Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Best of 2020

Top ten reads of the year
This time each year Old Books by Dead Guys highlights the best books reviewed at this blog over the past twelve months, regardless of when they were published. One would expect that COVID distancing would have allowed more time for reading, but in reality splendid isolation did not yield an increase in books logged. In a typical year, about a quarter of the books I review are audio books, but working at home has cut my commute time down to nothing, so I didn’t get to spend an hour and a half listening to literature five days a week. Old Books by Dead Guys posted 114 reviews this year, about the same as in the past few years. The top ten selections are listed below, arranged chronologically by date of publication. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt (1808)
This scientific travel memoir by Prussian explorer Humboldt is the prototype for what we now call “nature writing.” The romantic, literary narrative conveys the sights and sounds of exotic destinations, while extensive notes deliver loads of empirical data from his scientific observations. Humboldt compares similar biomes from different parts of the world in an attempt to draw universal ecological laws. His staggering breadth of knowledge makes this a fascinating read for anyone interested in natural history.

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter (1891)
Written by a member of the German parliament, this novel is an anti-Communist political statement masquerading as a socialist utopia. A revolution installs a socialist government in Berlin. At first all is happiness and cheers for the nation’s bright future and the brotherhood of man, but soon the new regime begins to show signs of ineptness, corruption, and totalitarianism. In addition to the political commentary and satire, Richter delivers a moving story about one family’s struggles under this new world order.

French author Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a series of ten novels charting the life of Jean-Christophe Krafft, a German musical prodigy born to humble beginnings but destined for great things. In English translation, these ten novels are divided into three volumes, the first of which details Jean-Christophe’s childhood and adolescence.

Kallocain by Karin Boye (1940)
This science fiction novel by Swedish poet and author Boye is the fictional memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future, who develops an effective truth serum that aids his society’s tyrannical government in crushing dissent and destroying individuality. Published almost a decade before George Orwell’s 1984, Kallocain is a poignant and prophetic warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. 

One Clear Call by Upton Sinclair (1948)
The ninth volume in Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series follows the American art expert/secret agent through the events of 1943 and 1944. Pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, Lanny gleans intelligence from Hitler and Göring and performs a behind-the-scenes role in preparations for the Normandy landing. Sinclair’s monumental series provides a unique and detailed perspective on the history of the World Wars.

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Half of this book is a beautiful work of nature writing describing the natural history of Leopold’s own private corner of southeastern Wisconsin, reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The other half is a series of important essays on wilderness conservation and wildlife management, Leopold’s areas of expertise. This book is one of America’s foundational texts on ecology and environmentalism, but it’s also an enjoyable and accessible read for nature lovers of all reading levels.

This landmark study is a treasure trove of knowledge on the science of seeing. By synthesizing the research of many psychologists, Arnheim explains how the human eye and brain perceive line, shape, form, space, light, color, and movement, and how artists use such visual phenomena in the creation of art. This is a fundamental textbook for artists and an eye-opening read for art lovers. 

For this greatest hits album, the librarians, curators, and scientists at the American Museum of Natural History selected twenty of their favorite books in the institution’s collection. Each historic volume is represented by selected illustrations and a brief historical essay. The result is a grand and gorgeous tour of the history of natural history from 1551 to the 1920s, including such artists as John James Audubon, Robert Hooke, and Ernst Haeckel. 

Before science fiction was called science fiction, it was called scientific romance. Its undisputed giants were H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but this volume covers authors farther afield, both the famous and the forgotten. The collection includes 27 short stories by American, British, and French authors from the 1830s to World War I. Not only has editor Stableford selected fine stories, he also provides valuable historical context on the genre.

Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals by Luis-Martín Lozano and Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera (2019)
This giant 10" x 15" tome is the most comprehensive and authoritative compendium of the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the modern master of fresco painting. Each mural is documented in detail with numerous large and beautiful photographs, including many fold-outs, accompanied by explanatory diagrams and knowledgeable essays. Rivera’s work has never looked better in print!

Also this year, Old Books by Dead Guys celebrated its 1000th Post! (10 Feb 2020) by taking a detailed look at what’s been covered over the previous eight years.

And the list of reviews by Nobel Prize-winning authors continues to grow:
Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates (a continually updated list)


See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Happy reading in 2021!

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