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In 2020, the books I read were my calendar

Commentary: An endless march through an endless March, in printed pages and E Ink screens. Books helped mark the time.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
11 min read
Scott Stein/CNET

It's been hard keeping track of time. Ever since… sometime, I've lost track of days. This is a colder time. The earlier times were also cold. In the middle it was warm. Many things have happened. I don't see people. I work from home. My kids are at home. I cook a lot. I write things. I try to remember to drink water. And my memory often goes blurry. What helps me, in some small way, is reading books and writing down what I've read.

I started this little habit about five years ago. I keep a Notes file, list the books, and each one I get to makes me feel better. I only get to around 18 a year, max. That's not a ton. But it's better than nothing. Like anything else, it happens one page at a time. I'm distracted a lot, and my kids yell, and there are dishes and work deadlines and video games and shows I zone out to. But these books, they felt like a lifeline.

What did I read this year? I don't know, stuff. I picked from books I'd meant to read for decades. Books I just bought. Books that have been on my mind. Digital ones, physical ones. One attempt at an audio book. One's a video game, but I'm counting it as a book. Maybe you'll read a few, too. In a year where I feel like I've disappeared, and my purpose in life has been rewritten, books can help set a new pace. Cast a line. Shine a light. And maybe, for a while, make you feel normal. (Or comfort you that abnormal is eternal.)

I alternated between physical books and ebooks. Some books are better to hold. I have an old Kindle Paperwhite, and I treated myself a Kindle Oasis on sale this year just because I read all the time. I don't regret it.

I missed many great books, and bought tons of books I also meant to read. This isn't a great list, or a list you should follow. But these are the ones that helped me pass through the labyrinth of 2020. What I'm really saying is, books helped mark out space and time for me. If you're feeling lost, hopefully books can help you as much in 2021 as they've helped me in 2020.

The winter

Scott Stein/CNET

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

I bought this book last year, after I read glowing reviews. Shane is an AI researcher who writes the fun, brilliant and strange AI Weirdness blog. This book is her introduction to AI, and a discussion of its limits, through examples of experiments that have failed. It's cautious and hopeful at the same time. It is sunny and disturbing. It has cool illustrations. And I got to talk to Shane about it earlier this year, towards the beginning of lockdown. It'll help you understand how dumb, and magical, algorithms can be.

The Art of Failure by Jesper Juul

I read this ebook at the same time as You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, slowly, over months. I bought it as part of a Humble Bundle on game design ebooks years ago, inspired by the game design book selections I always saw at the Game Developers Conference. The Art of Failure is a meditation on how failure as a mechanism builds good games. It also made me think about the need for failure in life as a learning process.

Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz

I love magic (like, coins and cards and Penn & Teller magic), and it's been my hobby for years. I collect books on magic like an addiction. Especially theoretical books. Strong Magic is a dense book on presentation notes, style and structure for magicians. It's about the importance of nuance. It has a ton of references to magic effects and techniques, many of which I don't know. But it's a reminder of how attention to detail in presentation can impact the way we perceive reality.

The Power Broker (only 10 chapters or so)

Someday, I'll finish reading The Power Broker. Not this year. The epic Pulitzer Prize-winning book on New York City and Robert Moses has been a bucket-list read for me ever since moving back to New York in 2004, especially since I'm convinced the things I hate most about New York City are his fault. I'm still shocked there used to be an aquarium down in Battery Park. It's not available as an ebook, but I listened to 10 chapters of the audiobook back when I was commuting before the March shutdowns, and found myself really angered by politics and Moses. Then I stopped when I stopped commuting. Now it's December.


Is KRZ a book? Sure it is.

Annapurna Interactive

Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer

This is a video game, technically. But it's really a visual novel. I never played Kentucky Route Zero until it arrived on the Nintendo Switch, and it became a world I fell into. I played it on the train, many months ago. I stayed up late at night. It's a tale of capitalism, loss, journeys, crumbling America. It's Lynchian. I still think about it.

