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60 books I read in 2020 & My Top 7 Recommendations

So here’s my summary of 60 books that I read in 2020 broken down into categories along with notes, comments and my top 7 recommendations.

Reading a lot: not a superpower but socially acceptable form of procrastination

Lockdown seemed like a perfect time for every bookworm on this planet although it probably hasn’t brought that much of a difference in my life as a large portion of my last year’s booklist was absorbed on my way to work (yes, public transport) so I’ve just exchanged the tram for a cosy couch at home.

Nevertheless, you might start thinking: “Wow, 60 books is more than one book per week, how did you do that?”.

Trust me, this is not a superpower, nor an achievement: with an average 200 pages/book and speed of reading at 250 words/minute, it requires around 45 minutes a day spent on reading to get to 60 books a year. Some of them are longer (400 pages), some are shorter (120 pages), some are easier to read

Just by increasing your speed of reading to 300 words per minute, 30 min a day should be enough to gobble up 1 book a week.

My last year resolution was to strike the balance between content consumption and output — there was less time for travelling, socialising so indeed I tried my best to write more:

  • 350 pages of my daily „morning pages” (inspired by Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way)
  • Almost 50 pages of notes through CliftonStrengths sessions with Monika Starzyk (these sessions were one of my best investments so far so I strongly recommend reaching out to Monika!)
  • Regular Facebook, LinkedIn spamming with articles and book reviews, not sure if Instagram counts but that’s some sort of expression as well… and it was funny

Nevertheless, I still uphold the belief that “reading is one of the socially justified forms of procrastination”. At 45 minutes a day spent on reading, it takes 273 hours a year that could be allocated on something else: writing, community work, sports, building a business. Yet “52 books a year” is more clickable than spending 273 hours with your kids or partner.

We also tend to praise the number of books read, while ignoring how many articles one read on the Internet, watched valuable content on YouTube or Netflix, HBO, Masterclass. So let’s give ourselves more empathy and suppress for a while the-inner-yelling-father screaming “Do something useful, get back to studying, read a book!” and acknowledge once again that books are not the only source of knowledge.

My Top 7 Recommendations (in no particular order and sorry, half of them are Polish and not business-related)

  1. Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking
  2. Adam Leszczyński, No dno po prostu jest Polska. Dlaczego Polacy tak bardzo nie lubią swojego kraju i innych Polaków (Poland sucks. Why Poles don’t like their own country and other Poles so much)
  3. James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
  4. Elfriede Jelienek, Women as Lovers
  5. Agata Sikora, Wolność. Równość. Przemoc. Czego nie chcemy sobie powiedzieć (Freedom. Equality. Violance. What we don’t want to say to ourselves)
  6. Maggy Nelson, Argonauts
  7. Przemsław Sadurski, Polityczny cynizm Polaków. Raport z badań socjologicznych (Political cynicism of Poles. Sociological study)
  1. Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking
  • The main concept of Syed’s book is the importance of cognitive diversity not as a liberal imperative of political correctness but an indispensable element of business strategy and innovation. The biggest threat is collective blindness — “birds of a feather flock together”, we tend to hire people who look and think like ourselves and such homogeneity leads to reinforcing blind spots in our thinking including errors like in an “echo chamber”. Pretty up to date if we remind ourselves of Netflix Social Dilemma with the prevailing role of algorithms pushing us into “echo chambers”.
  • My notes available here: 3 Short Notes on IT, Diversity, Women in Tech and Collective Blindness

2. Adam Leszczyński, No dno po prostu jest Polska. Dlaczego Polacy tak bardzo nie lubią swojego kraju i innych Polaków (Poland sucks. Why Poles don’t like their own country and other Poles so much)

  • A brilliant book that might be a key to understanding our national spirit full of auto-stereotypes (“drunkard, thief, loafer, dodger”), resentments, the way we perceive each other and what’s the origin of this self-hatred pessimism in (gentry, peasants, time after partitions in XVIII century, communist-era after the II World War). Full of facts and analysis that give a deeper understanding of who we are (as Poles) and maybe how to be less harsh for ourselves, as we are not that bad.

