Books of 2020

In past years, I’ve published a list of the best books I read that year in a list titled “Top Books of 201X.” This year, my relationship to reading was a little more complicated. Books are so often complex and multifaceted, it can be hard to boil them down enough to place them on a one dimensional good/bad spectrum. Sometimes a mostly good book has a serious flaw that makes it complicated to recommend. Sometimes a good reading experience comes from having a conversation with a book that you strongly disagree with. So instead of the best books I read this year, here’s a list of some books I read this year that were particularly enjoyable or thought provoking, or just left a lasting impression.

In no particular order:

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I thoroughly enjoyed The Fountainhead. Published in 1943, it tells the story of self-possessed architect and Perfect Man Howard Roark through his career as he builds modernist buildings that are testaments to human greatness. Along the way, he is thwarted by the evil, clever, and ambiguously physically disabled Ellsworth Toohey who, as a socialist, hates humanity, loves mediocrity, and wants to promote a picture of equality where all enviable traits are suppressed à la “Harrison Bergeron.”

Rand’s prose is forceful and opinionated, leaving very little up to interpretation and making The Fountainhead an easy and pleasurable read. I don’t need to think very hard to understand what Rand is trying to tell me. She hates friendship and community, I get it. She thinks that collaborative efforts can never produce anything of artistic merit, because the individual is objectively real, and any structure that arises at a level beyond the individual is fake. Emergence? Nope, emergence is a lie. When we allow another person’s ideas to influence our artistic output, we are necessarily compromising our artistic integrity. After Rand brought up the impossibility of artistic collaboration for the nth time I started to wonder whether she had ever listened to jazz, or to any music for that matter—that’s the thing about a lot of the ideas presented in The Fountainhead: They are transparently ridiculous. It makes sense, then, that Rand’s prose borders on proselytizing for capitalism and cults of the individual,1 because any book that argued for Rand’s ideas while actually asking readers to think for themselves would fail to convince anybody.

Is The Fountainhead good? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that art can sometimes transcend the opinions of the artist, and maybe The Fountainhead is a masterpiece of unreliable narration. Contained within the mangled social commentary there is a core of real wisdom: A life defined around pleasing others is a life wasted—a life centered around pleasing others won’t make you happy, and, ironically, it isn’t even the best way to make others happy. Rand describes a modern society plagued by a lack of self-possession, a moral disease she calls “selflessness,” and she attributes this selflessness to socialists who control the media who want to hold great men2 down because they’re jealous of those with superior talents; an explanation that transparently makes no sense, even within the novel’s own internal logic.

Rand constructs character after character who, in his pursuit of wealth, subdues his own values, beliefs, and desires in favor of what is marketable, and becomes deeply unhappy; and then she argues that somehow, these characters’ unhappiness is communism’s fault. At times, the mess of internal contradictions within The Fountainhead becomes so great that it’s hard to believe that Rand wasn’t intentionally writing a novel meant to expose the psychic toll that the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism takes, as she is forced into more and more hateful and conspiratorial explanations in order to avoid recognizing what is right in front of her face.

So, do I recommend the Fountainhead? Yeah, sort of. I found it thought provoking, hilarious, and deeply tragic. Ten out of ten (ymmv). The Internet Archive has numerous copies of Rand’s masterpiece (1 2 3 4 5) that you can read for free, or you can check it out from your local library.

Content Warning for The Fountainhead
Content Warning: The Fountainhead contains a graphic sex scene that many have reasonably described as rape.

Walden Two by B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner was an academic psychologist who made it his life’s mission to save humanity from self destruction. He promoted the development of an empirical science of behavior, which he predicted would lead to the development of a technology of behavioral control, which could solve many of the world’s problems. If this sounds creepy, it is perhaps much less so when Skinner reframes his life’s goal in more familiar terms: When people are treated with love and kindness, they treat others with love and kindness in turn; an empirical science that taught us to be more effectively loving and kind could have immensely positive consequences.

Skinner’s 1948 utopian novel Walden Two is his attempt to show how such a behavioral technology might work in practice. The novel tells the story of a visit to a small community (named Walden Two, in reference to  Thoreau’s Walden) within the United States built on the principles of behavioral science, and consists largely of conversations between various characters, as they discuss the community, explaining how it works and how it differs from the rest of America.

These conversations end up focusing less on the specifics of how behavioral science can solve the world’s problems, and more on careful diagnosis of the social ails of 1940s America; focusing especially on the problems with consumer culture (we buy a lot of things that don’t make us happy), overwork (modern capitalism is massively inefficient because a huge amount of work goes into maintaining the status of the leisure class), democracy (good democratic decision making requires everyone to be an expert on everything, but specialized expertise is a better way to increase community knowledge and make people feel intellectually fulfilled), community structures (the nuclear family makes people, especially women, lonely), and the oppression of women and the lower classes. It is in these conversations that the book really shines. Skinner’s infectious belief that the world could be better makes these heavy issues feel infinitely more tractable. I’ve never read a book that was so thought-provoking on heavy social issues without making me feel sad.