Presto! (How I made over 100 pounds disappear, and other magical tales) by Penn Jillette

I've met Penn (of magician duo Penn & Teller) several times. At CES two years ago, I interviewed him on the CNET stage about weight loss. He signed this book and gave it to me. I find weight loss hard, but I started doing intermittent fasting back in February and lost nearly 20 pounds. I gained some of that back since, but Penn's book gave me strength to think about dedication to diet and health. His book is weird and not for everyone, but its spirit -- and its reminder to me that being wild and crazy and being disciplined can happen together -- inspire me.

The endless March

Scott Stein/CNET

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

It's been a year for absurdism. I read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to my son last year, and we got into the next book together, too. I'd never read the Hitchhiker's Guide books (seriously), and knew I was overdue. Now my son's reading the rest of them without me. Mission accomplished?

On Spice by Caitlin PenzeyMoog

The pandemic has involved me not going to any stores or restaurants for nine months. I get home deliveries, and I cook constantly. I've been obsessed with food and food history for a while (see Harold McGee, below), but On Spice, written by a member of the Penzeys spice company family (I have one of their pepper mills), is both a comforting memoir and a guide to spice nuances you might not have known about.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Being at home has distorted time. It's made my sense of reality strange. House of Leaves is a book I've had and forgotten to read for 20-plus years, much like Infinite Jest was two years ago. I took the dive to deal with my anxieties, and get lost in the horror-labyrinth of unreliable narrators and immersive puzzle-like dead ends. House of Leaves has come to represent my feelings in isolation: identity drift, spaces feeling infinite. It was my spring and early summer. It works as a physical book: it plays with text layout and footnotes. I dragged it around my own house, reading late at night, trying to tackle its puzzle-like pages. It's a maze in book form.

Impro by Keith Johnstone

Who are we to each other? What do we become when we see each other on Zoom, or in VR? The more I've been in virtual spaces, the more I've thought about improv, status games and how we interact. This classic on theater and improvisation has been in my library for decades, too: I bought it back when I was a grad student in playwriting last century. Its ideas of transformation through theater games feels mystical and strange. And somehow more important than ever.

The summer

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I never read Between the World and Me before, and then the George Floyd protests happened, and June became another world unto itself. Reading this book was hardly enough. But it was at least a start. As removed and disconnected as I've felt from the world around me in 2020, there's a lot more to unpack beyond me. As my kids talked with their teachers about what was happening, I tried to talk with them, too. I'm still trying. For a deeper reading list, here's more.

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

I love strange short stories: George Saunders, Kelly Link, Karen Russell. I'd never read Lem, a science fiction legend who reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut. The Cyberiad's weird little semicomic compendium of robots adventuring across allegorical lands, telling fable-like tales of the universe, felt ancient and futuristic at the same time. Its hints at human cruelty and political injustice felt appropriate. It was an escape, and a reckoning.

The Stand by Stephen King

A year for books I Meant To Read, indeed. It turned out that a friend in my town was also reading The Stand at the same time I was. I think it suddenly was on a lot of people's minds. A superflu, thoughts of the apocalypse, and Stephen King's biblical exploration of the failings of society. What drew me in were the positive feelings (seriously). People slowly joining together after isolation, forming bubbles, then communities, then cities. The sociological challenges of group think. Are we destined to keep making the same mistakes over and over? A book about the rebuilding of a shattered America that had divided itself seems more appropriate than ever.

Tales from the Loop by Simon Stålenhag

Amazon's Tales from the Loop TV series (which I loved) is a haunted, Twilight Zone-like adaptation of an art book made years before by Simon Stålenhag. I have all three of Stålenhag's Loop books, but I never really read them -- I just loved their art. I finally turned the pages and took in all the document fragments, the pieces that felt like lost parts from a failed experiment we'll never fully understand. It's a coffee-table book for a collapsed age.

