I read 50 books in 2020. Here are my top 10.

No one is more surprised than I am that I managed to read a round 50 books in 2020, almost certainly more than double what I’ve ever read in a year before, but if any year has been the year for reading, it’s 2020.

I read a lot of excellent books in 2020, so it was hard to pick my top 10, but here they are. Here’s to another 50 great books in 2021!

10. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

61jqvy7dgslIn a year when all my exciting travel plans were unexpectedly binned, this book went some not inconsiderable way to whetting my appetite for foreign adventure. It’s popular travel writer Paul Theroux’s most acclaimed work, a report of his journey by trains, big and small, across Eurasia, from London to Tokyo and back. He rides the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian, but also the Khyber Mail, the 16:25 from Galle and the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto (among many others). It’s not all about trains, though: the trains are the vehicles that bring him to the obscure and exotic sights and sounds that feature in this book, and are the scene of his many interesting and often comical interactions with other passengers. A great read for travel junkies.

9. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


As someone who avidly read the Goosebumps books when I was a kid, it’s no small thing for me to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the scariest book I’ve ever read. No, I’m not one of those excitable people in the comment sections of articles about government surveillance and the like who think we’re living in Nineteen Eighty-Four or that Nineteen Eighty-Four is just around the corner. No, this book frightened me because the overreach of state power frightens me, and it’s easy to see how we can get from here to there. Every totalitarian device and institution in Nineteen Eighty-Four exists in contemporary Western democracies in germinal form, and that’s what’s scary. In some places—North Korea, China—society is much further along the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a book that will stay with me, for sure.

8. Dominion by Tom Holland


The hypothesis of this book by ancient world historian Tom Holland is that the Western mind and psyche is fundamentally shaped by Christianity. So much so that we modern Westerners, even in our secular, irreligious contemporary society, don’t even realise the extent to which our values and our mindsets are defined by Christianity. This isn’t a Christian screed, but a genuine and extremely readable historical study by a celebrated historian of the ancient world. Among the more controversial (yet persuasively argued) ideas presented in the book is that notions of human rights and individualism are rooted in Christianity, and would have struggled to emerge in non-Christian cultures. The book is packed with information and interesting historical detail, and is one of the books on this list I feel I definitely need to read again.

7. History Has Begun by Bruno Maçães


This is a captivating book. It is a “theory of America” that describes the way American culture is moving away from its European colonial roots and becoming something new and unique. The primary driver of this cultural shift is the forms of screen storytelling Americans have perfected and which have come to permeate their culture: film and television. America is becoming a postmodern civilisation, a “land of stories”, where Americans yearn for narrative meaning both in their own personal lives and on the grand political stage. Donald Trump’s presidency can be seen as the beneficiary and the ideal of this phenomenon: an unlikely President who saw himself as the star in a TV drama, one Americans just couldn’t stop watching (no matter how much they disliked him).

6. A Mencken Chrestomathy by H.L. Mencken


H.L. Mencken was a prolific American journalist and writer of the 20th Century. He wrote, it seems, on every subject under the sun, from women, men, morality, the death penalty, politics, Southerners, Northerners, Calvin Coolidge, the Greeks, chiropractors, the Ku Klux Klan, to Brahms. This is a collection of Mencken’s “choicest” writings, on these subjects and many more. Mencken is an utterly riveting writer, witty, intelligent and clear, a testament to which is that he caused me to find myself enjoying his writings on such unlikely subjects as a boxing match from 1921 I’d never heard of, Charles Joseph Bonaparte (whom I doubt anyone has ever heard of), and zoos. The appeal of this book really is the brilliant writing of Mencken: the kind of writing that really inspires me to practise my own neglected skills.

5. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by James Burnham


To use a contemporary term, this book is an instant “redpill”. Ostensibly, it is about the theories of four Italian Neo-Machiavellian political theorists: Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto. In synthesising their political theories, this book elucidates a framework for looking at political institutions and phenomena which is radical, subversive and fundamentally anti-statist, if not anarchistic (although none of these thinkers were necessarily anarchists or proponents of any particular ideology, but rather political “scientists”). Even as a political radical sympathetic to such ideas myself, I found my thinking challenged by the ideas in this book, which are original and penetrating. Anyone reading this book would find it difficult to look at the world the same way again. 

