2020 Best Books

- 3 mins

As a kid, I used to dream about a room filled with books where time was dilated. You could go into this room and read for as long as you wanted, then wander back out to find that hardly a moment had passed outside. Equipped with this retreat, the stacks at the library wouldn’t feel so daunting.

2020 has been anything but a bastion, but time has seemed to pass outside the normal course of events. Part of my head is still wandering through early March as I walk about my neighborhood, as if we’ll all wake up tomorrow and make summer plans. This strange progression of days has allowed me to indulge in my childhood dream in some small way, spending more time with books than opportunity costs would usually merit.

A few favorites from my reading these last few months are outlined below.

Invisible Frontiers

Review: Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene

Molecular biology has shaped the modern world, but the industrial and medical nature of the ensuing advances has led to a low salience for these technologies in the culture. Invisible Frontiers is old and out of print, but it’s one of the few stories to capture the wonder felt by many life scientists when they first encounter our newfound powers to manipulate the code of life. Following the story of the first molecular cloning experiments to the first marketed products from Genentech, Hall provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective to some of the foundational moments in the modern life sciences. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Review: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is an amazing mental model for the frailty of political and sociological systems.

I found myself thinking about this book more than any other this year.

How Asia Works

Review: How Asia Works

How did some east Asian economies dance to the frontier of technology after World War II, while others stagnated? Studwell dissects this question with lucidity and narrative in a remarkably readable work of developmental economics.

I want to read 100 books like this.

Inventing the NIH

Review: Inventing the NIH

The NIH is one of the most important institutions in the history of biomedicine. How and why was it created? Harden provides one of the few detailed accounts of the institute’s genesis.

Cadillac Desert

Cadillac Desert 🏜 is the story of water in the American West. It has a municipal espionage agency, federal appropriations for airplanes classified as dams, empirical evidence for the inertia of policy, the origins of aerospace in the PNW, & so much more


Hoover: An Extraordinary Life

Review: Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

Hoover is infinitely more interesting that the typical one-dimensional character portrayed in US history classes. He somehow managed to be present for a non-trivial portion of world events in the early twentieth century, such that his personal story allows for a human recount of a rapidly changing world.

Her-2: The Making of Herceptin

Review: Her-2 - The Making of Herceptin

Biotech has improved the lives of countless families, but there are few accessible books on how medicines are made.

Bazell’s Her-2 is an exception. He captures the development of Herceptin & offers a template for understanding drug development.

Jacob C. Kimmel

Jacob C. Kimmel

Principal Investigator @ Calico. Interested in aging, genomics, imaging, & machine learning.

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