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2020: A Year in Books

2020 marked the first year where I took on a more systematic approach to reading. Previously, I based my book choices on whatever I happened to stumble upon, often skipping from subject to subject. While I still think it’s important to make some room for serendipity in book selection, I found that by focusing on clusters of related topics, I would retain much more of the content by drawing connections between the different arguments. Also, this approach enabled me to finish books much quicker, as I could often skip sections or even entire chapters where the key ideas had previously been addressed in other books of the cluster. 

As part of the effort to systematize my reading progress, I have briefly reviewed some of the books I read this past year and sorted them in clusters (some being more expansive than others). Many of these books will reappear as part of an article series or may receive their own post here.  


The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations – Daniel Yergin

Tags: Geopolitics, History 

  • A superbly written book that fuses history, geopolitics, and energy. In it, Yergin lays out what he calls the “energy maps” of different regions and illuminates the background to many of today’s ongoing conflicts. The book helped me tremendously in making sense of how we have arrived at the current state of our world and grasping the role of energy in shaping international relations. 

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder – Peter Zeihan

Tags: Geopolitics, History 

  • Zeihan, a geopolitical analyst, draws on a broad knowledge of geography, demographics, politics and economics to explain current trends and make future predictions. At the heart of its argument is the idea that the post-WWII international regime, which has led to prosperity and peace in many regions around the world, is slowly fading away with US energy independence and its shrinking commitment to preserving global trade. Zeihan certainly writes from a heavily US-centric perspective and I would take his predictions with a grain of salt, but the book nonetheless provides a fascinating overview of geopolitics. 

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt

Tags: Polarization, Psychology, Human Nature 

  • A wonderful book, in which Haidt, makes the case that human morality serves as the core factor in explaining the societal divide on politics and religion. According to the social psychologist, there is a different moral matrix underlying liberal, conservative and libertarian thought, which results in different intuitions in what we perceive as right or wrong. This framework explains growing societal polarization, tribal politics and our seeming incapacity to argue rationally on political issues. I particularly loved how Haidt manages to blend together a broad range of different disciplines in making the case for his argument. 

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari 

Tags: History, Human Nature

  • This is probably the book that had the single biggest impact on shaping my worldview. Even though, as Harari himself claims, the book doesn’t necessarily introduce any new ideas (in fact, he was quite surprised with his overwhelming international success), it does a magnificent job of illuminating human history by drawing surprising threads between the forces that have shaped Homo Sapiens’ existence. If I would have to recommend just one book from this list, it would be this one. 

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Tags: Fiction, Biography 

  • Noah is a comedian and host of the Daily Show. In this biography, he opens up about his childhood during South-Africa’s apartheid era. A wonderful, hilarious and deeply-touching read. 

Cluster: Political Polarization 

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment – Francis Fukuyama

Tags: Polarization

  • Fukuyama, a political scientist best known for his 1989 essay “The End of History?”, highlights the role of identity in the current political conflicts of the West. Following his initial postulation that the freedoms induced by liberal democracy and capitalism would automatically lead to a growing demand for democratic governance around the globe, he now argues that recent phenomena like Donald Trump are linked to the issue of identity: we are not rational, individualistic utility maximisers (as economic theory holds) but view ourselves as part of a group, from which we crave respect and recognition. This ultimately gives rise to identity politics, in which political parties have focussed on ever-narrower voter identities. However, as Fukuyama argues, social cohesion suffers when national identities splinter. This is an important consideration when thinking about polarization and the future of democracy.  

Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All – Martin Sandbu

Tags: Polarization, Economics 

  • Sandbu is well-known for “Free Lunch” columns in the Financial Times. In his most recent book, the author puts forward a range of policy proposals to address the rise of political illiberalism and the rejection of globalization. At the heart of his argument is these trends do not originate from cultural factors, but from the widespread sentiment that economic opportunities in Western countries are reserved for an exclusive elite. If you are interested in more concrete considerations on what can be done to overcome polarization by means of economic policy, this book is for you. 

Die Politische Ökonomie des Populismus (The political economy of populism) – Philip Manow (German)

Tags: Polarization, Economics 

  • A relatively short book by German political scientist Philip Manow. In it, he provides a coherent explanation of why populism manifests itself in the different shapes it has adopted, particularly its European variations. Central to his argument are two factors: the protest against open markets (in Southern Europe) and migration (in Northern Europe), which interact with the respective structure of the welfare state and labour markets. 

How Democracies Die – Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky

Tags: Polarization, Democracy 

  • This is certainly one of the most cited books I have come across in recent years. The two political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, with particular reference to Trump, caution against the breakdown of mutual toleration and contempt for the political legitimacy of the opposition. Even with Trump gone, they fear that the culture of disrespecting political opponents will remain characteristic of future politics. I found this to be a highly important read in a time of increasing political polarization and tribal party politics. 