4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand


At nearly 1,300 pages, Atlas Shrugged is easily the longest book I’ve ever read. That itself feels like a major achievement—it took me two and a half months to finish, mostly reading during my lunch breaks at work. At no point, though, did it feel like making progress with this book was a chore because, even though it moves slowly (with one or two 50-page speeches by various characters thrown in), it’s an absorbing and exhilarating read (with as much sex and gunfights as turgid, self-indulgent monologues). The worldview propagated in this book (pro-capitalism, pro-egoism, anti-“altruism”) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t see how it can fail to at least make anyone think, given how compellingly Rand’s ideas are presented in narrative form.

3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh


Now, I’ve actually read this one before. However, as it’s my favourite ever novel, and I found an audiobook version narrated by Jeremy Irons (who played Charles Ryder in the excellent TV adaptation), how could I resist a re-read (albeit via Audible)? I don’t really have a very interesting answer for when I’m asked why Brideshead Revisited is my favourite ever novel. I simply love the characters and I love the story. The characters, particularly the “main” character Sebastian Flyte, are beautifully realised in Waugh’s writing, and Waugh has a gift for riveting and often hilarious dialogue. The first half of the book, set in aristocratic 1920s Oxford among plover’s eggs and claret and country houses, is delightfully sumptuous. It’s an emotional read full of tragedy, though, and the climax is a gut-wrencher. I highly recommend it.

2. Modern Times: A History of the World From the Twenties to the Nineties by Paul Johnson


I was prompted to read this book after hearing it praised by Tom Woods on his podcast as being the must-read, most penetrating history of the 20th Century. Oh, was he right about that. At 800 pages, it’s a long trek (but that’s a given with history texts), but Johnson’s prose is so lucid and pleasing as to make it a leisurely read.

What distinguishes this book, for someone who enjoys reading history, is that Johnson goes into a level of detail about historical events that rewards your effort for persisting on every page. To say you learn something new on every page is a cliche, but if it’s fair to say about any history text, it’s this one. All this, without allowing the narrative to become bogged down in detail: Johnson researches and analyses like a historian, but writes like a journalist (which is a good thing).

Johnson frequently, and quite openly, inserts his own subjective interpretations of events, some of which are unusual or controversial, but I find this adds to rather than detracts from the text. After all, it is impossible to analyse historical data without taking a subjective interpretation of that data at some level.

Highlights of this book, for me, were the chapters on the early years of the Soviet Union, interwar France and Germany, America in the 1920s, the Great Depression, the Chinese Civil War, the rule of Mao Zedong, and postwar Britain and Germany. There’s also much interesting material on parts of the non-Western world that wouldn’t normally be covered in a 20th Century history text.

Easily the best history book I’ve ever read.

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


What to say about Crime and Punishment that hasn’t already been said? It’s simply a masterpiece. It’s an utterly engrossing read that transports you into the disturbed mind of the main character, Raskolnikov, and leaves you there for quite some time after you’ve reached the end of this book. The genius of Crime and Punishment is that, while the murder that is the main act of the story takes place over only a few pages, Raskolnikov spends the rest of the book psychologically stuck at the scene of the murder, brooding over his horrific crime and the warped philosophical idea that inspired him to commit it. Despite being a long read, the story moves quickly, and introduces a cast of interesting and eccentric characters. The writing is luminescent, at least as rendered in the David McDuff translation that I read. This one will stay with me for sure, and has gone straight back onto the “read again” list!

What if Harry Potter were written for adults?

I’m reading the Harry Potter books again for the 27th time. No, I lie — it’s only been 26 times. But that’s okay because it’s been about five years since I as much as picked up anything with J.K. Rowling’s name on it. See, ever since I decided I ought to start reading books that weren’t Harry Potter I’ve had the attitude that the time I would be spending rereading stories I’ve already read umpteen times could probably be better spent reading something that I’ve never read before. Expanding the catalogue of books in my library rather than reading the same seven books over and over again.

