2020 Reading List
Every year I track the books I read and analyze what I’m reading from a macro perspective—are the authors all women, men, white, BIPOC? Whose voices am I listening to? I also write short summaries of the books. Here’s this year’s list.
Read more books than any year before (53 books in 2017, 54 books in 2018, 43 books in 2019).
Read at least two challenging, hard books—books that might take months to finish. (Aka, don’t inflate the number of books above by picking only short books!)
Read at least 25%+ by Black people, Indigenous people, and People of color.
Read at least 50%+ by women, womxn or non-binary folks.
Updated through December 2020.
Total number of books: 53
Total number of authors: 55
Women authors: 40 (72%)
POC authors: 17 (31%)
The Book List: All the books I read in 2020
Currently updated through December 2020.
Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot. Billed as “an Indigenous woman’s chaotic coming-of-age” by NPR and reviewed glowingly in the New York Times, I picked up the book, intrigued. The author starts a memoir while in a mental institution, and pens a series of essays about what it’s like to be invisible and live in a white world focused on men. I wish talking about race and mental illness weren’t so radical and disruptive, but here we are. Wonderful book—please read.
Disrupt-Her, by Miki Agrawal. Some things I can say about Miki include: she is prolific, and she is unapologetic. From starting Thinx to Hello Tushy to so many more, she fiercely advocates for women to “radically question the status quo.” Enjoyed the book. My main critiques are that she leans too heavily on interviews from other people, and finding the story that matches the message is really hard to do (I struggle with it)—some stories could be tighter. Still, worth a read.
Do Cool Sh*t, by Miki Agrawal. It can be fun to peer inside the life and mind of people who build things in the world, and seeing the stories of her adventures creating WILD, a farm-to-table pizzeria as well as the adventures and missteps of a serial entrepreneur is eye-opening.
You Can Thank Me Later (Audible Single), by Kelly Harms. Picked this up as a recommendation from Audible, and it was delightful. A short story about families and Thanksgiving and all the complex things that happen when we’re together with people we don’t always agree with. Enjoyable.
The Power of Moments, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Audiobook). As an online community builder and gatherer of people, I’m fascinated by how well they work—or don’t. This book is an incredible read, and really important for anyone that creates events, gatherings, or communities—even workplaces. We don’t remember events as they are structured, but rather, as a series of moments highly dependent on how memorable they are. A great opening, a significant emotional experience, and a heart-warming ending can do more for your organization than any policy, book, or idea. Everyone should read this book.
The Middle Finger Project, by Ash Ambirge. I have been a long-time fan of this ferocious, savvy, and eloquent writer and internet friend, and have always admired her brazen ability to write things that are simultaneously funny, heart-warming, and raw. She gives a punch to her writing and is a fearless storyteller. She writes like she doesn’t have much to lose, and if you read her story, you’ll understand why.
Rocket Fuel, by Gino Wickman and Mark C Winters. The essence of this book is that every CEO needs a COO. That is, you need a visionary and an integrator (the terms they use in the book). That’s it, in a nutshell. If you understand that, you probably don’t need to buy this book, or read the twelve hundred references to white male power couples. (Note to authors: there are other people who are CEOs, of awesome and great companies, and your references could stand an update.) That said, I’ve always felt a bit hesitant to hire a COO because I’ve failed to honor my ability to see the path forward, and this book helped me rethink my role in shaping the future of my company.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. A novel about Cora, a young slave who attempts to escape a cotton plantation in Georgia. In the book, the “underground railroad” is a reality; it’s an underground network of trains and tracks and tunnels that connect states, with secret stops and alleys and stairs along the way. She travels through the states, and Whitehead “brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era.”
