2020 will go down in history as the year that changed everything. Here are ten of the books that shaped my year.
2020 has, on the whole, been a pretty awful year. But if one good thing has come out of this year, it has been rediscovering my love for reading. As a child, every second that could be spared would be spent with a book in my hand. But as life got busier and more complicated, this particular hobby had fallen by the wayside. But this year, reading and the escapism that it brings has proven a vital coping mechanism for dealing with the disruption of the pandemic.
But it has also been incredibly impactful. As I describe in my recent post about the best non-fiction books I’ve read in 2020, this year has been a chance to focus on expanding my horizons and broadening the range of authors and topics I read. And this has taught me a lot about the world around me.
So here are the eight books that have made the greatest impact on my year, and also a couple that, have made me realise, although it may not always feel like it, just how much the world has changed for the better.
Rediscovering my love of reading
It seems silly to start with a fiction book given some of the amazing non-fiction books I’ve read this year, but without a doubt the book that had the biggest impact on my year was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013). I completed devoured this book and it reintroduced me to the joy of reading. As well as letting me discover the genius that is Donna Tartt, which lead to me reading one of my other favourite books of all time, The Secret History, I’ve learned that I love reading long, slow books, really delving deep into the psyche of a character. If it wasn’t for this book, I almost certainly wouldn’t have read many others on this list, and for that reason it played a crucial part in my year.
Appreciating our healthcare professionals
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown all of us the vital work the NHS and medical professionals do. As I write, hospitals are struggling to cope with the huge surge in cases in the UK, and yet everyday doctors and nurses work on the front line to look after whoever comes through the door. A book that epitomises this is This is going to hurt by Adam Kay (2017).
Despite learning alongside medical students for many years, and hearing from friends about the horrors of being a junior doctor, until reading This is going to hurt I’d never really appreciated the sacrifices doctors make to simply go to work, let alone advance their career. Kay hilariously describes many of his escapades as a junior doctor specialising in Obs & Gynae, as well as some heartbreaking tales of when it goes wrong. This book is really worth a read for anyone considering a medical career, or just wanted to gain insight into the fantastic work of NHS doctors in the UK, particularly at a time when we all need to show our appreciation to all healthcare professionals.
Counteracting fake news
At times this year, it felt like the world was falling apart. When lies and fake news are undermining science and truth in the world, reading Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball (2017) was both validating and gave me some good techniques to help tackle the spread of misinformation. Splitting its focus between the EU referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, Post-Truth studies what happened in the media in 2016 to let these world events happen. It was so interesting to read about “filter bubbles” and how even established news sources profit for “fake news”, but also how difficult it is to overcome. This book reinvigorated my desire to be a science communicator to help dispel rumours and lies commonly spread on the internet. I’d really recommend this to everyone — it’s relevant for those writing about science and politics, but also for consumers to reflect on their own, limited perspective of the world and how this could be biased.
One of the greatest lessons I learned this year was just how little I knew about the lives of others outside of my immediate circle of friends and family. Hence, this year I’ve tried to read more a more diverse range of authors and gain a greater perspective on the world around me by listening to other voices.
The first book I want to highlight is Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala (2017). Part autobiography and part political history, Natives is the story of UK hip-hop artist Akala, detailing his life growing up as a person of colour in London against the background of decades of racism and discrimination. The increase in visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement this year made me realise just how white my reading list was and lead me to seek out a broader range of voices from which to learn. This book opened my eyes to the challenges of violence, race and class and exemplified how much further our society still needs to go to tackle racial discrimination.
And I’ve also learned it doesn’t have to be non-fiction books and autobiographies that help you learn about other people’s perspectives. Two amazing fiction books I read this year were Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019) and The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (2019). Set across a hundred years, Girl, Woman, Other follows 12 women of colour living in Britain, detailing their trials and tribulations of navigating their rapidly changing worlds. On the other hand, The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells the story of a couple escaping Syria after the destruction of their city and the death of the son, switching between their harrowing journey to the UK and their fight for asylum. Both tell stories of people, particularly women, facing personal difficulties, discrimination and hardship and how they navigate their difficult lives. Although fictional, I found both stories incredibly touching and thought-provoking and was hugely inspired by the bravery the characters showed.
You can read more about these and other fiction books I loved this year in my recent blog post.
Improving my science
The next book is certainly niche and a bit nerdy, but one of the most useful books I read this year was Writing and Presenting Scientific Papers by Birgitta Malmfors, Phil Garnsworthy and Michael Grossman (2003). This short book contained so many useful tips and tricks for improving the style and quality of my scientific writing, from advice on how to write more concisely to making captivating presentations. Although in some regards the book was pretty outdated — one particularly funny tip was to consider using a computer to make posters and presentations! — a lot of its guidance was still relevant today. I’d recommend this to anyone trying to improve their scientific writing, as it had a huge impact on mine this year.
Another hugely influential book that I read this year was Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini. I learned so much from this book, and it’s really made me question some of the scientific research I have read that uses racial groupings to draw conclusions. Now when I see papers looking for differences between ethnic groups, I think more deeply about the underlying cause of this variation — in all likelihood socioeconomic differences can explain apparent racial differences. This was a particularly useful insight to have during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK regarding the higher death rates from the virus in people of colour. This was also a great example of clear, concise and enthralling science communication, and if I can learn to write half as well as Saini I’ll be very happy!
I’ve written more about Superior and Natives in my list of the best non-fiction books I read this year, which you can read more about here.
And some problematic books that made me realise just how much the world has changed…
These books may seem silly to include on this list as on their own had little impact on me. However, when combined and compared to some of the incredible fiction and non-fiction books I read this year, it made it clear how much attitudes have changed in recent years.
The first of these books is Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter (1975). Having lived in Oxford for the last five years, it felt ridiculous that I’d not read an Inspector Morse book! The first in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock takes place in a village in North Oxford, where Inspector Morse and his side-kick Lewis have to solve the murder of a local young woman. While it was a good story and very easy to read, there were some incredibly problematic comments and characters. From questioning the reality of rape to frequent drink driving, this book has not aged well and was quite clearly written in the 1970s.
The other was a book by the author of the infamous Adrian Mole books, a series I really enjoyed when I was younger. Number 10 by Sue Townsend is a satirical look at early 2000s politics in the UK, with thinly-veiled disguises of popular politicians of the time. Although I can see it could have been impactful and insightful when it was first written, its narrative relied heavily on jokes about a man wearing a dress, and derogatory attitudes towards minority ethnic and working-class people. I think the same issues could have been raised about out-of-touch politicians without resorting to offensive stereotypes. It also included a terrible portrayal of mental health, which as a neuroscientist I found particularly egregious. Overall, the book felt incredibly dated and would certainly not be published today.
This year has truly been a great year for reading, and I can’t wait to keep this momentum going in 2021 — I’m very excited to see what books the new year will bring!