books

My books of 2020

Every year I like to look back over what I’ve read and make some recommendations. Here are five that stand out from 2020, and you’ll find them all in a list at Earthbound Books. (Here for US readers)

Affluence Without Abundance, James Suzman

An anthropological study of the the Ju/’hoansi people of Botswana, better known as the Bushmen. Until their way of life was destroyed by colonialism, war and prejudice, it carried on more or less unchanged in 150,000 years. “If the ultimate measure of sustainability is endurance over time,” Suzman argues, then this supposedly ‘primitive’ nomadic society is actually “the world’s most successful civilisation”. It’s a profound and sometimes tragic book, full of beautifully sketched characters and landscapes, and packed with insights into what it means to live well as a human being in the natural environment.

Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake

Some forms of life are so alien to our own that writers hit the edge of what the written language can achieve. Sheldrake’s Entangled Life falls into that territory, a vibrantly multi-sensory and immersive journey into the world of fungi – an area of nature that has had “a tiny fraction of the attention given to animals and plants.” Sheldrake explores the science, the various ways that fungi have been understood or misunderstood through history, and meets fungi enthusiasts of all kinds. This is one of those science books that opens your eyes to new worlds.

How to be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X Kendi

In researching my next book, which should be out in 2021, I’ve read a stack of material on race and racism, and this is the one that I find myself recommending. Kendi brings a fresh perspective to a topic that is so fraught with sensitivities, resetting understandings of racism and focusing in on power and policy rather than personal identity politics. There’s a humility to Kendi’s approach too, as his starting point is his own racist prejudices and how he became aware of them. How to be an Anti-Racist felt to me like the product of deep reflection and real intellectual courage.

All We Can Save, ed Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine Wilkinson

The two editors knew lots of women doing great climate work who were far too busy to write books about it, so they coaxed essays out of them instead and published them as a collection. There are journalists, politicians, farmers, activists, scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs and much more besides, pursuing a more compassionate, holistic and cooperative approach to climate change that is often missing from the movement. Interspersed with poetry and artwork in what is a rather handsome volume, the collection has taken me months to read it because it’s just too good to rush. Full review will follow in a couple of weeks. (It’s harder to find this one in the UK, but Amazon have it)

Less is More, by Jason Hickel

Hickel’s previous book was in my top five a couple of years ago (so was Wilkinson’s, above, as the lead writer of Drawdown), so this one had my name on it from the beginning and it didn’t disappoint. The book explores the deep roots of capitalism, and how its logic became “fundamentally unhinged from any conception of human need.” Instead, the book explores abundance and justice as antidotes to growth for its own sake, radically re-casting the idea of degrowth as a broad vision for 21st century progress. There are other books that attempt this kind of thing, but rarely with this kind of flair, intelligence and freedom from predictable ideological tropes.


Those are my five favourites out of the eighty-something books I’ve read this year. Honourable mentions go to The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus, and Diversifying Power by Jennie Stephens. On the biography front, I really enjoyed The Boy who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, which I read to my children. I also loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, part one of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, though I’m not sure how far into that seven volume collection I will get. Tara Westover’s Educated was also extraordinary.

My favourite novel this year was Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, a deeply human portrait of a changing city and what it means to those who call it home. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver would be a close second.

I have a friend who aims for a 50/50 gender split in his reading, and keeps a list. I haven’t set a target, but I can see the wisdom of being more deliberate about diversity and I’ve been keeping a record. This year I’ve read books from Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Lebanon, India, Malawi, France, Japan, Namibia, Botswana, Costa Rica, China, Sweden, the Netherlands, Somalia, Thailand, and of course Britain and America. 37% of what I’ve read is by women, 28% by writers of colour. I’ve been seeking out books from Africa this year, and next year I’d like to read more from South-East Asia.

If you’ve got any recommendations, please do mention them in the comments.

2 comments

  1. Suzman got a very good airing recently in Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, applied to how we approach work:
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000q8z9
    Seeing you mention his book is a good prompt to explore more…

    Given the progress now on your book, would there be any interest to explore feasibility of putting on a workshop or similar around this topic in Oxford, for later this year (once Covid issues have eased, hopefully)?

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