So what prompted me, a little over a month ago, to finally pick up Harry Potter again was my friend conscripting me into his team for a Harry Potter trivia night. See, I may avoid reading the books too often nowadays, but I take my status as a diehard Harry Potter fan and my unimpeachable knowledge of the stories as a point of utmost pride. No way was I going to suffer the humiliation of being beaten by some Muggle on a test of Harry Potter knowledge. I needed to swot up if I was going to win, so I set myself the task of reading the entire corpus in less than a month.

As it turned out, I only got through a little more than three of the books in time for the trivia night and we didn’t even place in the top three. Shame beyond shame, my friends. I could scarcely look at myself in the mirror that night. How could I call myself a Harry Potter fan after that? I was clear to me that it was more important than ever that I finish reading all seven books, even if exam day had come and gone. People who don’t win Harry Potter trivia don’t deserve the luxury of starting and not finishing a Harry Potter reading marathon.

And so I continued reading. As of now, I’ve just finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and intend to continue reading without interruption until I’ve finished Deathly Hallows.

I’ve always thought it was a boring cliché when people say of a great work that they notice something new every time they read it (or watch it). I can’t say I’ve noticed something new every time I’ve read the Harry Potter books — because if I did I certainly can’t remember. But this time round I have. Or, at least, I’ve seen the stories in a different light. It struck me that these are, very much, stories for children. Yes, I have actually noticed before now that the Harry Potter books are children’s books, seeing as I first read them when I was a child. And nor do I deny that adults can’t benefit from them as well, as evidenced by the throngs of grown-ups, as well as children, who populate the Harry Potter fandom. But the point is, if J.K. Rowling had wanted to write the Harry Potter books for adults, I think she would have written them very differently.

Let me explain. The themes of the Harry Potter books come through very clearly: love, friendship, loyalty, tolerance, sacrifice. And good and evil. The stories uncomplicatedly oppose good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate, life and death. Lord Voldemort and his followers unambiguously represent hate and evil. Fine for a children’s book. Things really are that simple when you’re a child. But there aren’t many grown-ups’ stories that are about good and evil in such a stark, black-and-white way. Where the villain of the piece is plainly and uncomplicatedly a monster. Certain groups excepted, mature adults don’t tend to think simplistically in terms of “good” and “evil”. We know, or ought to know, that things are rarely that simple.


It’s not a mature way to look at the world to think the world is divided up neatly into goodies and baddies. There are goodies and baddies, but the greater mass of humanity falls somewhere in between. Sure, sometimes mature adults do need reminding that genuine good and evil exist in the world — that’s why stories like Harry Potter exist. But far more often, in the real world, evil is done not by evil people but by ordinary people (that is, people who are neither straightforwardly good or evil) who do evil in the belief they’re doing good. Or ordinary people who are too weak, scared, selfish or uncaring to resist doing evil. Man is Fallen, but not evil. Much evil in our age, in my view, is not done by the would-be Hitlers and Voldemorts of the world but, maybe ironically, by people who are utterly convinced of their own moral righteousness and the evil of their opponents.

I think if Harry Potter were written for adults, it’s more likely that the central theme of the stories wouldn’t be “good versus evil” as much as how human weakness, fear, ignorance and prejudice can result in the propagation of evil. Voldemort and the Death Eaters were explicitly based on the Nazis. But the story of the Nazis’ rise to power wasn’t of an elite, secretive faction of nihilistic terrorists taking power through violence and infiltration — it was of hate-peddling fanatics winning mass popular political support for their cause by playing on people’s genuine anxiety and misery. It was ordinary people who permitted evil, in the form of the Nazis, to win.

