Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2020

According to my Goodreads stats (which I use to track every book I read), I read 95 books in 2020, which is down slightly from last year (114). Though that includes comic books, which are shorter and quicker to read, plus audiobooks, and I read less comics, so more full-books in all. My increased reading was not due to being stuck at home during quarantine as that didn’t affect my lifestyle much—it’s primarily because I severely cut down on reading Twitter and other online news. I previously wrote about the futility of following the daily news closely, but I still clung to Twitter—a little too much—sometimes a lot too much. I will expand upon how I broke my Twitter addiction in a future post, but suffice it to say, these days I check Twitter just once a day (at night after getting my work done) for only a couple minutes—if at all. This immediately reduced my stress levels and gave me much more time to read more valuable things that will stand the test of time, such as the following books.

1. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto by Murray N. Rothbard (1973)

The definitive book on libertarian philosophy by Austrian economist, historian, prolific author, and father of anarcho-capitalism, Murray Rothbard. In essence, libertarianism includes three core principles: private property rights, freedom of exchange, and the non-aggression principle. This book will help you understand the actual history of America, how economics really works, and the true nature of the state. No holds barred, Rothbard exposes the problems with both the political left and right, how they are different in some ways but in many ways the same (in all the worst ways).

This book will change the way you look at the world, especially government, and make you question its very existence. Rothbard systematically explains how a nation state is not needed—and is actually detrimental—to the areas of society where most people assume it’s essential such as education, healthcare, police, military, defense, and courts. In each case, free market competition in the private sector would provide those services at a lower cost and higher quality. “But what about the roads?” Yeah, he answers that question too.  

This and all of Rothbard’s (and other authors’) books are available for free in digital form by the Mises Institute. I also read Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State (1974) this past year, which is shorter (more of a long essay) and serves as a good introduction to his ideas.

2. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick (1995)

This is a collection of essays, speeches, and other nonfiction writing by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick. PKD talks about various topics such as writing, science fiction, philosophy, religion, robots, drugs, and the ultimate nature of reality. He was writing about artificial intelligence and the simulation theory decades before those topics became popular.

3. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark (2017)

A vision of what the future of AI may hold for humans. Tegmark portrays potential positive futures, negative futures, and some in between. The book begins with an extended science fiction story that is a sort of thought experiment about the invention of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and the step-by-step methods it could take to control the world. Later in the book he does another series of thought experiments envisioning possible future societies based on the type of AGI that is created, including an egalitarian utopia, libertarian utopia, benevolent dictatorship, protector god, enslaved god, gatekeeper, zookeeper, 1984-type Big Brother, and others. 

4. The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics by Michael Malice (2019)

No matter where you stand politically, it would help to understand the new right wing that is developing. The author, Michael Malice, is a self-described “anarchist with no adjectives” and he is my favorite current political commentator and podcaster (Your Welcome). He has a supremely quick wit, which is evident in this book and his Twitter feed. The most interesting “new right” character mentioned in the book is Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, whose writing is worth reading. As for some of the other figures, neither Malice nor I condone them, (many are far from libertarian) but again, the objective is to understand the full political landscape—even (and especially) your enemies—rather than straw-manning their positions.

5. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (2010) 

This book is about how technology is evolving just like life itself, and how the evolution of humans and technology are intertwined. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, is one of the best futurist thinkers and has successfully predicted much of what we see on the internet today.

6. A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell (2010)

This book is about how the renegades of history, or those people on the fringes of society, often operating in black markets, were responsible for creating much of the culture and freedoms we all enjoy today. Thaddeus Russell also has one of the best podcasts around: Unregistered. He is like a modern Socrates crossed with Foucault.

7. Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Cyberspace by Douglas Rushkoff (1993)

Cyberia is time capsule of the future of the internet from the 1990s. It’s like a real-life cyberpunk book, featuring hackers, psychedelics, and electronic music. It was fascinating reading this 27 years later, now that the obscure subcultures written about in the 90s have become somewhat mainstream through the very internet they helped build.

8. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel (2014)

Peter Thiel is one of the most original, contrarian, out-of-the-box thinkers today. His unorthodox thinking has led to him making billions of dollars, so his advice is probably worth listening to.

9. High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experiences in the Seventies by Erik Davis (2019)

A detailed account of the “highly weird” experiences of three influential writers/thinkers from the 1970s: Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick.

10. Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships by David N.L. Levy (2007)

A lot of the science fiction I write concerns this subject, such as “The Proposal” and “The Dating Game 3000” from my short story collection, Story Addict, but I’ve written much more about the future of romantic relationships in the age of robots in as-yet unpublished stories (stayed tuned for those).

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical by author): 

  • Poetics by Aristotle (335 BC) – Amazing how a book this old contains advice applicable to modern Hollywood filmmakers.
  • Building Blocks For Liberty by Walter Block (2006)
  • This Craft of Verse by Jorge Luis Borges (1992)
  • Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett (2003)
  • A Dab of Dickens A Touch of Twain: Literary Lives from Shakespeare’s Old England to Frost’s New England by Elliot Engel (2002)
  • Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience by Michael S.A. Graziano (2019) – Interesting book on the “attention schema” theory of consciousness.
  • Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale (1999)
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (2018) – Not as revelatory or mind-blowing as Sapiens or Homo Deus. I’ve always found the past and future more interesting than the present. Much of this book either rehashed what Harari wrote before or seemed obvious (or wrong).
  • Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising by Ryan Holiday (2013)
  • What Must Be Done by Hans-Hermann Hoppe (2013)
  • Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz (2009)
  • I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains by Chuck Klosterman (2013)
  • Against Intellectual Property by Stephan Kinsella (2001)
  • The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror by Thomas Ligotti (2011) – A work of nihilistic philosophy by a horror writer that is more frightening than his fiction.
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (1998) – The book and lecturer from the movie Adaptation. Can be helpful to read, but don’t take any “how-to” writing advice as gospel (including my own).
  • Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886) – Nietzsche was far ahead of his time and is still quite relevant today.
  • The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley (2010) – Makes the case with hard facts and statistics that, despite the constant barrage of negative news, the world has been getting a lot better than most people realize through free markets and technological innovation.
  • Left, Right & the Prospects for Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard (1965)
  • Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell (2000)
  • No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner (1870) – Early American anarchist and abolitionist.
  • Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson (1994)
  • Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life by Neil Strauss (2009) – A gonzo-Walden survivalist guide for the modern age.
  • Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2001) – A precursor to Taleb’s Black Swan, which was #2 on my 2018 list.
  • My Inventions by Nikola Tesla (1919) – An inside look into the mind of one of history’s greatest engineers.
  • Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2006)
  • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1921) – This book is like a series of brilliant but difficult to comprehend tweets.
  • Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix edited by Glenn Yeffeth (2003)

Past Lists:

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