3. James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

  • Start with identity (“I don’t smoke because I’m a healthy person” instead of “No, I’m trying to give up smoking” — through your acts and outcomes you will prove it to yourself)
  • Cue (“notification”)-> Craving (“Who is it? I’m curious”)-> Response (“Checking my phone) ->Reward (“Aww, I’m recognised with a like under my pic”): to get rid of a bad habit, make the cue invisible, craving unattractive, response difficult, reward unsatisfying.
  • Learning a new habit: make it easy (“just one pushup a day”), habit stacking (insert pushups between boiling water and washing teets), combine unpleasant habit with something pleasant (e.g. cycling with watching Netflix)

4. Elfriede Jelienek, Women as Lovers (Die Liebhaberinnen)

  • I’m just simply ashamed that I haven’t read this book earlier. She wrote this book in 1975 at the age of 29 so nobody should have been surprised that one day she will get a Nobel prize. Two main characters: brigitte and paula (the novel is written in a semi stream of consciousness manner, no capitalisation including proper nouns), a small traditional village in Austria, both looking for love, for better economical status through marriage in the aura of oppression, violence and indifference. The boredom and hopelessness of this life are evocated through the language and narrative of the novel: repetitive, chaotic, full of almost childish expressions and pleonasms. The White Ribbon by Haneke (who directed The Pianist) seems like a fairy tale in comparison to Women as Lovers.

5. Agata Sikora, Wolność. Równość. Przemoc. Czego nie chcemy sobie powiedzieć (Freedom. Equality. Violance. What we don’t want to say to ourselves)

  • I really admired that the author tries to build understanding, show how the liberal-left sensitivity was born and evolved from the Enlightenment, through the French Revolution, the 1960s ending at #metoo movement — and what makes her sometimes not agree with all statements. It’s rather a dense essay without aspirations to be scientific (although the erudition and academic provenance of Sikora are visible) or fully unbiased — quite opposite, she intentionally presents her perspective and individual experience as a woman, mother, immigrant living in London or tries to visualise high-level concepts through popular culture artefacts varying from Hair through Black Mirror episodes (subtly and without extreme žižkology 🙂).

6. Maggy Nelson, Argonauts

  • I do not recommend Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, because it sets the bar so high that any subsequent books or essays will leave you unsatisfied.
    The main concept that binds this beautiful essay is the reference to Roland Barthes’ interpretation of the Argo myth: the subject uttering the words “I love you” is like “the Argonauts renewing their ship on their journey without needing to rename it”. Just as the parts of the Argo are replaced over time, although the boat is still named the same, so whenever a lover says “I love you”, its meaning is renewed with each use, as “the work of love and speech is to give the same more and more accents to words, thanks to which an extraordinary language is formed“.
  • But the Argo and the Argonauts are also a figure of constant change, transition and fluidity: a partner undergoing change but remaining itself, motherhood in its bodily dimension as “a physical experience that literally changed the organ system and stretched body parts”. Written in the spirit of such intellectual such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes and definitely deserving to be placed among them.

7. Przemsław Sadurski, Sławomir Sierakowski, Polityczny cynizm Polaków. Raport z badań socjologicznych (Political cynicism of Poles. Sociological study)

  • Even though as a country we are politically divided there’s a lot we as a society in Poland have in common. Based on quantitative research (n= 800 + 400) and qualitative (9 FGI) a pretty interesting picture of society emerges with few observations: the ruling party’s partnership with Church is rather a burden, among every fraction of voters economic liberalism stands no chance with the welfare state, 70% of liberal voters are against “+500 Family programme” monthly benefit scheme but 40% agree that it should be carried on. A powerful, raw and free of flashy political statements report on Polish society.