Indulge me further for a moment, but I think what might make for an even more interesting story would be a humanised “Dark” side that represents the way naïve, idealistic people who believe themselves to be acting for the greater good can bring about enormous suffering. Modern history is replete with crusading ideologues utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, adept at winning the allegiance of the ignorant masses through their charisma and demagoguery, and whose dogmatism and swivel-eyed zeal leaves them oblivious to the suffering and misery caused by their agenda — or, worse, who actively go about killing and imprisoning and committing vile abuses in the belief that it’s all necessary in pursuit of The Greater Good.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d find a story about a magical world divided between a powerful, mass cult-like political movement which sees violence as a legitimate means of bringing about its lofty objectives, and its persecuted dissidents, really interesting. What would make such a story genuinely creepy and compelling is that, just like in real life, it’s the ignorance and moral weakness of otherwise good, ordinary people that allows the violent demagogues to win. It wouldn’t be as much a story about bad men doing horrible things as one about ordinary people letting them, if not openly cheering them on. Equally, the malefactors of the story aren’t simply hateful death-worshipers like Voldemort, but naïve idealists willing, like so many political Utopians, to propagate misery for The Greater Good.

“If you’re so keen on this dumb idea then why don’t you just write it yourself instead of dragging J.K. Rowling’s books?” you ask. First of all, I’m absolutely not dragging Harry Potter by any means. I’ve been an über-fan since I was eight and I love the Harry Potter stories to pieces. I wouldn’t change a single line of them. But that shouldn’t stop me speculating about the kinds of themes that might feature if the Harry Potter books were written for a more grown-up audience. Secondly, I would love to have a crack at writing this idea as AU fan fiction if I actually had an ounce of creative writing talent, let alone the patience. Unfortunately, the best I’ve ever been able to manage in the creative writing department was a well-complimented short story I wrote for English class in my last year of high school. It’s all been downhill from there. I’m just going to have to content myself with short, lazily-edited blog posts, I’m afraid.

Harry Potter Tag

I’m not a big reader of fiction. When I was an adolescent I did quite a bit of reading of young adult series, but less so in recent years. Somehow I can never find the time these days, alongside everything else that consumes my time, to commit myself to constantly reading new books. I think part of my problem is also the same problem my dad has with watching TV shows on Netflix: there’s a whole catalogue of titles there for him to peruse, but he doesn’t recognise any of them, so he isn’t motivated to watch anything. My reading problem is similar: I just don’t know what to read.

But one series of fiction that will always remain close to my heart is the Harry Potter series. Although, as I said, I don’t get much reading done these days, it was reading Harry Potter for the first time as a child that began my love of reading for leisure. My parents had bought me the first book for Christmas at some point as a child after the first film was released, but I think I only made it through a couple of chapters before giving up (perhaps I wasn’t old enough for it yet). But I returned to the series a couple of years later with zeal after seeing the film of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and absolutely loving it. I was nine at the time, and quickly devoured my way through all five of the available books in the series. My parents bought me the final two books when they came out on their release dates, and I got through both of them in a matter of days.

As a child and an adolescent, I was immersed in the world of Harry Potter. I’ve re-read the books more times than I care to admit, and they were a very big part of my life growing up. Without a doubt, they’ve made a huge impact on me, inculcating in me an enduring love of stories, and also instilling in me some of the most important moral lessons in my life. I owe Harry Potter more than I can say.

I was prompted to do the Harry Potter Tag from reading Richard’s post on re-reading the Harry Potter series at Richard’s Blog, where he completed the Harry Potter Tag. It looked fun. So here goes…

1. What is your favourite book?
Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite. I guess, because it was seeing the film of Prisoner of Azkaban that prompted me to go and read the books, I have a particular love for that episode in the series. It’s the book I always look forward to reading most when I re-read the series. I find it a really well-crafted story, full of intrigue and suspense, the constant, menacing presence of the Dementors, and it’s about the point where the series begins to become darker. What’s not to love?

2. What is your favourite film?
It’s got to be Prisoner of Azkaban again. It was the film that got me into the books after all, and I still consider it the best-made of all the films. There’s a distinctive tonal shift in Prisoner of Azkaban towards a darker, grittier atmosphere and away from the more fairytale mood of the first two films, which I love. (Not to disparage the first two films, though, which were both fantastic as well).

