Unlike last year, I tracked books for all of this year. In large part, I did so because I set the goal of reading 52 books on the year. The intent of course was to do one per week, but that didn't happen for a variety of reasons, including the library (and bookstore) closing due to pandemic but then re-opening for contactless pickup only (and it's currently closed again - stay safe, everyone).
I made it with some breathing room - 62 on the year. This includes 6 that I strongly disliked and will not finish, but that still leaves 56 if you won't grant me those. I have notes on all of them, but I don't think anyone wants to read my thoughts on the particular rabbit holes I'm down. So I'll settle for recommending a few, where "a few" happens to mean five.
IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black (2001/2012)
As the title suggests, this is an exhaustively researched chronology of IBM's involvement in the atrocities of Nazi Germany. As I think most of my readers work in tech, this is an extremely important albeit painful read. With an eye toward trying to prevent oppression and our participation in it, there's plenty to think about here. And even if you agree with IBM PR that "there appear to be no new facts or findings that bear on this important issue and period", I'm not aware of any other summaries, especially ones this approachable.
Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe (1992/2012)
Coe relates how the ability to understand Mayan carvings was "lost" and rediscovered from the perspective of someone in the field who knew many of the actors. Hindsight allows a unique dual viewpoint: at once we see both the fellow academics and humans trying to advance their field (and themselves), while at the same time Coe doesn't shy away from pointing out how racism and stubbornness held the field back. This is important: they weren't trying to be bad people, but they're extremely set in their ideas, to the detriment of all. Coe presents some as having a shocking level of contempt for their subject: in almost all cases, researchers weren't at all familiar with languages known to be related or spoken by descendents.
Pre-pandemic, I was fortunate enough to view the Ancient Nubia Now exhibit at the Museum of Science here in Boston. And while the display of artifacts and telling of cultural history was excellent, the exhibit also focused on how we've historically misunderstood Ancient Nubia especially in connection to Ancient Egypt - to the point where Ancient Egypt has been exalted and in some cases whitewashed, while Ancient Nubia has been held in significantly lower regard and often held to be culturally inferior. These attitudes toward culture seemed familiar to me reading Coe after that, so I'm hopeful that we might see progress on understanding Meroitic in the near future.
Historical Brewing Techniques, by Lars Marius Garshol (2020)
Lars Marius Garshol is known in brewing circles for bringing attention to the farmhouse brewing tradition of Norway. This book serves as a summary of sorts to his work thus far. There is detailed information on how the farmhouse brewers of today carry out their craft (including recipes), as well as the culture around brewing in this part of the world. There are also pictures - of brewing, the farms, and of the countryside itself (because when it's that photogenic, you have to). For geographical reasons, Norway is the main focus, but Garshol also touches on Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, parts of Russia, and others.
Lars Marius Garshol is also part of running Kornølfestival, an event which celebrates Norwegian farmhouse brewing process and culture. Due to pandemic, the event was online-only this year by necessity - but it was streamed, and the streams are achieved (part 1 and 2), and mostly in English.
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut (1952)
Last year, I started reading through all of Vonnegut's work. (This will probably continue into next year as well - I have four novels left, plus potentially the non-novel works.) Player Piano isn't the most important of Vonnegut's writing (that's Slaughterhouse Five) or even the best encapsulation of his style (it seems likely that's Cat's Cradle). As Vonnegut's first novel, the signatures of his style aren't as fully developed, either. But I found it intensely poignant, possibly because the subject matter is less temporally bound. Whatever the reason, this is my favorite of his so far.
The Life of the Buddha (1972/1992)
(Translated, selected, and arranged by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. Edited by Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi. Texts selected from the Pali Canon.)
Buddhist tradition has preserved an immense amount of history and teaching over ~2600 years. (Generally this is held to be historically accurate, though discussion of that goes beyond what I want to say in a book recommendation.) The Pali Canon itself is massive, and often its components are sorted by length or other measure. The book extracts from that a chronology of the life of the Buddha Gotama, with enough cultural context for it to maintain coherence to a modern audience. In other words, it's about as close as we can come to knowing the person the Buddha was.
The BPS has made this work available free of charge on their website, though I read a physical copy from the library system.
Thank you for reading, and happy new year.