Favorite Books Read in 2020

Amid market and news turmoil, books can provide an escape. They can also be a source of reassurance. In 2020, I read or listened to 43 of them. That’s not a number worth bragging about (I think my bookworm mother probably read 4 times that many).

This is the 3rd year of publishing the prior year’s reading picks. Below, I selected 8. I’ll be adding the non-fiction picks to the website’s “Resources” page. There, you can find other recommendations for finance, lifestyle, and life improvement books.

A. Fiction:

24 of the 43 I read were fiction (I found I needed more escapism in 2020, for some strange reason.) Of those, 3 stood out:

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein: I had started Stein’s book and then accidentally left it on an airplane in 2013. Coincidentally it showed up in my neighborhood’s Little Free Library. I never saw the movie, and I’m glad I waited. Told from the point of view of the family dog, it chronicles love, illness, and loss with equal parts sadness, charm, and humor. A tragedy, but an uplifting one, for me.

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf: Plainsong takes place in a farm town of eastern Colorado – a place most of America drives through or flies over in our rush to the Rockies. The young protagonist faces more problems than a teenager should, yet they’re not uncommon problems in today’s world. The characters in the farm town families aren’t simple. I found myself wishing some of them were different, and then accepting they’re not, as I must do in real life, too. Pure goodness comes from characters I least expected based on appearances and societal norms. This was another uplifting one – I guess I’m kind of a sucker for those.

Journey, by Danielle Steel: A real oldie, from the 90s. I’m not a huge Danielle Steel reader, but she masterfully and thoroughly explains a widely misunderstood phenomenon- why and how successful women are duped into staying in emotionally abusive marriages. It’s got her trademark over-the-top glam lifestyle setting and more than a few one-dimensional characters. But the roller coaster ride in her protagonist’s shoes makes me wonder how much of the story might have come from Steel’s personal experience.

B. Economics:

The Gulf, by Jack A. Davis. You could argue this is not an economics book. Yet the story of the Gulf comes down to economics’ essence – competition for scarce resources – whether shellfish, oil, or plain old sand. I expected to be bored by the litany of Spanish conquerors, oil explorers, tourist trappers, and real estate developers. Not so. This was a page-turner of a story about the histories of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mexico, and Texas. From the start, I was edu-tained by the continual blundering of the Spanish “conquerors” through Florida as native Indians watched in puzzlement. That’s not quite how I learned it in 3rd grade….There’s plenty of tragedy to go around, but it ends on a hopeful note.

The Deficit Myth, by Stephanie Kelton. This is one of the most controversial books published recently. I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Kelton at a 2013 dinner, after we had each spoken to an audience of financial advisors. She stole the show. The line of advisors waiting to talk to her afterward stretched the length of the conference room. I have been following her message and conferences since then. I wanted to read it to stay open-minded and balanced about economic policy. I’m now rethinking everything I learned about Milton Friedman’s theories in graduate school. If you’re an economics buff and willing to entertain new ideas, this one’s for you.

C. Business:

Resonate, by Nancy Duarte. This book is for anyone who wants to nail a presentation. It’s also instrumental for crafting a message in any format: Know your audience. Listen for overarching questions behind their questions. Stories stick better than facts. Use a storyline arc to help them discover they can be the hero of their own story. Duarte walks the reader through impressive real-world examples from her Fortune 500 clients.

D. Life-Improvement: (a/k/a “self-help”)

The Bullet Journal Method, by Ryder Carroll. After 30+ years in the business world, including 14 on my own, I’ve established a few routines. I admit a stubborn resistance to change them. But I’d heard so many good things about the Bullet Journal that I had to try it. It stuck. I’ve been using it for almost a year. I feel like it’s given me my mornings back. Having priorities set straight in this old-fashioned notebook brought heaps of sanity to me in an otherwise insane year.

E. Timely

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. When I received this from my mother in 2019, I had no idea how timely it would be. I’m sure Ms. Skloot didn’t either when she wrote it. Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman living in poverty in 1950s Baltimore. She contracted an especially virulent form of cervical cancer. Johns Hopkins, where she was being treated, asked if they could take a sample of her cells for research.

Unfortunately, Skloot’s investigative journalism found that they were a bit more interested in her cells than her life. Henrietta appears to have received negligent care for her cancer, her pain, and her suffering at the end. However, her cells have been instrumental in developing many drugs that have helped millions. They have been reproduced in labs and spread through the world for over 50 years. I recently read that scientists have confirmed they were used to develop the Covid vaccines. The contrast in the lack of progress for Henrietta’s family, who were largely unaware, with the life-altering progress made possible by her cells is striking. Questions of medical ethics, the profiteering of drug development off of medical volunteers, and racial equity all come together in this pre-Covid book.

What books were life-changing, or simply entertaining, for you in 2020?

Want more reading recommendations? Click on our Recommended Resources page for finance, psychology of money and retirement books, or on our full list from 2019.

Happy Reading!

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

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