My 2020 books by 5 categories

The history behind BlackStone by its founder Stephen Schwartzman (the largest investment business in the world), Alibaba (the largest China e-commerce) and Netflix (the largest streaming platform) are always worth reading — especially Duncan Clark’s take on Jack Ma history which might be quite relevant on the back of recent push from the Chinese government to scale his empire back. But if you have time for one book I guess Crucial Conversations will never disappoint you — an actionable framework on how to handle tough conversations, conflict and avoid violent communication.

1) Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking
2) Tom Rath, Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow
3) James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
4) Eric Schmidt, Trillion Dollar Coach (my notes available here)
5) Stephen A. Schwartzman, What it takes. Lessons in the pursuit of excellence
6) Cal Newport, Deep Work (Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World)
7) Kerry Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations. Tools for talking when stakes are high
8) Marc Randolph, That will never work. The Birth of Netflix by the first CEO and co-founder Marc Randolph
9) Michał Szafrański, Zaufanie czyli waluta przyszłości. Moja droga od zera do 7 milionów z bloga
10 )Duncan Clark, Alibaba. The house Jack Ma built

History was one of my least favourite subjects in school, probably because it lacked facts and simple “how can I make use of it?”. That changed probably thanks to Robert Greene who showed that history is a great teacher, source of useful tactics and lessons learned. Both books about Leonardo da Vinci and Nicollo Machiavelli debunk the myths: da Vinci was not a mystical genius, Machiavelli wasn't a monster (rather a good-guy, a little bit clumsy and far from Machiavellian spirit).

Apart from the aforementioned book on Polish auto-stereotypes, many of my 2020 books revolve around Polish history: Oni (Them. Stalin’s Polish Puppets) by Teresa Torańska — who’s a little bit like Polish Oriana Falacci, tough, adamant — is a series of interviews with old five formerly prominent Polish Communists who had leading roles in the Stalinist system in Poland: their statements reveal not only their political vision but unobvious at that time dilemmas, struggles and interesting facts of the highest historical value (e.g. dinner at Stalin’s house where Berman was forced to slow dance with Molotov while Stalin manned the gramophone) or Foucault w Warszawie and Homobiografie about LGBT people in Poland in XX century.

11) Teresa Torańska, Oni (ENG)
12) Mike Lankford, Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of The Life of Leonardo da Vinci
13) Maurizio Viroli, Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli
14) Anna Mateja, Poznawanie kępińskiego. Biografia psychiatry
15) Tomasz Leszkowicz, Oblicza propagandy PRL
16) Sebastian Adamkiewicz, Zrozumieć Polskę Szlachecką
17) Marcin Salanski, Wyprawy krzyżowe. Zderzenie dwóch światów
18) Paweł Rzewuski, Wielcy zapomniani dwudziestolecia (cz.3)
19) Mateusz Kuryła, Powaby totalitaryzmu. Zarys historii intelektualnej komunizmumi faszyzmu (my notes available here)
20) Adam Leszczyński, No dno po prostu jest Polska. Dlaczego Polacy tak bardzo nie lubią swojego kraju i innych Polaków
21) Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age
22) Remigiusz Ryzinski, Foucault w Warszawie
23) Krzysztof Tomasik, Homobiografie: pisarki i pisarze polscy XIX i XX wieku
24) Piotr Maciążek, Stawka większą niż gaz. Ukryta wojna o niepodległość Polski

Given my degree in literature, the number of prose, poetry and fiction on my list is disappointing. Earlier mentioned Jelinek was followed by Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night (not far from emotional drain caused by Jelinek) and balanced with Nabokov’s Mary (his first novel). But my a little bit more personal encounter was my grandfather’s Sceny z życia mężczyzn w wieku średnim (Middle-aged men life scenes), collection of 11 stories from the ’70s and ’80s, seemingly minor and common matters set in the narratives of a rather typical everyman but with echoes of his own experiences: Nazi occupation and the ethical dilemmas around choice and responsibility, childhood in Nowy Sącz, building first socialist city Nowa Huta after the war and Gogol-like characters set in the absurd realities of socialism.