Untamed, by Glennon Doyle. I loved LOVED this book, and I think it was, in part, because it landed right in the messy middle of the beginning of lockdown and shelter-in-place during the pandemic. The chapters are short nuggets, bite-sized, yet moving. The stories are alluring and easy. The message, so useful: untame yourself. Be wild. Let go of your constraints and tap into your own Inner Knowing. My only critique is that I wish the book itself weren’t so tidy. In a way, a book is a neat package that doesn’t quite suit the delivery of a message so raw and wild. I almost wish Glennon could go full Lemonade with something like this, and drop-ship an unexpected surprise that makes us all step back and say, well, hello—who is this?
Why We Can’t Sleep, by Ada Calhoun. This book was fascinating and not at all what I expected. For some reason, I was expected a book on sleep and how we do it; I failed to read the subtitle, ” Women’s New Midlife Crisis.” This book is about the midlife crises most Gen X women are facing and why life hasn’t worked out anything like what their parents generation promised them (or teaches them). Mid-forties, childless (or child-free), not in relationships, in debt, and with dismal job prospects, many women are exhausted, anxious, and can’t sleep, because life looks quite precarious. Recommend.
Caffeine, by Michael Pollan. I’m about two coffees deep on any given day right now, so the thought of giving up coffee seems laughable (and I’m not giving up my nightly chocolate ice cream anytime soon, either). That said, I really appreciated the depth and candor of his research and his personal experimentation in breaking a coffee addiction. Maybe in the future, but not during a pandemic. That said, I do try to stop drinking caffeine by 10:30am in the morning, and only drink it at noon if I know it’s going to be a really long day ahead.
How To Get Run Over By A Truck, by Katie McKenna. This book was self-published. It’s quite a story, but as a narrative arc, the story doesn’t turn a corner and I wish it did. Sometimes people need to write it all down and share their story with you, and this achieves that objective. I want the next move, and the move after, but the author hasn’t lived into it yet.
Dear Girls, by Ali Wong. It’s hard for me to say this, because I adore Ali Wong, but I have to say her stand-up comedy and the movie Always Be My Maybe are some of my most favorite things ever, so this book was great—but not as good as her stand up and her movie. Important work, delightful read. I recommend.
The End Of October, by Lawrence Wright. This book, written in 2017, is an eerie prescription for a global coronavirus pandemic. It reads like someone jumped a few years ahead and understood what we’d be going through (except without the ineptitude of the current administration). It’s both oddly calming to read, like you can see the ending and get a sense for what this will be like—yet it’s also maddening. If we knew enough about SARS and MERS to know that this was coming, why on earth were we not better prepared?
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, by Samantha Irby. I have such a penchant for honest first-person stories (I believe they are called memoirs, ha). Samantha writes about sweating it as an adult, the disastrous road trips to weddings, awkward sexual encounters, and the emotional wreckage of childhood. I ate it up.
Profit First, by Mike Michalowicz. One of the things I appreciate about Michalowicz is how prolific he is. From Clock Work to Fix This Next to The Pumpkin Plan, this guy can whip out a book. Each one has a simple premise and this one delivers: you have to plan for your profit or your business will eat them all up as expenses.
So You Want To Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. Brilliant book to introduce you to theories and ideas about talking about race, racism, and anti-racism work. If you’re trying to figure out how to speak up, how to start talking about race, and what white privilege is, here’s a place to start.
More Myself, by Alicia Keys. Loved this book completely. What surprised me was how talented and hardworking Alicia began in her young life, and how much success she had early on—from a storytelling perspective, I thought, “what is this story really about, and where can it go from here?” But midway through, I realized how lovely it was to read about aspirational success and hard work, rather than the grit and grift it takes to overcome supreme obstacles. The herculean effort stories are often glamorized; sometimes it’s good to read about great things happening to great people, and the ascension to becoming more of who you are, year by year. Also, if you have the chance to listen to a book read by a musician, do so. She sings throughout the book.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown. Flew through this book. Stories and examples and points made lucidly, poignantly. Everyone should read it, and then another dozen books by Black authors, and then more. Please challenge yourself to do a year’s worth of reading simply of books by Black women and women of color, and see what happens. I dare you.
