Todd Grotenhuis

02 Jan 2021

2020: Nonfiction 📚 Review

To view other 2020 review posts (including fiction, feeds, newsletters, and magazines), visit the main post here.


I read 23 nonfiction books this year, down from 31 last year. I attribute this to a tough year, and also reading more fiction as well as reading more from other sources. I read more overall this year than last.

I prefer to read nonfiction in ebook format, so that I can create highlights and notes and have them automatically export to Readwise, where I keep all my reading notes for review. I read through the notes when finishing a book, so that I can capture what I learned in my own words (an important part of learning & synthesizing). I also have Readwise setup to surface 15 highlights from my reading every day (with a built-in “smart system” that follows my weighting choices based on source and recency of the work).

My first choice is to borrow the ebook from the local library, using Overdrive/Libby. Then I can read in the Kindle (or Kindle app). If not available there, I try to buy it as epub, and open it in iBooks. Both Kindle and iBooks are supported by Readwise.

When I read a paper book, I buy my own (usually from Bookshop.org these days, to support independent bookstores) and underline text and write in the margins. Then I also add those to Readwise using the Readwise app and follow the same process I listed above. It just takes more time, which is why I prefer ebooks.

If I’m not sure if a book is going to be relevant, high-quality, or have a lot of content that I want to highlight, I will listen to an audiobook, usually from Overdrive/Libby again (though we have an Audible subscription as backup).

I have collected my 2020 recommendations (both fiction and nonfiction) on a Bookshop list for easy perusal. That, and all of the individual book links, are affiliate links.

  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ How to Invent Everything by Ryan North - I can’t recommend this highly enough (micro review)
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Born a Crime by Trevor Noah - this had been on my list for a while, but I picked it up to read with a book club at work, after Noah came to our company all-hands meeting for a deep, insightful, and humorous interview with our company president.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I Am Not Your Enemy: Stories to Transform a Divided World by Michael T. McRay - Resilient Review
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Deep Work by Cal Newport - How do we get meaningful work done in a world of increasing fragmentation and distraction? Newport has some ideas. (f you like this, see my in-depth Digital Minimalism reference and review)
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Four Futures by Peter Frase - What are different directions our political economy might go, especially in light of increased automation and ecological crisis? These thought experiments will help you ponder not just the author’s four directions, but others, too.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis - Lewis brings his famous explanatory lens to high-frequency trading (micro review)
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ No Name in the Street by James Baldwin - insights from Baldwin’s life that we unfortunately still need to hear today
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What Is Reading For? by Robert Bringhurst - A thoughtful and beautiful talk-turned-book. I bought a second copy so that I could have one to mark up on one to keep clear.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Immunity to Change by Lisa Laskow Lahey & Robert Kegan - When actions & systems don’t change even after declaring our intent and good plans to do so, it’s usually because someone (including yourself) is invested in the way things are. Real change requires addressing that. (micro review)
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Remote by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson - As a remote-first company, the Basecamp & Hey founders share what they’ve learned. There’s a lot here that will be valuable even after more desk jockeys start returning to the office.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim - what Kim did for Ops & DevOps in the Phoenix project, he has continued for product development in this work
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan - in this work, Pollan shares the history of “nutritionism” and ways we can reverse the trends in “western diets” and proliferation of metabolic diseases
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez - Resilient Review
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek - micro review
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder - I thought this was going to simply about people who lived like nomads, but it’s a look at people living precariously and the industries and companies that are exploiting them
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes - like Pollan above, Taubes looks through the history of nutritionism, especially the problems with how we adopted a high-carb diet, and zeroes in on habit change to address the most dangerous parts
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kai Elmer Sotto, and Kevin Huynh - how to build and maintain community
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin - powerful essays that (as with No Name in the Street above) have far too much relevance still today

Other Books

Here are the other at-least-3-star books that I read in 2020. Books that are unfinished, I abandoned, or I only gave 2 stars are omitted.


What did you read this year? What do you recommend?