#Republic – Cass Sunstein

Tags: Polarization, Democracy 

  • Sunstein is a writing phenomenon. In the past years, the American legal scholar has managed to publish about two books a year on average. Even though I tried many times, I never actually got to finish one of them. While I find most of his discussions highly interesting they are written somewhat cumbersome. In my opinion, it suffices to either skim or select the most relevant chapters to get an understanding of his argument. In this book, Sunstein deliberates on the threats to democracy imposed by the echo chambers that are so prevalent in our age of social media. 

The Three Languages of Politics – Arnold Kling

Tags: Polarization

  • This was a very short, yet highly insightful book. It heavily draws on some of the other books that are part of this list, particularly Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”, in outlining the “three tribal coalitions” that make up the American political landscape: Progressives, Conservatives and Libertarians. In my opinion, the framework that Kling proposes helps immensely in gaining an understanding of what has led to the hostile political environment we find ourselves in. 

Why we’re Polarized – Ezra Klein

Tags: Polarization

  • In the spirit of the Vox, an explanatory news site which he co-founded, Klein delivers a thorough investigation as to why the US political landscape has become so divided. The main argument is as follows: for much of its political history, the two major American political parties catered to a diverse group of voters, crossing economic classes as well as social and ethnic backgrounds. This started to crumble with the social movements of the 1960s and has resulted in today’s clear divide in voter’s socio-economic profile. Similar to Fukuyama (see above), Klein emphasizes the role of identity, arguing that our political identities have transformed into ‘mega-identities’, which appeal to our tribal instincts (see the book by Jonathan Haidt above) and explain much of current political fragmentation. As such, the book fit right into my series on Political Polarization, but I would start elsewhere if you are just getting into the topic. 

National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy – Matthew Goodwin & Roger Eatwell (Tags: Polarization) 

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World – William Davies (Tags: Polarization) 

The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It – Yascha Mounk (Tags: Polarization) 

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters – Tom Nichols (Tags: Polarization) 

Cluster: International Development

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty – Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo

Tags: International Development

  • Duflo and Banerjee have recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in introducing a systematic, experimental approach to the study of development economics and alleviation of global poverty. In their book Poor Economics, they describe the effectiveness of implementing evidence-based randomized control trials in order to gain an understanding of how the poor think and make decisions on topics such as education, savings or healthcare. I was missing a red thread between the chapters, but can highly recommend the read if you are interested in development solutions that constitute a middle ground between entirely market-based approaches and grand schemes. 

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty – Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson

Tags: International Development, History 

  • A classic. The book provides a wealth of historical evidence to support its argument that it comes down to the quality of institutions in determining development. Acemoglu and Robinson claim that we should differentiate between extractive (excluding most of the population from political decision-making and income distribution) and inclusive institutions (incorporating the people in political and economic life). Though this hypothesis is not without its criticism (particularly given the rise of China), the book is a fantastic read and certainly worth the time. 

The Bottom Billion – Paul Collier

Tags: International Development

  • I often tend to dismiss non-fiction books that have been written more than a decade ago, as I feel that much of the content has become obsolete in our rapidly-changing world. However, Collier’s arguments on the different traps that impair the development prospects of bottom billion countries seem as relevant as ever. 

Dead Aid – Dambisa Moyo

Tags: International Development

  • Moyo is a Zambian economist, who argues that foreign aid has in fact harmed African economic development, leading to a vicious cycle of dependency, corruption and poor governance. According to her, it ultimately comes down to market solutions and private sector involvement to ensure long term development and prosperity.  I don’t quite agree with this ‘Hayekian’ approach to development and find books such as Poor Economics (see above), which aim to chart a middle ground between ideological extremes, much more appealing.

Development: A Very Short Introduction – Ian Goldin

Tags: International Development

  • The books from the “A Very Short Introduction” series provide a brief glimpse into a wide array of different disciplines. Development, written by economics professor Ian Goldin was one of my favourites of the series, offering an overview of the current state of development and a discussion of where it has succeeded and failed. 

Cluster: Refuge & Migration

Welche Grenzen brauchen Wir? (What borders do we need?) – Gerald Knaus (German)

Tags: Migration

  • Knaus is considered the architect of the EU-Turkey deal following the migrant crisis. In his book, the author presents a fact-based analysis of Europe’s migration regime and makes the case for “humane borders”, that is borders that are in line with the values of the EU. Faced with migration, Knaus argues that politicians need to strike a pragmatic balance between fear and empathy, making asylum procedures more efficient and cooperating with those countries that refuse to take back emigrants that have been denied refuge. 

Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World – Paul Collier & Alexander Betts

Tags: Migration 

  • Collier, an economist and author of “The Bottom Billion” (see above) together with co-author Alexander Betts, deliberate on the international refugee regime following Europe’s migrant crisis of 2015. Their argument is one of focus and efficiency: while political leaders of developed countries focus on the small percentage of refugees within their own borders, they tend to overlook the predicaments of the nearly 90% of people that are hosted in developing countries. Shifting part of their attention to the plight of these refugees would enable a more efficient allocation of resources. To illustrate, the authors argue that, per refugee, Germany budgets a sum one hundred times larger than the UN institutions have access to. Collier and Betts make the case that a collaborative international effort, supporting countries that are much closer to emigration regions, both in a geographic and cultural sense, would be a much more humane and effective approach to addressing the refugee crisis. Though unfortunately there hasn’t been much progress on this front, the authors provide a sensible argument and I can recommend the reading to anyone interested in the migrant crisis. 