feminism is for everybody, by bell hooks. I could listen to this audiobook a dozen times and learn more each iteration. It’s a radio show, a manifesto, a dictum, a reminder that feminism is anti-sexism and involves—and benefits—everyone. Feminism is not for white women, and it’s not for the privileged, and it’s not just for women. It can and must be for everyone.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder, by Valerie Rein, PhD. The title is provocative; the first seventy pages, a bit repetitive. Stick with it and it gets really good. I found myself knowing how true this is, in my gut, but longed for more research to back it up. My main critique is that the stories are too quickly tied neatly with a bow; “and then she lived happily evermore” feels like the moral of each story. I wanted more careful detail about the how—the unpacking of trauma, the iterative work to release it, the full experience of physical body work and how it can, subtly and consistently, transform your experience and your world, if you truly do it.
The Witches Are Coming, by Lindy West. Boy did I laugh out loud a dozen times when listening to this book. Lindy is fierce, sharp, and unapologetic and it’s this kind of candor that reminds me how I want to show up in the world.
White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. Every time I think I know quite a lot about American history or the racism in our history, I pick up another book and get educated anew. This book speaks directly to white people about how we enable racist structures and institutions to persist by our very inability (or refusal) to talk about it, and the coded ways racism morphs and changes in language, patterns, beliefs, and behaviors. Every white person should read this book.
Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez. This book is one of the best books I’ve read of all time, and critical reading for every human being today: our policies, medical practices, technology, and design standards are completely missing data about women, and killing or harming them as a result. None of our tools and data sets are “gender neutral,” they are gender blind, or gender ignorant. As a result, women are left in poverty, to die of heart attacks, misbelieved at the doctor’s office, and killed more frequently across almost all areas because we routinely use a default male as a stand-in for all human bodies. A few examples: automobile voice recognition software has a harder time understanding women’s voices. Algorithms are now being used to review CVs for jobs and have demonstrably discriminated against women in the hiring process. Tax codes penalize women through higher tax rates, leaving them in poverty in higher rates. Even the layout of cities and our transportation infrastructure is designed for male movement, not female patterns and the more complex logistics of caretaking movements. You must read or listen to this book.
Forget Having It All, by Amy Westervelt. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the complicated and hypocritical cultural tropes about motherhood for ages—that you must fulfill becoming a mother as your highest aim in society, but also, that women with children are a drain on society and shouldn’t “work,” that being a stay-at-home-mom is a thing everyone should do, yet 70% of women are working and 40% of them are breadwinners. The narratives around motherhood, work, marriage, and children are bizarre at best. Westervelt takes us through a thorough history of motherhood and the ways our cultural norms have changed each decade in America—and also how motherhood norms are often strikingly different for white America than Hispanic and Black America.
Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, by Aminatou Sou and Ann Friedman. Why don’t we have better vocabulary, ceremony, and rites of passage for some of the most important relationships we’ll have in our lives? We celebrate marriage with key events, but friendships are under appreciated. The co-hosts of the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend take us inside the decade-long friendship they’ve created, as well as the critical milestones and breaking points they navigated amidst it all. Big Friendships matter, and it’s up to us to invest in them for the long term.
All The Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister. One of the groundbreaking changes to happen to society is the rise of the number of unmarried women. In 2009, the percentage of married women in America dipped below 50 percent, making single, unmarried women a dominant force in society, culture, and politics. Combined with a later age of first marriage (age 27), women are not only staying independent ans single longer, but more women are not marrying at all. The implications for contemporary American life are only just beginning. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
All Joy and No Fun, by Jennifer Senior. In a world obsessed with optimizing parenting—that is, criticizing parents for how they are raising children, and exhaustively examining how parents affect their children’s futures—this book takes a different approach. What is the effect of having children on the parents? How do people change, grow, develop, enjoy, or struggle with becoming parents? This beautifully researched book brought me to tears on several occasions, and it wasn’t because of sleep deprivation. She puts words to the beauty and impossibility of parenting, to the wreckage that comes of releasing teenagers into the world, and to the challenge of parenting in a future that doesn’t have a simple answer (and without a clear picture of the future, parenting can become a neverending anxiety spiral as we try to optimize our children for, well, everything). I’ve highlighted so much of this book and had a good cry because of it.