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

I used to have fun going to immersive theater, before everything caved in and events disappeared. My favorite immersive theater site, No Proscenium, had a holiday gift guide recommending books that immersive theater-minded people like, and this slim volume popped up. I bought my copy years ago and never read it till now. Carse's philosophy (he's a religion professor) explores the difference between the structures of the games we make for ourselves in politics, art and society, and then explores the ways those game rules can shatter in a larger infinite game of life. That's an improper translation, but if you ever wanted a way of reconsidering the ways that life's structures can hem you in, maybe pick it up. (Other books since this one have run with the idea of finite/infinite games, and Carse's ideas aren't always perfect, but it stuck in my mind for most of the early fall.)

The fall

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Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Science fiction has become reality. The world has become permanently absurd. As the election season loomed, I couldn't focus. I felt alienated. I turned to fiction. Doctorow has been a great writer for years, and I loved his 2017 book Walkway (read it, and listen to our podcast with him). His 2019 book feels like a chronicle of 2020's nightmares. Tech enslaving immigrants with DRM. Superheroes trying to battle police violence. People radicalized by vampiric health insurance into becoming terrorists. The rich trying to escape pandemics in superbunkers. It's all so close to home it feels like it's knocking on my door. (Doctorow has a newer book, too, Attack Surface, but I'm happy with my choice.)

Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown

The last show I saw in a real theater was The Secret, a performance of mental magic and storytelling by UK magician and hoax debunker Derren Brown. I bought a book of his on mentalism and cognitive deception, called Tricks of the Mind, back in 2007. In a year in which propaganda and distortion have caused reality to frequently seem like it's bending, I came back to this book as a reminder of the ways our mind falls prey to scams -- and demagogues -- all too easily.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In November, I still felt like I was in a self-made labyrinth. Clarke's new book about a man lost in an impossible neverending house reminded me of House of Leaves from back in the spring. But this is gentler, and colder. It's more about the mazes we trap ourselves in in our own minds, as the main character realizes he's begun to forget his own journey. Clarke's previous book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is a celebrated book I've never read. I took on the shorter Piranesi instead, and felt it wrap around me like a game, a haunted poem, a reminder of my lost days. I find it hard to remember what I did this year, now that every week feels the same. For me, it felt like the beginning of therapy.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

I'm not a Middle-earth guy. I never read Lord of the Rings. But I started reading The Hobbit to my son over many nights, now that we both play D&D together online, and watch Adventure Time on TV over and over. Quests, and hope, take on new meaning now that we're mostly at home every single day. We explore an old world and look for treasure. I'm happy for the journey.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

I'm not saying Ready Player Two is a great book, or a must-read. But I had to read it. I've spent more than a decade immersed in VR and AR tech, and thinking about the future. Ready Player One, when it arrived in 2011, seemed like an obvious riff on old cyberpunk ideas. Then, it gradually seemed to be a reflection of the present moment, particularly its obsession with retro culture trapped in an overflowing, ever-remixed jumble of old ideas. RP2 doesn't feel like it's developed new ideas (except for exploring neural inputs), and a lot of it feels like it's written for kids. Maybe that's the point? My kid loves the Ready Player One movie. And my past year, stuck inside and stewing over old memories while losing myself in VR and gaming, felt more like Ready Player One than I'm comfortable admitting.

The winter, and what comes next

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells by Harold McGee

My favorite food book is On Food and Cooking, an encyclopedic work by Harold McGee that breaks everything down to scientific processes and chemical compounds with incredible anecdotes and detail. McGee has done the same thing for the world of smell. He chronicled a field guide to smells he encountered everywhere, and connected the molecular compounds linking unexpected foods, body odors and industrial processes. And more. Smell is memory. Will I be able to deconstruct my memories? At the very least, I'm learning the connections between armpits and cheese. Weirdest book of the year by far.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Enough people I know have told me to read this book, that I'm finally reading it. At my rate, I'll be done by mid-2021.

A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer

I love Jeff VanderMeer's work, and also bought Ann and Jeff's Weird anthology of fiction earlier this year. Jeff VanderMeer was our last in-person podcast guest a year ago. A Peculiar Peril is a strange kid's adventure epic. I've been meaning to read it with my kid. Post-Hobbit, it might be next.

Antkind by Charlie Kaufman

It's long, it promises to be bizarre and ornery, and I'm not ready for it. It stares at me from my bookshelf each morning. Someday.