The Best Books I Read In 2020

Amid all the upheaval of 2020, at least I found time to read amazing books. Some were heavy, while others transported me to other worlds. (Like I did sitting in the van with the view above, immersed in the world of Dune.)

Turning off the news and disappearing into a book served as an important reset for me. I suppose it always does…

Before we get to the books, a request of all you erudite Traipsing readers: please send me your book recommendations! I’m constantly impressed by the quality ideas you send my way, so keep them coming.

Quick Note On My Reading Process

I borrow most books digitally from the library using the Libby app. I mostly read on a Kindle, which allows easy highlighting of favorite passages and is great for travel.

Then I export those highlights to Readwise so I can revisit them frequently. It’s majorly upped my retention and I love it! (If you feel guilty for not buying the books, did you know libraries a) pay more for their copies and b) also buy new digital copies after ~30 rentals?)

Enough chit chat – let’s do this. Here are my favorite books from 2020! (For those of you who prefer hard copy books, all links below point to, which supports local bookstores.)


Everything She Touched by Marilyn Chase: A look into the world of Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American woman pursuing art against so many odds. Rising above racism and internment during WWII, she created marvelous sculptures while raising six kids AND diving into civic engagement in San Francisco.

I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson: The autobiography of the famous Black baseball player, the first allowed to play in the major leagues. Like all my favorite biographies, this goes beyond what the person DID and looks deeper and wider. Performing at the level he did while under enormous pressure astonishes me.

Ansel Adams by Ansel Adams: Everyone knows his name and iconic Yosemite black and white photos, but did you know Ansel Adams was also a classically trained pianist? Or that photography wasn’t even considered art when he started making photos of Yosemite in the 1920s!? A story of his life, but also a history of early 20th-century photography since he was so intertwined in it.

The World’s Fastest Man by Michael Kranish: This biography opened the door to a world I’d never heard of: bike racing in the 1880s! It chronicles the life of Major Taylor, a Black racer who wowed crowds of thousands all over the world, all wrapped into the astonishing rise (and fall) of bicycles in the United States.

Today We Die a Little! by Richard Askwith: Emil Zatopek was a Czech runner probably most famous for winning gold medals in the 5k, 10k and marathon in the 1952 Olympics. (What?!) Beyond that is an unswervingly friendly man who bridged the East/West divide to race (and win) all over the world during the Cold War.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin: One of those series where life felt a bit empty after I finished it! Any fantasy reader will love this absorbing narrative wrapped around fabulous world-building. Each of the books won a Hugo for Best Novel (2016-2018), making N.K. Jemisin the first Black woman (or man, for that matter) to win the award.

Dune by Frank Herbert: The metric by which so much science fiction is measured, Lord of the Rings for scifi… so many accolades. Rereading this was an absolute pleasure and I’m excited to continue on in the series.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein: More 1960s scifi! Revolution on the moon aided by an AI computer named Mike. I don’t always enjoy older scifi, but this captivated me.


The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: A glass hotel in the wilderness, a Wall Street investor with a secret, and a swirl of artists with intersecting lives. GO!

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg: Set in Hollywood, every sentence in this book feels handcrafted, fine-tuned, and/or witty. The theme of striving too hard and the costs of that intensity brought me back to my single-minded focus on money and business in my 20s. (Ack.)

The Overstory by Richard Powers: A Pulitzer winner as complicated and layered as the arching canopy of the trees the author venerates and celebrates. A call to action, a novel, and a love story about the forest wrapped into one book.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: An intriguing format for a “novel”: a story of two people meeting and living out their lives…but with occasional insightful commentary from the philosopher author. SO good.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: This Pulitzer winner made me laugh out loud while crying at the same time. Warning: it starts slowly (Chelsea and I abandoned the audiobook), but I’m glad I picked up the book again later. Witty, entertaining, touching, hilarious… Stick with it!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: The story of an abandoned girl growing up in the marshes of North Carolina. 