Be About Something, by Maggie Frank-Hsu. In her first book, Frank-Hsu addresses anyone that wants to stand for something and start writing. If you want to write, to create, to share—Maggie tells you to write about it, and to keep writing about it. Short and lucid, this book can help you get started writing about your big idea and put it to the page.
Hybrida, by Tina Chang. A collection—a hybrid—of poems and short stories. She writes of motherhood, of race, of learning, of growth. I interviewed her for the podcast, too. Deeply appreciated this poetry collection.
Momentum, by Shama Hyder.
Self Care: A Novel, by Leigh Stein. A funny, twisted, yet too-real account of what living in a life of manufactured self-care, posturing, and posing really looks like. You can convince yourself of doing good in many different ways, but are you truly helping people, or exploiting them? This novel cuts right to the nose on this one, while a page-turning easy, soapy read.
The Four Hour Body, by Timothy Ferriss. I’ve read about halfway through this, and want to try this at some point post-pandemic. The book reminds me a lot of Whole 30, which I’ve done before. This appeals to me, and I’d like to put these concepts into action during a non-emergency global-pandemic time!
Accounting Made Simple, by Mike Piper. This year, because time is so strangled by the pandemic, and most of my work lies after hour number five, I decided to do something that may seem counter-intuitive. I decided to enroll in an MBA program. The first lessons were on accounting, and I really struggled to learn the fundamentals of accounting (who knew debits and credits could be so hard?). I bought this book and it helped tremendously.
Raising Them, by Kyl Myers. Why do we apply gender to everything in sight, from tables to desks to computers and more? We hyper-gender things in the world to create order and understanding, but this binary identification can be strangling, especially for humans. This book is about the freedom that can come from gender-creative parenting, and one family’s journey to not gender their child at birth, but use the they/them/theirs pronouns. I loved this book, thoroughly, and stumbled into major insights that I didn’t know I needed. Kyl writes easily and directly. Because, after all, why is it important to shout from the rooftops that my child has a penis or a vagina when they’re just trying to play with playdough? Maybe we just need to call them kids, and let them be kids—and themselves.
Motherhood So White, by Nefertiti Austin. The books told about motherhood are almost always about white people, by white people, from white publishers. When Austin went looking for books about her life—a Black, single woman looking to adopt a baby—she found next to nothing. Austin, a published author of romance novels, decided to write a book about her experience. What I love about this memoir is how detailed and specific she gets about her journey to motherhood through fostering and adoption. It takes guts to share the real truth, and this feels like she really took us inside her journey.
Fair Play, by Eve Rodsky. Required reading for all people in two-parent households navigating the division of labor. This book was an exceptional read, and far better than I expected (I swim in parenting books, so expected this to be familiar.) It was well written and reasoned, with poignant examples and clear ways to start conversations amidst couples navigating the heterosexual nuclear family landscape. My take? I think the nuclear family is broken, and I’d like to see more writing (or policy, or urban design) that speaks to integrating multiple family units to provide economies of scale, but that’s not what this book was about. This book was about how to stop fighting with your spouse about who does more, and—most importantly—a way to help women who are drowning in housework who aren’t seen or recognized for the huge swaths of daily energy they put into their household.
Disloyal, by Michael Cohen. In the year that had most of us pinned to the news because of a president who wouldn’t stop lying (or tweeting), I caved and bought a few books written by folks who had lived close to this deranged, powerful person. Cohen’s book is hard to stomach, because he himself is so despicable, yet I believed him, too—when a person has nothing left to lose, perhaps the truth (or part of it) will come out. This confirmed many of my beliefs about Trump, the person, and how his narcissism came at the expense of people around him, as well as to the people he was sworn to serve.
