20 Books Through 2020… Part One!

I am a notoriously slow reader. To make up for this tortoise-like pace, I have to read all the time, whenever I get a spare minute. When you think that, by hosting one of the country’s biggest book podcasts, I quite often have to dip into the work of my guests… that usually doesn’t leave much space for ‘leisure’ reading.

However, like Usain Bolt must’ve done way back when the Olympic Gold was just a hazy dream, last year I vowed to train and get better. So, I set myself the task of reading 20 books in 2020. Books of all genre. Some non-fiction, some fiction, some thriller, some history, and not too much PG Wodehouse… in fact, I only managed one.

Here’s how I got on.

1 – The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis – I’d never read any of Lewis’ work before but wanted to get into well-written journalistic non-fiction, and this was a brilliant gateway book. Fairly short, fantastically researched case-studies, and a damning statement on the small, unnoticed reasons why Trump’s Presidency was doomed to fail. PLUS, they say it’s nowhere near his best work… plenty to catch up on!

2 – Born to Run by Christopher McDougall – This is like the Bible/ Rosetta Stone for runners. McDougall endeavours to set up an ultra-marathon in scorching Mexican canyons with a group of the world’s very best runners, and a mystery group who are claimed to be able to beat anyone. It’s part fantastic story, part handbook on how to run.

3 – Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin – A well researched and interesting book on the life of football manager, which seems to be the career equivalent of living in the DMZ. Was fun at the start, but fairly repetitive and a tad long.

4 – Tell No One by Harlan Coben – I must’ve read this after watching another one of his Netflix shows. This was the first Coben I’ve read, and while when absorbed by it it’s all you really think about, as soon as you finish it… you kind of forget all about it. After the first 3 of the year were fairly thorough non-fiction, this was the book version of a holiday in Tenerife: lovely at the time, but hard to remember exactly what happened.

5 – Memoirs of a Fruitcake by Chris Evans – I love radio, and I love the way Chris Evans makes radio. Don’t judge me, but this is one of a very few number of books I’ve re-read, and I didn’t even mean to. I just started flicking through it, but Chris does write in a fantastically conversational way that it draws you in. Plus, this must’ve been at the start of lock-down, and the book is filled with many tales of Hollywood escapism that I guess I craved at the time.

6 – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Heard of it? After the light-ness of the last two books, I wanted something a bit heavier. This delivered. It took me a while to get into it – simply figuring out who is talking when, and what tense we’re in was a bit of a challenge at first. But, when that switch flicks in your brain and you can translate the lack of usual form and punctuation, it’s rip-roaring and completely engrossing. It’s a thick warming mead of a book, stunningly written. Expect big things.

7 – Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – You know the bit at the end of Fight Club when Tyler Durden realises what’s been happening the whole time? He wakes up to what everyone has seen all along and suddenly gets it* This was what reading Outliers was like for me. Like finally breaking into the sunshine outside Plato’s Cave. It is a fantastic book. Perfectly pitched, written and researched. It’s about how people actually are successful, and how most of the time it’s not through sheer hard-work, grit and ‘doing it on your own’, it’s through a combination of timing, geography and luck. This opened my eyes to what non-fiction writing can actually be. It’s been my favourite book of the year. *Obviously I can’t tell you what ‘it’ is… as that’s the first rule of Fight Club.

8 – A Short History of England by Simon JenkinsOutliers got me in a real non-fiction bent. Perhaps a combination of that, and the lingering atmosphere of Wolf Hall prodded me towards historical reading. I’ve been interested in the past of England for a while, and after trying to read David Starkey’s Crown and Country about 8 times and always giving up on page 200 of 192340, this one was recommended as an easier read. Does exactly what it says on the tin. Detailed, concise, with some fantastically told stories that weave life into the dates and facts. It’s a brilliant entry-level book for anyone slightly wary of historical non-fiction. Detailed enough to make you feel an expert, unpretentious enough that it’s not a chore.

For ages I found this type of book intimidating, and would spend weeks eyes-down, meticulously trying to remember every event and date I was reading. It was a moment of blissful awakening when I realised that I wouldn’t be writing an essay on it, no one would sit me down and ask the specific date Ethelwulf ascended to the throne of Wessex (839ad) and that reading history is more about the context and flow of the story, rather than crossing off events on a calendar.

9 – Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – I went into this book with a lot of oomph, fully expecting it to absorb and mesmerise me as much as Outliers. It wasn’t a disappointment at all; it’s clearly a fantastic, well-researched and beautifully-told book as Gladwell’s work often is. But… this didn’t grip me as much as I’d hoped. The revelation and message wasn’t as impactful as the previous one had been for me. It’s about why you make split decisions that are often more correct and truthful than choices you labour and dawdle over. I dawdled and laboured over this book a little bit, if truth be told.

Having said that, it’s still better than 95% of the non-fiction I’ve ever read, and having let it breathe a few months, it really has grown on me.

10 – The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger – This was a joyful surprise. I have no clue why I read it. I work in radio and make podcasts for embarrassingly little money, whereas this is the memoir/ business guide-book of the Chairman of Disney. This year has been about reading widely, and this was as far removed as anything I would normally touch. Iger writes fantastically. Taking you on the ride of climbing the Hollywood Hills as a creative exec, like a mate would drag you onto Space Mountain. It’s down to earth, chummy and incredibly insightful. I mean, I’m not really sure how I’ll ever put tips on firing A-List talent into action in my life, but it’s always nice to have these things in your locker.

That’s the first half of my 20 for 2020! Which, on reflection, is both inspiring and depressing. There are many different genres here, and I’ve learned so much that would never have crossed my path before. However, Conservative Party conferences of the 1800s were more diverse than this list. You could make a stereotypical genre excuse here, but it really isn’t on. Paying closer attention to the author of a book hadn’t really occurred to me… good writing is good writing regardless, right? Perhaps I need to consider that from a new angle and seek out good writing that I may be missing by sticking to, rather insipidly, what I know.

Next week, you can read reviews of the final 10, including a Christmas Classic (cos it was short) a tour of Gypsy Britain, and something that can make you live longer!

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