Five good books I read in 2020

Here are five books I read in 2020 that I would recommend. I read several fine books last year, so please check out my reading history if you are unsatisfied with this selection.

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. I love Patrick Leigh Fermor. Over the years, I read almost everything he wrote. He has been described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene,” and for a good reason. He bridges the genres of adventure story, travel writing, and memoir to reveal an ancient world living alongside the twentieth century. Here he carries the reader with him on his journeys among the Greeks of the mountains, exploring their history and time-honored lore. The Mani, at the tip of Greece’s-and Europe’s-southernmost peninsula, is one of the most isolated regions of the world. Cut off from the rest of the country by the high range of the Taygetus and hemmed in by the Aegean and Ionian seas, it is a land where the past is still very much a part of its people’s daily lives.

Bonus tip. The book that got me hooked with Patrick Leigh Fermor is A Time of Gifts, a memoir of the first part of his journey on foot across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 193334. A fascinating read.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust. This is the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, arguably the twentieth century’s finest novel. Indeed, while reading the first part, a boy’s impressions of his family and neighbors, all brought dazzling back to life years later by the taste of a madeleine, I could appreciate why Marcel Proust is considered the best writer of all time. The second part, the short novel Swann in Love, “an incomparable study of sexual jealousy,” which follows, is also excellent. I have to admit I kept postponing this book basically for all my life, as I was intimidated by its fame. I am glad I finally got to read it as a mature adult but make no mistake, this book is a must-read, in due time, for any avid reader.

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. An audacious revision of Faust and Pontius Pilate’s stories, The Master and Margarita is recognized as one of the essential classics of modern Russian literature. I was surprised by both the audacity and modernity of the story and Bulgakov’s own writing style. Of all the scenes, those that probably impressed me the most were Satan’s ball and Margarita’s flight. The Master and Margarita is a true masterpiece. With Swann’s Way, it sits right there at the top of my classics stack.

Helgoland, by Carlo Rovelli. Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist and writer. His work is mainly in quantum gravity, where he is among the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. In this book, Rovelli recounts the story of what has been acknowledged as the most radical scientific revolution of modern times: quantum physics. In June 1925, in Helgoland, a bare and windswept isle in the North Sea, a 23 years old Werner Heisenberg started it all. Since then, in almost one century, quantum physics revealed many controversial if not disturbing new ideas, most of them confirmed over time, leading to all kinds of technological innovations. I don’t think this book has been translated to languages other than Italian as of yet. By googling a little bit around, I found English translations announced by Penguin and other editors.

De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), by Seneca. I am impressed by this short book. I expected it to be a challenging, hard descent into the ancient philosopher’s mind. It was a joyful read instead. Even today, Seneca’s writings offer potent insights into the art of living, the importance of reason and morality and continue to provide profound guidance to many through their eloquence, lucidity, and timeless wisdom.

On a more personal note

I strive to read good books. Of course, defining what makes a good book is is very subjective. In my case, good books challenge my understanding of the world in which I live. That might sound too broad (and ambitious) of a goal, and probably it is. I tend to read all kinds of different books: novels, essays, classics, with non-fiction gravitating towards topics such as history, science, and, only more recently, economy and finance. As you might have guessed from the list above, lately, I have been reading classics a lot. I don’t read too many programming or computer science books. Not these days anyway. As I get older, I prefer to distance myself from the topics I focus on at work all day long.

Reading is my zen mode. I do other activities that achieve similar results, such as walking, hiking, motorcycling and working out, but reading, I come to recognize, reigns supreme. It’s been with me since I was a kid and, also, compared to the other activities, it is very affordable in terms of time and effort.

I read 28 books in 2020. It appears I have performed slightly below my recent average. I once commented on Twitter that “the number of books per year” does not make for a useful metric. At the very least, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Take 2018 and 2019. In 2018 I read 30 books; in 2019 I only read 25. It sounds like a steep decline until we look at the “pages read per year” metric. As it turns out, I actually read more in 2019 than in 2018 (8394 vs. 8322. Ok, it’s more of a tie.)

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