Natural World

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben: I dove into the natural world this year via our garden project, but also via the Seek app (thanks Alastair) and books. The complexity and adaptability of trees opened my eyes and deepened my appreciation for them, whether I’m deep in a forest or sitting in my backyard. This book is fun and approachable, not some dry science tome.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: A lyrical, crafted gem of a book about the author’s interactions with nature. From wandering the Oregon coast in a rainstorm to rescuing salamanders on New York highways at night to the ebb and flow of living on a farm, I loved all of it. And I say this as someone who does not read books like this very often!


The Woman’s Hour by Elaine F. Weiss: The incredible story of the fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S.. As other countries finally realized the error of their ways in the early 1800s, the battle raged on for 100 years (!) in the U.S. What astonished me was the staunch anti-vote stance of so many women who trotted out B.S. like “politics will overwhelm the fragile constitution of women” and “dissolution of the family will occur.” (COUGH patriarchy much?)

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: The story of the great migration of Black southerners to the north and west in the 1900s. For 50+ years, over 6 million people upended their lives in search of a better life and drastically changed the face of northern cities as well as the places they left behind. Written as a narrative of various people who undertook the journey, this book is brilliant.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: I read this prior to the pandemic, but it’s even more compelling in the face of COVID-19. How do we thrive during the final years of our lives? A powerful takeaway for me was that the things we want for aging parents (safety and loss of autonomy) are often things we would never wish on ourselves.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: This book upended so much of my progressive, back-patting misconceptions about what it means to be a true ally and anti-racist. Kendi does this in a vulnerable, non-judgmental way by sharing his path and personal racist beliefs as a Black man in America.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne: Holy crap the Comanches were badasses! An intense, fascinating book about the rulers of the plains who held off the encroaching settlers and U.S. soldiers into the 1870s.

Figuring by Maria Popova: Written by the brilliant author of, this book links together pioneering women (many of them queer) from the 1800s into the 1900s. From poets to astronomers to authors to sculptors, the depth of power and conviction of the women illuminated in this book blew me away.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin: My biggest takeaway: they all surrounded themselves with people who questioned their viewpoints. More importantly, they listened to those people!“I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” 

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle: What do brilliant performers have in common? From tennis to chess to music, there’s a common code in place. (Deliberate practice, a catalyst, and mentorship.) An engaging, useful book that helped me tailor how I practice piano and approach any learning project.

That’s it for this round! Please send me your recommendations and why you dug them, I’m all ears.

Recommended Reads, Summer 2015

Slovenian valley

I’m in a foreign land physically, but still love transporting my mind to a world constructed by a brilliant writer. As we rode along today in Slovenia, my book took me to Florida during the Cold War. In the last month, I’ve also been to Mars as we spun through Belgium and Pakistan as I pedaled through Croatia.

Diving into the past of a country via a book always deepens my appreciation for a place. Hosts and people we meet build an education, but books I read frequently lay the foundation beforehand or while we’re there.  A true story of two Hungarian families from the 1930’s showed me Hungary through the eyes of people who lived through chaos. With few people alive from that era (practically none of them speaking English), it is more difficult to gain that kind of perspective through a conversation.

Enjoying a lunch break and some reading by a canal in France.

Enjoying a lunch break and some reading by a canal in France.

I’m always searching for additions to my “books to read” Evernote file. Thanks to recommendations from friends and bloggers I follow, I’ve enjoyed some marvelous books this year. Perhaps because we are approaching the end of summer (what?!), a few friends recently asked for recommendations. To share my favorites, I figured I’d assemble a list from the last few months. If you are looking for more, check out my Goodreads profile, which compiles the books I’ve read.

Considering speed reading? Maybe it doesn’t even help, according to this study. I read fairly quickly, but mostly just commit quite a few hours to this rewarding activity.

Below are books that, for various reasons, I highly recommend. No specific genre – you’ll find fiction, nonfiction, self-improvement, biography, sci-fi and more. Here’s to a few more days in the sun by the pool or a lake flipping through a book (or borrowing it digitally) before glorious fall and crackling-cold mornings are upon us.

