My Top 5 Reads of 2020
I’ve just finished my final book of 2020 and with the world winding down after a quiet festive season and without the raucous nights of entertaining, boozing and game-playing that normally follows, now seems like the perfect time to pause and reflect on my favourite reads from the past year.
This has been my most productive reading year to date. All-in-all I’ve polished off 23 books, just shy of 2 per month which by my standards is going some. The various lockdowns have awarded me the extra time, space and energy to immerse myself in reading which I’ve taken full advantage of. Rebel Book Club has kept my reading on track and provided the backbone of my reading list. Our monthly virtual meetups have motivated me to read quickly and efficiently — no one wants to turn up still flicking through the epilogue. I’ve read about such diverse topics as gender data bias to nuclear disaster to psychedelic drugs. Each has delighted and challenged me in equal measure. Never have I been so grateful for the escape from reality that reading offers and the Aha! moments that bring you crashing back down again.
I’d like to share some of my more positive literary insights we can all take forward for what will hopefully be a very different 2021. Here are my top 5 reads of 2020 and why I loved them so much…
5) In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Gabor Maté)
This book completely flipped my perception of drug addicts as criminal users to victims of trauma in dire need of love, care and rehabilitation rather than imprisonment. Maté argues that addiction stems from lack of healthy sense of self, poor self-regulation, lack of emotional differentiation and impaired impulse control and that these traits typically emerge from a traumatic childhood or prolonged negative life experience. At times, I had to stop and take a breather as the harrowing accounts of heroin and cocaine addicts from downtown Vancouver physically unsettled me. Scarily, I drew many comparisons to our consumerist, acquisition and image-mad culture which leaves many of us feeling empty and unfulfilled in similar ways. Maté also makes a strong case for the decriminalization of drugs through methods like controlled dispensation at safe injection sites which I now largely agree with. As our societies grapple with worsening opioid and meth epidemics, we would all benefit from understanding what happens with an addicted mind so we can collectively find better ways to help.
4) What a Flanker (James Haskell)
As a rugby fan and passionate England rugby supporter, I couldn’t wait to read James Haskell’s boisterous biography. He was capped 77 times by England and played at the top-level in France, New Zealand and Japan. Looking beyond his tales of colourful team socials, gruelling England training sessions, and confrontational run-ins with the media, Haskell is at times brutally honest about his own demons and the psychological hurdles he had to overcome as a professional player. He opens up about the huge pressure to perform, adapting to new coaching regimes and how despite coming across as an extroverted joker, he prefers a quiet coffee and a moan…or a “Sappucino” as he refers to it. I admired his confidence to throw himself head-first into playing overseas when many English players choose to stick with the relative safety of their domestic clubs. He had the foresight to squeeze the most out of what is a short and physically crippling professional rugby career. I also took heart in how Haskell has re-created himself time and time again by pursuing his various interests like DJ’ing, competing in MMA and hosting podcasts. It shows that it’s never too late to re-brand yourself and that success can take many different forms.
3) Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World (Christopher Wylie)
This whistleblowing tale paints a picture of political subterfuge and manipulation of OUR personal data that will leave you lost for words. Cambridge Analytica — the company behind the social media campaigns of the 2016 Trump election and Brexit — was able to target specific voters with highly-personalized content on social media platforms that enflamed prejudice and fear to achieve their client’s political goals. The Trump and Brexit leadership were fully complicit in deploying the tools that Cambridge Analytica was able to offer but got away with illegally influencing two of the most important votes in a generation. Social media companies are developing at such a staggering pace by harnessing the power of OUR data that the authorities are struggling to keep up and create the necessary legislative checks and balances. Wylie also throws into question the wider purpose of social media and how we have formed these “echo chambers” where we only see and read what we want to rather than what we should or need to. By the end, you’ll certainly be questioning whether you want to keep that Twitter handle going.
2) How to Change your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence (Michael Pollan)
I decided to read this book off the back of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts in a conscious effort to compare and contrast the reported highly positive effects of psychedelics with the highly damaging effects of other recreational drugs. Psychedelics form a category of their own as unlike other drugs, they aren’t addictive or toxic and can, when used in a safe and reflective environment, provide profound revelations. Pollan demonstrates this through personal experimentation with guided sessions of magic mushrooms (psilocybin), LSD, DMT and ayahuasca, which are vividly described and dissected for meaning afterwards. Each of Pollan’s trips brings a dissolution of the ego in some form and a unification with the universe or nature which render him feeling a deep sense of love and connection. These types of trips are known to rewire the brain and can be recreated in a medical setting to treat depression and alleviate damaging habits like smoking. It made me realise that what we perceive of the world is just one prism of a mind that is infinitely more complex than we currently understand. The door is only slightly ajar. What would happen if we open it all the way?
- Greenlights (Matthew McConaughey)
What a book to end the year on. You know you’re onto a goodun when you find yourself re-reading pages to percolate their meaning. Greenlights reads more like a poem at times; full of bumper stickers, muses from journals and snippets of wisdom which even a preacher would be proud of. McConaughey spins yarns from his blue-collar Texan upbringing, his walkabout journeys into the Amazon and Africa and his wild Hollywood misadventures but with humility and insight that left me stopping and staring at the ceiling over and over. Here’s a man who’s always known what he’s wanted from life. He looks forward to looking back. He calls for you to chase the “greenlights” which he describes as the decisions that set you up for success; the decisions that reward you further down the line; the decisions that you know are true to who you are and what you stand for. It will put a rocket up you in a really good way. And with a nod to 2020, he finishes with these words: “…if we work individually to make the justified changes for a more value-driven and righteous tomorrow, the red-light year that 2020 was will one day, in the rearview mirror of life, inevitably turn green, and perhaps be seen as one of our finest hours.”
Full reading list:
· How to be Right in a World Gone Wrong (James O’Brien)
· The Doorstep Mile (Alistair Humphreys)
· SAS Italian Job: The Secret Mission to Storm a Forbidden Nazi Fortress (Damien Lewis)
· Fasionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes (Dana Thomas)
· Newpower: Why Outsiders are Winning, Institutions are Failing, and how the Rest of us Can Keep up in the Age of Mass Participation (Henry Timms & Jeremy Heimans)
· Midnight in Chernobyl (Adam Higginbotham)
· The Awakened Ape (Jevan Predas)
· Religion for Atheists (Alain de Botton)
· Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge (Ranulph Fiennes)
· Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Caroline Criado Perez)
· The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Malcolm Gladwell)
· Rise Up: The Merky Story so Far (Jude Yawson)
· How Not to Be a Boy (Robert Webb)
· Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
· Stirred but Not Shaken: The Autobiography (Keith Floyd)
· In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Gabor Maté)
· Atomic Habits (James Clear)
· How to Change your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics (Michael Pollan)
· Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures (Merlin Sheldrake)
· What a Flanker (James Haskell)
· Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World (Christopher Wylie)
· The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck (Christian Buch)
· Greenlights (Matthew McConaughey)