The Body Is Not An Apology, by Sonya Renee Taylor. In a nutshell: “Humans are a varied and divergent bunch with all manner of beliefs, morals, and bodies. Systems of oppression thrive off our inability to make peace with difference and injure the relationship we have with our own bodies.” We are not born with a hatred of our bodies, we are taught, instructed, steeped in the idea that our body is a problem, and that we should be so many other things (thinner, whiter, stronger, smaller, prettier, weaker) than we are. A life spent in response to this conditioning is a life trapped by systems of oppression. Taylor writes of radical self-love as the antidote, of the pressing need for rejecting this internalized system of bodily terrorism.
How To Love, by Thich Naht Hanh. I picked this book up accidentally when I was searching for another book on emotional intelligence and attachment styles (called How We Love!). This tiny book was beautiful and remarkable, and I read a few pages per day; the deepest love we can give to one another is to be seen, heard, and understood. Sometimes that means telling our loved ones that we see them and we see their suffering. To see someone’s suffering, and not to try to fix them or change them, is love.
Narcissistic Parents: The Complete Guide For Adult Children, by Caroline Foster. I highlighted so many sections of this book—narcissism afflicts so many, especially parents, and, it seems, especially women? (I think when we live in a culture that oppresses and exploits women, it makes sense that mothers turn into narcissists.) Narcissism is a self-centeredness and a “failure to distinguish the self from external objects,” and can explain so much of the enmeshment that happens between parents and children. If your parents or grown-ups spent more time on their emotions than yours (or belittled or ignored yours), if they used you to satisfy emotional needs of theirs, if they latch onto an identity that they are special, different, unique, or not understood—this book might provide some insight.
The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, by Seth Godin. Seth’s writing is a kind of artistic poetry—he writes in single sentence bursts, capturing ideas in short chapters. In fact, the book has more chapters than pages. Each concept, a nugget, a revealing, a parable. I love books like this because they are easy to dip in and out of, to read a bite at a time. At times I disagreed with his assessment, and wanted to sit down with him and ask how two concepts truly stitched together; but at the end, his constant nudges towards practice inspired me to pick up music and meditation again, two things I’d let slip throughout the pandemic. So, if we measure a book by how well it changes the recipient, the book won. Even if I argued with him about it in my head.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. This novel, a detailed and page-turning account of fleeing a country and the lengths it can take to be a migrant, picked up steam and attention when it was listed on Oprah’s Book Club in early 2020. It then subsequently garnered controversy for many flags: being written by someone without the direct experience of migration and flight; for being apolitical and side-stepping the deeper reasons for migration and violence; and for the fetishization of the story. The criticism comes from the idea of the “American gaze,” that is, this is a migrant story told in “an American voice for American readers,” along with the fact that the book never digs deeper into the reason for these forced migrations. It’s a beautifully told story, a page-turner, with attention to detail and action in equal parts. Yes, the book is delightfully easy to read, compelling a cup of tea and a late night engrossed in the pages, which is pleasurable for the reader—but it’s also well past time for publishing to celebrate, honor, and publish the voices far more than just white ones. Just 11% of books published in 2018 were by non-white voices, according to a Dec 2020 report by The New York Times.
What Kind of Woman, by Kate Baer. A friend sent me this book, and I picked up this slim, broody-beautiful cover and leafed through it. It’s stunning—I absolutely loved it. I read several volumes of poetry this year, and found myself enjoying the writing form more and more.(It reminds me of a Shakespeare class I took, where the first two books felt impossible to read, and then by the fourth book, I was slipping through it easily, my understanding expanded to the point of joyful reading—don’t judge the difficulty of a new form for disliking it; give it several tries.) She writes brief, pointed essays on marriage, motherhood, being a woman and a wife, and loving your children. “You can be a mother and a poet. A wife and a lover. You can dance on the graves you dug on Tuesday, pulling out the bones of yourself you began to miss,” she writes, capturing—for me, and many other women, I’d garner—the loss of yourself as you move through life, and the pieces you have to collect or burn along the way.