  1. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. This book is written entirely in 2nd person (e.g. “you wake up in a dark room”) and contains zero names. I found that mechanism, not to mention the story, very thought provoking. He captures a world I knew nothing about (Pakistan) with language and imagery that shimmered. I read two more of his books (Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist) right after this one. All three endings will leave you wondering.
  2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Ugh, another piece of historical fiction about WWII? And this one with a blind French girl and a young German soldier as the main characters? Just. Read. It. There’s a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. The author has an exceptional gift for bringing detail to life.
  3. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I devoured this book, a true story about a Seattle rowing team. It follows their quest to win gold in the 1936 Berlin games as Hitler was about to launch another world. An absolutely engrossing book.

    Audiobooks make 14% grade inclines like this one in Slovenia just a touch more doable.

    Audiobooks make 14% grade inclines like this one in Slovenia just a touch more doable.

  4. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. I read this depiction of Utah’s red rock region while road tripping through those spires in April. It’s a travel tale, but more so an ode to solitude, adventure for the hell of it, and the power of exploring. With the wilderness constantly under attack, I think Abbey’s genius is even more timely these days.
  5. We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider. The honesty and wit in this book made me nod in agreement at one sentence, crack up at the next, and tear up by the end of the paragraph. I’m very glad Tim Ferriss unearthed this fantastic piece of work for his book club. Don’t worry what it’s about – just read it.
  6. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. One of my favorite deep-thinking bloggers, Maria Popova of, recommended this book. It totally surprised me. Amanda, a master crowdfunding musician who is married to the writer Niel Gaiman, lays out vulnerable, brilliant insight on what it takes to ask others for help as a way to grow and create great art. As she writes, “Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with—rather than in competition with—the world.”

    Hanging in a courtyard in Croatia with Jen and Dave.

    Hanging in a Soviet-era courtyard in Croatia with Jen and Dave.

  7. Open by Andre Agassi. I love biographies, and this is one of my recent favorites. The real story behind the bad-boy tennis player. Honest, painful, and inspiring.
  8. Singularity Series by William Hertling. AI (artificial intelligence) both titillates and scares me, and I’ve dug deep into it recently with nonfiction as well as through this great sci-fi series recommended by Brad Feld. I become a nonexistent husband whenever I picked one of these up and disappeared into the story.
  9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. No AI in that one, just a world-enveloping virus that changes the face of the planet. The way the author jumps around in time frames was well-executed. Another (slightly terrifying) sci-fi book that won the Arthur C. Clarke award.
  10. How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson. This book was so thought provoking. If you like science, or just enjoy understanding the mechanics of the world, you’ll dig Johnson’s “long-zoom” insights. He investigates and connects basic items we take for granted – chapters are titled clean, time, light, glass, cold, sound – in a compelling way.
  11. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. Two great books that have helped me recognize – and modify – the destructive actions that undermine forming positive habits. (If only it were easier to eliminate the bad habits.) Great studies and approachable writing made these two solid reads.
  12. The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer. This short treatise on the power of introspection and stillness is a great read. One quote that spoke to me – both as a traveler and as someone who could benefit from more reflection time – was, “Going nowhere isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
  13. The Martian by Andy Weir was a page-turner of a survival story set on Mars. Plus, the author self-published and it grew to grass-roots success before blowing up. Now Ridley Scott is making a movie of it.
  14. Racing the Rain by John L. Parker, Jr. is the newly released prequel to the cult classic Once a Runner (another inspiring book I gobbled up a few years ago). I finished the audiobook version of Racing earlier today and loved this mix of athletic story and historical fiction from a 1950’s and 60’s Florida. I’m no competitive runner, but the challenge and focus of Quenton, the main character, made me nostalgic for those youthful days when anything felt possible.

That should be enough to load your Kindle or top out your holds at the library. Got any books that blew your mind or lit up your soul? Feel free to share below or send me an email. I’m always on the lookout.

Happy reading!

Audiobooks are great for rainy days. Here's Chelsea and our buddies from Long Haul Trekkers in a valley in Slovenia.

Audiobooks are great for rainy days. Here’s Chelsea and our buddies from Long Haul Trekkers in a valley in Slovenia.