Walden Two left me with a sense that utopian fiction is severely underutilized as a tool for social critique. Compared to dystopia, there’s not much utopian fiction out there, but pointing out the injustices of the world by imagining a world where such injustices are absent is powerful. It’s hopeful. This year was pretty demoralizing in a lot of ways, and Walden Two helped me understand the world around me, while also helping to lift the sense of doom.

Unfortunately, Skinner’s ideas on how to attain such a utopia are often vague, dangerous, or both. At best, Skinner defers the details to a later date, (“Once we develop a sophisticated science of behavior, then we will know how to engineer a culture where everyone wants to work toward the common good”), and at worst he endorses some of the specific cult-like structures that were associated with the the disastrous utopian projects3 of the latter half of the 20th century. Skinner is often blinded about individual needs by his communalist goals, and asserts with high confidence that parents should not have special attachment to their children, that community members should have no personal savings, that teenagers who are in love should immediately get married and make babies, and so on—all ideas that the intervening 70 years of world events and continuing scientific research have revealed to be misguided.

Yet, these frequent wrongheaded ideas didn’t bother me much. Skinner’s mistakes are made more forgivable by the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Throughout the book, Skinner pokes fun at his own eccentricities, and lightheartedly critiques the ways that he reflects the problematic aspects of academic culture. I often found Skinner’s jokes about academia to be laugh-out-loud funny, although I will admit that my appreciation of such humor may be niche.

Overall, I’m not sure what I think of Walden Two. As I read it, I found myself often wincing at its worse suggestions. But, with more distance, I grow fonder and fonder of the book. B.F. Skinner had a lot of ideas, and some of those ideas were really bad. But he also had some ideas that are worth thinking about, and for me at least, the good ideas have more staying power. I like Walden Two.

Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky’s magnum opus, published in 2017, seeks to understand the biology that guides us “at our best and worst.” Sapolsky looks at love, murder, warfare, atrocity, heroism, and so on, and asks “Biologically, what is going on?”

The first half of the book focuses on building a biological framework: Causal stories are difficult to tell because every event has proximate causes that are in turn caused by less proximate causes, and we can follow the chain of causality all the way back to the boundary conditions of the universe.

A behavior has just occurred. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurobiological one. what went on in that person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Now pull out to a slightly larger field of vision… What sight, sound, or smell in the previous seconds to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior?… What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that trigger the nervous system to produce the behavior?… What features of the environment in prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain…? …expanding and expanding until considering events umpteen millennia ago….

Sapolsky, Behave, 2017, “Introduction,” pp. 6-7

For the first half of the book, Sapolsky goes back in time before a behavior occurs, covering neurology, environment, endocrinology, mood, adolescence, childhood, the prenatal environment, genetics, culture, and evolution. Each subdiscipline of behavioral biology, he explains, implicitly invokes all the others. Neurology cannot be understood without environmental effects and vice versa.

The second half of the book then focuses on using this framework to understand why we behave the way we do: Why we love and kill and worship and make art and so on. Sapolsky tackles the science of intimate relationships, religion, hierarchy and the state, conformity and rebellion, criminal justice, war and peace, and much more. The eclectic nature of Behave makes it difficult to summarize, but it is hugely insightful, and I came away from it feeling like I had a better understanding of myself and the world around me.

Unfortunately, Behave has one serious flaw: Sapolsky consistently fails to introduce enough doubt. The behavioral sciences are in a replication crisis, and the scientific results he describes are almost always more dubious or situation-dependent than he depicts. For example, Sapolsky gives the Marshmallow Test the standard treatment: A researcher presents a young child (3 to 6 years old) with a marshmallow4 sitting on a table, and tells the kid that if they do not eat the marshmallow for fifteen minutes, they can have a second marshmallow. The kid is then left in the room with the marshmallow. The purpose of the original experiment was to see what types of strategies kids employed to delay gratification, but when the researchers followed up years later, they found something surprising: Kids who waited longer to eat the marshmallow grew up to be more successful adults.

