also be reworded as a question. How, indeed, do nations cope with crises such as war? With Upheaval, geography professor Jared Diamond puts forward a rather unorthodox suggestion for answering this question. Psychologists and specifically crisis therapists have gained a lot of insight into how individuals deal with and overcome crises in their personal lives. Taking a list of twelve factors that influence this, Upheaval is both a thought experiment and a piece of comparative history that tries to apply this framework to six nations that went through a crisis.
Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of intelligence and social organisation? When a senior scientist such as Edward O. Wilson trains his mind on such a question, you hope to be in for a treat.
“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.
When I opened this book and read its sales pitch (I paraphrase: “What if I told you of a new fortune-telling device that can predict psychological traits – it’s called the DNA revolution!”) I raised my inquisitive but sceptical eyebrow somewhat. Did I just pick up another piece of pop-psychology pulp? Oh boy, was I wrong! Behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has written an incredibly interesting book with Blueprint, explaining how rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology are opening vast new vistas on the genetics underlying psychology. And is it ever so different, and more complex, than what hyped-up newspaper headlines have tried to sell us so far.
The Chernobyl disaster. The stranding of the Exxon Valdez. Car crashes. Suicide. Cancer. Heart attacks. Alzheimer’s disease. What does this list of calamities have in common?
Sleep, or rather a lack thereof, has either caused, or greatly increases the risk of this rather arbitrary and short list. Many more unpleasant things can be added to it. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker is a man on a mission: to impress upon you the importance of sufficient sleep. Why We Sleep is a book that is sure to make you lose some sleep, seeing that it is both fascinating and extremely well-written, but also deeply disturbing in showing the damage we inflict upon ourselves by cutting short our sleep. And, hopefully, it then proceeds to be a book that will make you get more sleep. This is the most important and influential book I have read this year.