3. What is your least favourite book?
The Half-Blood Prince. I’m not saying I didn’t like it — it’s a very pleasurable and absorbing read — but I wasn’t as captivated by the plot as much as I was the others. Even the non-plot of Order of the Phoenix was more engaging, because it was easy to become immersed in Harry’s life in that book.

4. What is your least favourite film?
I haven’t seen some of the later films in a while, but I don’t think I was ever as enamoured with Order of the Phoenix as I was with the others. It seemed like the filmmakers had begun to get complacent to a degree by Order of the Phoenix, given the success of the first four films and the Harry Potter franchise as a whole, and I think it rather showed in that film.

5. Parts of the books/films that made you cry?
I don’t think I ever cried over anything in the books, but I do remember quite vividly tearing up and becoming very emotional when watching the montage of Snape’s memories in the pensieve in the final film, specifically the part where Snape broke down over Lily’s dead body, and wept cradling her in his arms. That was a really powerful moment.

6. If you could hook up with any character, who would it be?
Now what guy wouldn’t say Fleur? 😉 But seriously, of all the female characters, I think I’d be most compatible with Cho Chang. I was tempted to say Hermione, because we’d share intellectual interests in common, but Hermione’s very intense, whereas I’m actually a very silly and frivolous person at heart, and Cho seems like someone with whom I could just have fun and let my hair down and be myself 🙂

7. Who is your favourite character?
Ginny, I think, with Fred and George a close second. She’s just a very cool chick and it was wonderful to watch her character grow over the series from the shy little girl into such a strong, brave and extraordinary young woman. I’d love to be friends with Ginny in real life.

8. Who is your least favourite character?
Umbridge. I’ve never come across anyone as singularly unpleasant as Umbridge in real life, but I truly hated Umbridge. I suppose that was the reaction J.K. Rowling was going for. She reminds me strongly of Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, who was one of my most despised arch-villains of my childhood.

9. What is your least favourite line?
I really have no idea, to be honest. I can’t remember ever reading a line in any of the books and thinking “that’s rubbish”.

10. What would your Patronus be?
I have a feeling it would be a dog, because of… reasons.

11. If you could have the Resurrection Stone, Invisibility Cloak or Elder Wand, what would it be?
I’m not particularly drawn to any. I’m not interested in power, so I have no use for the Elder Wand, except maybe as a means of effective defence. I’m too young to have lost anyone I love, so I don’t (yet) have any attraction to the Resurrection Stone. That leaves me with the Invisibility Cloak, which I suppose could prove useful in certain situations.

12. Which house would you be in?
I was sorted into Hufflepuff on Pottermore. I would more naturally have sorted myself into Ravenclaw, but I do have many Hufflepuff traits as well, and I’m happy being a Hufflepuff.

13. If you could meet any member of the cast, who would it be?
Daniel Radcliffe, I think. Just because anyone who does this has got to be a sick lad.

14. If you were on the Quidditch team, which position would you play?
Hard question. My instinctive answer would have been Seeker, because I’m small and light and agile so I’d be a natural build for a Seeker, but I think I’d get frustrated very quickly in that position. I don’t have the patience or the attention span to be a Seeker. I’d want to be in the thick of the action, where I can feel the adrenaline rush. So I think I’d be a Chaser: I can be very competitive, which is definitely an advantage for a Chaser. I might be attracted to being a Beater, but I’m probably not physically powerful enough; and I wouldn’t be a Keeper because I’d get bored.

15. Were you happy with the ending?
I suppose so. I’ve never really seen anything to criticise about the ending.

16. How much does Harry Potter mean to me?
Harry Potter raised me. As a child and an adolescent, Harry Potter taught me so much. Harry Potter made me into a reader, and shaped, in more ways than I can probably define, who I am today. I will never not be a Harry Potter fan, and I’m sure that, at the end of my life, I will return, as though upon a pilgrimage to my childhood home, to Harry Potter for repose.