The standard interpretation of the marshmallow test (and the interpretation Sapolsky gives) is that self control, a personality trait set by early childhood, is hugely important for our ability to navigate the world. However, studies within the last decade have called this result into question, suggesting instead that it’s entirely about class: Children are more likely to delay gratification when they truly expect to be rewarded. Less wealthy kids, who are less likely to succeed because they lack resources, are accustomed to promises falling through, so they won’t hold out for a second marshmallow. Wealthier kids with stable home environments, who are more likely to succeed as adults because they have all the resources to help them, are more likely to delay gratification when presented with a marshmallow, because they expect the promise of the second marshmallow to be kept.

A single study with a new interpretation is hardly something to complain about, but Behave is riddled with studies that don’t fully hold up (I won’t list them here), many of which have worrying sociological implications. Sapolsky makes a good effort to be anti-classist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc., but when you’re studying humans, prejudice will always creep into your analysis in unexpected ways. It’s important, then, to either introduce doubt consistently throughout, or to discuss the problems with replication and interpretation to give the readers the tools to introduce enough doubt themselves. Otherwise, you end up confidently implying that poor people are poor because they have no self control.

Overall, I want to highly recommend Behave, but I’m also wary of the effect it might have on someone who is less familiar than I am with the problems in academic psychology…. Read at your own risk.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a 2010 novel by the author of The Golden Compass that retells the story of Jesus Christ as if he were two brothers, Jesus and Christ, with conflicting ideas about the the role that spirituality and religion should play in our lives and society. Whereas, the His Dark Materials trilogy took a distinctly anti-church stance of religion, here, Pullman focuses instead on the nuance, discussing the ways that spirituality helps us, the ways that it hurts us, and the ways that it can be co-opted to serve evil ends.

This book moved me, comforted me, and made me cry.

Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

Based on the title, you might assume that Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, published in 2016, is some sort of Randian screed against altruism, but it’s actually the opposite. Bloom, an academic psychologist, argues that moral behavior comes largely from the intellectual recognition of the value of others’ lives, and that empathy (i.e. feeling what others are feeling) gets in the way of good moral decision-making. Empathy, he argues, is innumerate, short-sighted, and prone to manipulation. Empathy favors those who are close to us or whom we find attractive. Empathy is racist. And empathy is emotionally draining. When others are suffering, suffering with them may feel noble, but it often gets in the way of actually helping.

I went into this book already partially agreeing with Bloom: I’ve always found the focus placed on empathy in both academia and casual discourse kind of weird—I already believed that empathy had clear shortcomings—but I didn’t think that this focus on empathy was a problem. This book has opened my eyes to the ways that a cultural focus on empathy makes us less kind, caring, and capable of dealing with the problems the world presents to us. Bloom details his correspondence with doctors and 9/11 first responders who, because of this elevation on empathy as a moral arbiter, feel like they do not have permission to steel themselves against the emotional weight of the tremendous loss of human life—with the pandemic, this cultural inability to cope takes on renewed importance.

Bloom also discusses the “psychopath,” a sort of monster we’ve invented inspired by the importance we’ve placed on empathy. Psychopaths have no empathy and they’re evil. Psychopaths may exist, Bloom concedes, but if they do exist, they’re not the main source of evil in the world. A focus on psychopathy and empathy causes us to overlook the root causes of conflict. Reading Against Empathy, I began to see the ways that online discourse is often obsessed with psychoanalyzing influencers to demonstrate that they’re bad people, when a look at their bad behavior should suffice.5

Bloom takes on empathy in interpersonal contexts as well. Good parenting, he argues, for example, can often mean subduing empathy when wisdom is needed. Empathy gets in the way of tough love. It gets in the way of conflict resolution.

And Against Empathy doesn’t solely consist of arguments against empathy. Bloom goes on frequent tangents that are always interesting and often wise—-he discusses moral reasoning in infants, psychology as an empirical science, political rhetoric, Buddhism, and much more.

Concretely, Against Empathy made me a better person. It gave me the tools I needed to be a more rational altruist, to avoid being manipulated, and to take care of my heart while struggling to understand the world in turmoil.

Still, I don’t 100% agree with Bloom. There are times when Bloom makes an argument that seems to me completely off base, but Bloom’s conversational style leaves ample room for disagreement. Bloom does not tell the reader what to think; instead he provides evidence and reasoning for an unusual and much needed perspective.

  1. []
  2. And I mean men. Rand believed that a woman’s calling is to be dominated by a worthy man[]
  3. e.g. Jonestown[]
  4. Or other treat. The original experiment used pretzels and cookies.[]
  5. e.g. YouTuber Shane Dawson lost over a million subscribers in 2020 when his extensive history of extremely offensive humor (including black face, bestiality, and sexualizing his preteen audience) resurfaced. A large amount of the discussion centered around whether or not Shane Dawson is an empath, when his ability to feel others’ pain is largely unrelated to the harm he and YouTube have caused with bad child-oriented content.[]

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