UnF*ck Your Brain, by Faith G. Harper. I listened to this as an audio book; the author, a therapist, was clearly recording from her office—white noise machine in the background, fumbles over the audio quality, words repeated. In a way, I liked that it wasn’t ‘professionally’ produced, this made me feel like I was sitting in the therapists’ chair. I loved this book and the reminders of how and why our brains are weird, and what they can be wired (or mis-wired) for. Every time I look more closely at addiction, depression, anxiety, and our brain’s structures and functions, I gain more empathy and clarity. Both about myself and other people. It’s a short book, 3-4 hours long, and well worth a listen.
When We Believed In Mermaids, by Barbara O’Neal. I didn’t read enough fiction this year, and I’m quite pleased I picked this up. Well written, beautiful, easy storytelling, non-cheesy romance scenes, sisterhood, traveling—I wish the book hadn’t ended! Highly recommend for pleasure reading.
We Should Get Together, by Kat Vellos. I first learned about Kat’s work in building meaningful connections when I signed up for Jenny Sauer Klein’s course, Scaling Intimacy (highly recommend this course). Kat focuses on how people fight loneliness and establish meaningful connections. In WSGT, she writes about why friendship is so complicated, and the challenges to friendships as an adult. Included in the book are 300+ questions to ask that are ‘better than small talk’. I used this book as fodder for my hundreds of zoom calls and online courses (and used many of them this year in Focus and The Wise Women’s Council).
Connected From Afar, by Kat Vellos. This is an addendum to her previous book, a list of activities and inspiration to use when maintaining various connections and friendships. Short, quick, around fifty pages, and illustrated, I read this in under an hour. I’ll use it as a notepad to add variations and twists to her prompts, and create more of my own.
Cassandra Speaks, by Elizabeth Lesser.
salt, by Nayyirah Waheed.
How to Be Better at Almost Everything, by Pat Flynn.
The Drama Of The Gifted Child, by Alice Miller.
That’s the end of the year! I read 53 books this year.
Books started—not yet finished
ain’t i a woman, by Bell Hooks.
No Bad Kids, by Janet Lansbury.
Boys & Sex, by Peggy Orenstein.
Healing Trauma, by Peter Levine.
Let Your Life Speak, by Parker J Palmer.
Currently on my shelf
It’s About Damn Time, by Arlan Hamilton and Rachel L. Nelson.
The Power of Onlyness, by Nilofer Merchant.
Do Nothing, by Celeste Headlee.
Long Story Short, by Marty Machowski.
Wintering, by Katherine May.
Strangers In Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.
The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.
Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels.
The Price of Motherhood, by Ann Crittenden.
The Zen of Social Media Marketing, by Shama Hyder.
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
Mom & Me & Mom, by Maya Angelou.
You & I, as Mothers, by Laura Prepon.
About the Reading List
Every year I track all of the books I read and analyze what I’m reading from a macro perspective. In addition, I write short summaries of the books all on this page. This page gets updated every few months as the year progresses, and then at the end of the year, I tally the books and notes all together here as an archive.
I’ve been recording what I read every year for the past several years—here are the books lists from 2017, 2018, and 2019. Book tracking helps me pay attention to the quality and diversity of what I read. It has improved the quality, breadth and number of books I learn from, which inspires me to keep doing it.
If you’re curious, you can read more about why I track the books I read, how to decide what book to read next, and my notes on how to finish a book. Or you can read my book summaries, below, for new book ideas and recommendations. Please note—all links to books below are affiliate links, which means that if you click the link to buy the book, I’ll get a small amount of money for being an affiliate.
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I write a newsletter about personal development, psychology, and leadership. Recent essays cover how to make better decisions, designing your schedule and life, rethinking the structure of work to fit a more human body, and the intersection of parenting and work. If you're curious, seeking the spark of new and interesting ideas, and want some groundedness within the flurry of modern life, you will probably enjoy my newsletter. Don't see the form below? Head here to subscribe instead.