My favourite reads of 2020

Seeing like a State

A book from the starter pack for every aspiring smart person of a particular stripe on Twitter… and it was actually really interesting. Two key arguments stuck with me: data isn’t everything, and people at the top don’t always know as much as those at the bottom. Mark Koyama highlights some problems with the book and its arguments here; a rich topic for further reading. 

Persecution and Toleration

The case for structural factors, rather than ideas, leading to change is a good one, and one I’d like to think about in other contexts. Great use of cliometrics to undergird their points. My first time reading and thinking about the political economy of pre- and early-modern Europe, which I would like to do more of.

High Output Management

I came away from the book thinking that managing the production of semiconductors (or anything, frankly) would be enjoyable and even cool – quite the achievement for a book. In some ways it dovetails well with Seeing like a State; objective measurement can go wrong without good oversight and critical thought. Byrne Hobart has written about big tech and how it seeks legibility.

China Airborne

Wish this kind of book existed for every industry in China (and the whole world)! Highly interesting for both the insight into the aviation industry and China’s modernisation, and good first-hand reporting. There is typical speculation at the end about whether China will democratise, which you can read anywhere (usually in pre-2017 articles) so the best stuff is actually in the first 200+ pages. Tyler Cowen says many books should be shorter, and this was closer to a good length. 

Cryptonomicon

It would be misleading to suggest that I understood every single part of this book, but it was a fun introduction to cryptography and cryptocurrency. Stephenson’s descriptions of the Pacific theatre in WWII and start-up culture were very memorable. I enjoy Stephenson’s info-dumps and wish more books did them. Dry topics or concepts can be made a lot more interesting if they’re part of the plot of a good fictional story.

The Decadent Society

A great synthesis of several different stagnation-related arguments (economical, political, cultural, demographic) into a fairly devastating critique of modern Western society. The real question for those who agree with Douthat is how to get ourselves out of this stupor, and the second half of the book provides a number of possible routes. Much more work is needed on this latter front, however.

Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest

It’s hard to say much about these books without giving away the plot, but they are entertaining despite the text being a bit clunky sometimes. I’m looking forward to reading the last in the trilogy in early 2021.

If you have thoughts on these books, or recommendations for 2021, please share them with me on Twitter!

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