25) Vladimir Nabokov, Mary (Mashenka)
26) Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (Kongres Futurologiczny)
27) Maciej Sienczyk, Wśród przyjaciół
28) Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
29) Robert Walser, The Tanners
30) Stanisław Stanuch, Sceny z życia mężczyzn w wieku średnim
31) Elfriede Jelienek, Women as Lovers (Die Liebhaberinnen)
32) Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The Time: Night (Wriemia noch)

The list is a mix of giants like Barthes, Benjamin or Kępiński (our Polish Patch Adams and an influential Polish psychiatrist) and more approachable yet fascinating books on minimalism, Ikigai (a wonderful Japanese recipe for meaningful life on the crossroads of “what you are good at”, “what you love”, “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid for”). Plus: two books on psychological experiments including a very detailed description of Milgram experiment and replication in Poland 50 years after (did you know there was actually 20 variants of the experiment with different variables?) which opens our eyes on the importance of methodology and influence of even small variables on the outcome of research in psychology.

33) Alain de Botton, How to Think More About Sex
34) Shunmayo Masuno, The Art of Simple Living: 100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy
35) Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
36) Jay Francine, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life
37) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
38) Maggy Nelson, Argonauts
39) Hans Mayer, Walter Benjamin. Świadek epoki (Der Zeitgenosse Walter Benjamin)
40) Antoni Kępiński, Rytm życia
41) Bogdan Wojciszke, Marcin Rotkiewicz, Homo nie całkiem sapiens
42) Dariusz Doliński, Tomasz Grzyb, Posłuszni do bólu. O uległości wobec autorytetu w 50 lat po eksperymencie Milgrama
43) Miłosz Brzeziński , Życiologia, czyli o mądrym zarządzaniu czasem
44) Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way The Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Pandemic sharpened my sensitivity towards those excluded and less fortunate so my reading list in the area of sociology and economy turned left this year. The 2020 events in Poland concerning LGBT and Women rights propelled further discussion on equality, minorities, exclusion but also our condition as a Polish society after 1989 in areas stretching from classes, work conditions, environment, urbanity (Miasto na plus. Eseje o polskich przestrzeniach miejskich), housing (Poza własnością. W stronę udanej polityki mieszkaniowej) and our political leaning (Wyjście awaryjne. O zmianie wyobraźni politycznej).

45) Marek Szymaniak, Urobieni. Reportaże o pracy
46) Joanna Erbel, Poza własnością. W stronę udanej polityki mieszkaniowej
47) Join publication, Miasto na plus. Eseje o polskich przestrzeniach miejskich
48) Przemsław Sadurski, Sławomir Sierakowski, Polityczny cynizm Polaków. Raport z badań socjologicznych
49) Rydahl Malene, Happy as a Dane: 10 Secrets of the Happiest People in the World
50) Łukasz Drozda, Dwa tysiące. Instrukcja obsługi Polskiej urbanizacji w XXI wieku
51) Patrick Artus, Marie-Paul Virard, Wielki kryzys globalizacji
52) Damien Millet, Eric Toussaint, Kryzys zadłużenia i jak z niego wyjść
53) James Dawson, This Book is Gay
54) Tomasz Besta et al., Walcz, protestuj zmieniaj świat
55) Rafał Matyja, Wyjście awaryjne. O zmianie wyobraźni politycznej
56) Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World
57) Agata Sikora, Wolność. Równość. Przemoc. Czego nie chcemy sobie powiedzieć
58) Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims
59) Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
60) Iwan Krastew, Nadeszło jutro. Jak pandemia zmienia Europę

Around 88% of those above are worthwhile reading in my opinion — maybe you will find some of them interesting as well and inspiring. Even though 2020 was tough for many of us, it wasn’t that bad for me — I’m grateful for staying healthy, keeping my job, a pretty privileged position which allowed me to work at home safely and having some more time for reading.

Just like last year: Happy 2021 and enjoy it no matter if you are about to read 1 or 100 books ;-)

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Kamil Stanuch

Site Director at Grand Parade Poland (part of William Hill). Previously CEO/Co-founder of Sigmapoint and KoalaMetrics.