Cluster: Politics, Geography and History 

The Absent Superpower – Peter Zeihan

Tags: Geopolitics

  • Zeihan develops on the arguments of his first book (see above) and brings these in line with more recent political developments. As before, demographics, geography and energy play a key role in his analysis, which is centred around the argument that US energy independence due to its shale revolution is reshaping the international world order. The superpower’s eroding commitment to overseeing global stability upsets the international trade regime that has been in place since the end of WWII and gives rise to a variety of conflicts. Unless you are particularly interested in the technicalities of shale energy, I wouldn’t recommend this book in addition to reading The Accidental Superpower.   

The World: A Brief Introduction – Richard Haass

Tags: Geopolitics

  • Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank specialized in international affairs. This book constitutes a primer on navigating the global state of our world, including a discussion of history, geography and future trends. Evidently, there aren’t many original ideas presented, but the book provides a well-written overview on the backdrop of current events. 

21.0: Eine kurze Geschichte der Gegenwart (21.0: A brief history of the present) – Andreas Rödder (German)

Tags: History

  • This was one of these books that sketches out a broad overview of contemporary history. Rödder, a German history professor, takes the reader on a journey through the current issues of our time, including climate change, digitalisation and equality.  At times, I found the writing a bit tedious, but the book nonetheless offers a solid introduction to the current forces that are shaping our world. 

Political Ideologies – Andrew Heywood

Tags: Politics

  • In our current political and economic discourse, I often feel like terms such as “socialist” or “capitalist” are attributed to completely different meanings, depending on the argument one is trying to make. This textbook cuts through the noise and provides a thorough overview of the grand ideological narratives of our time. Heywood manages to step away from ambiguity and delineates a clear definition of each concept, including its history and different variations.  

How to Think Politically – James Bernard Murphy

Tags: Politics

  • Murphy is a professor of governance and political philosophy at Dartmouth University. In this book, he provides an introduction to history’s most important thinkers and what they have contributed to how we should live as individuals and communities. This is really more of a primer into history’s celebrated thinkers, but it does so in a comprehensible format and serves as an enjoyable introduction into political thought. 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

Tags: Geopolitics, Technology, Polarization, Religion 

  • Following Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari turns to the present in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” and attempts to make sense of current challenges. The book is written in a series of essays that address technological, political, social and existential predicaments of humanity. While I would rank it behind Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari manages again to display his fantastic storytelling skills and the ability to draw astonishing connections. 

The Technology Trap – Carl Benedikt Frey

Tags: The Future of Work, Technology

  • Frey, an economist at the University of Oxford, provides a comprehensive exploration of the history of technological progress and how it upsets the distributional balance of economic and political power in society. Drawing connections between the Industrial Revolution and the current age of automation, the author claims that while providing wealth and prosperity in the long run, governments need to adequately manage the short-term effects of technological progress. The West’s recent experience with populist uprising, induced by stagnating wages, the hollowing out of the middle class and increasing inequality, illustrates the dangerous consequences of insufficient government response. It is a lengthy read, but well worth it if you are interested in the links between economic and political polarization in the age of automation. 

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government – Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels (Tags: Politics) 

Cluster: The New Economy

Covid-19: The Great Reset – Klaus Schwab & Thierry Malleret

Tags: Covid-19, New Economy

  • For a long time, I had put off reading a book on the pandemic, given the never-ending news cycle on the subject. The first one ended up being “The Great Reset”, written by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and co-author Thierry Malleret. In it, the authors propose to use the pandemic as catalyst and rethink the design of our economies and societies on both a macro and micro scale. To support this transformation, Schwab and Malleret emphasize three requirements: the fair functioning of markets that are based on a stakeholder-value model, the support of green investments and infrastructure and a world in which societal progress and economic growth are aligned. Interestingly, the book received enormous backlash by the conspiracy community on social media, following their argument that the WEF would seek to install a new world order. 

Unsere Welt neu Denken: Eine Einladung (Rethinking our world: an invitation) – Maja Göpel (German)

Tags: Climate Change, New Economy

  • Göpel is a German political economist, drawing heavily on change management and transformation research to address the topic of climate change. In her book, she proposes a neat narrative of how economic theory and our voracious appetite for consuming ever more products have led us into the climate crisis. There weren’t many new insights I took from the book, but it serves its purpose of communicating her message to a broad audience in a well-written narrative. 

Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek – Rutger Bregman (Tags: New Economy


The Education of an Idealist – Samantha Power (Tags: Biography)

How I Learned to Understand the World – Hans Rosling (Tags: Biography)

Faserland – Christian Kracht (Tags: Fiction)

Allegro Pastell – Leif Randt (Tags: Fiction)

Not Forgetting the Whale – John Ironmonger (Tags: Fiction)