Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

The Books I Read in 2020

Having fun/isn’t hard/when you’ve got/a library card

As I move away from the academic space, I am working to rediscover reading for pleasure. I enjoyed reading from a young age – my mother likes to tell me the story of when I stole her copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and hid it under my bed after she told me I was too young to read it on my own – but fell out of love with books during college. A combination of believing I had a million better things to do with my time, hating the ancient canon the Spanish Department used to teach its students, and being subconsciously aware that reading for pleasure in college can come off as pretentious (at best), I could probably count the number of books I finished outside of a class requirement during college on one hand.

But after I was given a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas in 2018, I told myself I had no more excuses for not reading independently. In the two years since, my time spent reading has ebbed and flowed, but it has certainly improved overall. As 2020 came to a close, I reflected on the books I finished in the past year and realized I could not remember all of them in any detail. While this may come across as a condemnation of the tomes themselves as forgettable, that was largely not the case. If I found myself hating a book I was reading of my own volition, I simply returned it to the library or deleted it from my Kindle. 

No, the problem is my own scattered mindedness. 

So as part of my 2021 resolutions, I am going to start writing little reflections for myself after I finish a new book. I could think of no better way to get a head start on this goal than to look back on some of the books I finished in 2020 for this blog. This exercise comes with the added bonuses of trying to convince someone else to read what I enjoyed and allowing me to solicit recommendations for 2021 in the comment section.

The Book List

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

This is the most gripping work of nonfiction I can remember reading. Covering the entire history of Scientology, from L. Ron Hubbard’s early life to the cult’s war with the Internal Revenue Service to the modern day antics of Tom Cruise, I was flipping through pages with the excitement and anticipation normally reserved for a dramatic novel. And Going Clear makes it obvious that the term cult is well-deserved when describing Scientology. Prior to reading Wright’s work, the majority of my knowledge of Scientology came from hokey jokes about Cruise in cartoons and that weird Michael plot line in Grand Theft Auto V. Backed by pages and pages of sources, Wright left me with no doubt – Scientology is another example of a powerful few exploiting desperate masses for personal gain.

How to Hide an Empire by David Immerwahr

I have always had an inordinate fascination with unique geopolitical bodies, from Western Sahara to Micronesia. But I constantly humble myself with how little I know about the five unique geopolitical bodies home to residents of the United States. Other than maybe Puerto Rico, the five US territories exist hardly ever in the minds of the average American, myself included. Immerwahr traces the history of American imperialism on the high seas, from the guano islands seized for their valuable bird poop to the rarely mentioned toll World War Two took on the former American territory of the Philippines. As debate picks up again around statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, I cannot recommend How to Hide an Empire enough.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Some time ago, likely when I was trying to look busy at an internship, I read Graeber’s 2013 essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. As I approached the start date of my first Real Job, I kept thinking back to what I learned in this essay. I decided to read the expanded version that Graeber turned into a complete book. This book changed the way I think about my career goals. The author categorizes bullshit jobs into five different classes of meaninglessness. Deftly straddling the line between condescension and overtly academic language, this book makes a compelling case for ending the 40 hour work week and freeing people to seek jobs they truly value. I recommend Bullshit Jobs to anyone, but I especially recommend it to fellow 20-somethings feeling anxious about how little they enjoy their first job.

Lost Paradise by Kathy Marks

Keeping with my theme of geopolitical oddities, I stumbled upon this book about the British Overseas Territory, Pitcairn Island. By most measures, Pitcairn has the smallest permanent population of any inhabited territory in the world. Many of the few dozen locals who call the island home can trace their lineage back to the mutineers who made off with the British ship the HMS Bounty and stowed away on the island in 1790. In 1999, the sole police officer stationed on the island by the United Kingdom fielded allegations of sexual abuse directed toward the young girls on the island that dated back decades. The ensuing investigation and trial stretched the logistical capabilities of the Crown, as well as the very framework of the island, nearly to the breaking point. Marks, then covering the trial for Vanity Fair, was one of the few outsiders given permission to reside on Pitcairn for the duration of the trial. Her account is harrowing and made me wonder about where absolute limits of the Western justice system lie.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

A bonafide classic, this is by far the most recognizable book in this post. Despite its enduring popularity and the big-budget success of Amazon’s television adaptation, I had somehow avoided The Man in the High Castle until recently. Detailing a dystopian United States in which the Allies lost World War Two and the Nazis and Imperial Japanese divided the nation in two, the world building in this book is superb. The story also manages to alternate between disparate viewpoints without losing or confounding the reader, no small feat over approximately 250 pages. I am also glad I found this book simply because it was a fun read. Too often, even among people who learned to read for fun again after finishing school, there is a pressure to read only nonfiction that will purportedly make you smarter. Fiction is reading too, and it is valuable in its own way. 

A few other books I read in 2020 that I recommend and would be happy to discuss with anyone interested: The Outlaw Sea, The Outlaw Ocean (a spiritual successor), Superfans, Helter Skelter, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, The Manchurian Candidate, Devolution,and first two-thirds of the Thrawn Trilogy

Unless you want to be bored to sleep, I do not recommend A History of the United States in Five Crashes. Buffet, Making of an American Capitalist was about 100 pages too long. Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s autobiography, was downright bad. And while I didn’t discover them in 2020, Open by Andre Agassi and World War Z by Max Brooks (it has nothing in common with the movie) are two of my favorite books of all time.

If you decide to read any of the books I wrote up, or have a suggestion you think I would enjoy, please do not hesitate to leave a comment and let me know. 

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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