Every book I read in 2020

Nathan Ryan
11 min readJan 20, 2021

On Election Day in November, 2020, I found myself behind a plexiglass shield checking in Travis County voters. Six or seven other people had been assigned to work the polls at St. Lukes On The Lake Episcopal Church in northwest Austin, Texas, which meant this was the largest group of strangers I’d been around in at least six months.

As a textbook extrovert, I was elated.

Before COVID-19 descended on the world and forced us into quarantine, I would regularly stop in at two or three events around Austin per weeknight to support old friends, make new friends, and learn about the incredible work being done on any given issue in our city.

The home office.

More than just about anything in 2020, I’ve missed these chance encounters to stumble in on a performance by a local musician, a presentation about a breakthrough or an innovative local startup, or a conversation with a stranger that turned them into a friend. So much can be said about what makes Austin, Texas, a magical place, but at its core, to me, it’s knowing that every interaction brings with it a real chance for serendipity.

Because of quarantine, reading became my serendipity substitute for 2020. I’ve always been an avid reader, but last year books became my lifeline as the world battled a pandemic, economic fallout, food scarcity, a national housing and eviction crisis, police brutality, racism and social unrest, creeping-authoritarianism, right-wing, white nationalist violence, and a presidential election. No longer leaving the house, I regularly joked with people about how tired I was at the end of the day, saying I felt like a hamster on a hamster wheel — exhausted because my mind was running every which way, even though I never really moved.

Pre-pandemic, I would read for about 45 minutes and get a workout in in the morning. Now, lacking a commute of any kind, I extended my reading time to about two hours in the morning and pushed my workouts into the afternoon to break up the day. In between meetings and to-dos, I’d shift to a different chair somewhere in the house to read. At night, before going to bed, I’ve been reading for a while longer than I used to. Topically, my reading bounced all over the place, but I found that during the week I primarily read nonfiction, and on the weekend, I needed novels as an escape. I read a lot more fiction this year than I normally do.

On Election Day, I brought my Kindle with me to the polls, just in case I had any downtime. I had just finished Soviet historian Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy,” about how authoritarianism was making a comeback all around the world, even and especially in the United States. In the 2020 election, the U.S. saw record turnout. More than 63% of eligible voters cast a ballot — that’s the highest turnout since 1908. Our first voter at St. Luke’s On The Lake had driven over 1,700 miles from upstate New York to cast her vote back in Texas. She said with all of the politics around mail-in ballots, she didn’t want to chance it.

In Applebaum’s book, she writes what I believe became clear to every American this year, saying, “There is no road map to a better society, no didactic ideology, no rule book. All we can do is choose our allies and our friends… with great care, for only with them, together, is it possible to avoid the temptations of the different forms of authoritarianism once again on offer. Because all authoritarians divide, polarize, and separate people into warring camps, the fight against them requires new coalitions… together we can fight back against lies and liars; together we can rethink what democracy should look like in a digital age.”

As the door shuts on Donald J. Trump’s presidency, I hope we’ll all take stock of what brought us to this point—and how possible it is for another charlatan like him to rise again. I hope each of us will take Applebaum’s words seriously. Our democracy is up to us. It’s up to each of us to stay as informed as we can. To look out for each other’s welfare by staying involved as citizens and by being good neighbors.

Our democracy is only as strong as we are willing to work on each other’s behalf, whether that work benefits us, personally, or not. That’s especially true for straight white dudes like me. I’m thankful for the perspectives I’ve read this year that put a spotlight on injustices I’ve never experienced, and otherwise may never have known about. I’m thankful for friends who went out of their way to talk to me about their personal experiences with racism and sexism directed their way. I’m horrified that we live in a world where that is still as prevalent as it is.

This last year felt like a series of compounding crises—we lost far too many people to a new disease. We lost far too many people down rabbit holes of misinformation and disinformation peddled by politicians who care more about their electoral prospects with their base than they do to stand up for American democracy and rational thought.

But dammit if I haven’t ever been more determined to get in the arena and work with as many people as possible to make progress on the things I care about and believe in. Bit by bit by bit. Block by block by block. I’m ready to keep working with y’all.

Cheers to a brand new year.

My top ten-ish from 2020

All links lead to purchase from Austin’s favorite local bookstore, BookPeople.

The Warmth of Other Suns’, by Isabel Wilkerson

Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.

Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. We don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.

Why We’re Polarized’, by Ezra Klein

Politics is, first and foremost, driven by the people who pay the most attention and wield the most power — and those people opt in to extraordinarily politicized media. They then create the political system they perceive. The rest of the country then has to choose from more polarized options, and that in turn polarizes them — remember, the larger the difference between the parties, the more compelling it becomes for even the uninterested to choose a side.

A Promised Land,’ by Barack Obama

I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America — not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. For I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide. In that world — of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity — we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America — the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice — to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy’, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Whatever appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism. All politics are identity politics — except the politics of white people…

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’, by Anne Applebaum

It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity — diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences — therefore makes them angry. They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.

A Burning’, by Meghanns Majumdar

On the fourth day, a reporter, or maybe a passerby, spits on my face outside the courthouse. My lawyer finds a canteen napkin with which I wipe my face, but there is no time to find a bathroom and wash. I sit with that stranger’s hatred on my face all day.

Golden Gates: Fighting For Housing In America’, by Conor Dougherty

When something in society goes so wrong, that something is often a product of one very large agreement instead of the various small disagreements that consume the political sphere. Looming over the fights about which administration is to blame for housing becoming so unstable and what percentage increase this or that program is entitled to sits the inconsistency of America spending about $70 billion a year subsidizing homeownership through tax breaks like deferred taxes on capital gains and the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which allows homeowners to deduct the interest on their home loan from their federal income taxes. Together these tax breaks amount to a vast upper-middle-class welfare program that encourages people to buy bigger and more expensive houses, but because their biggest beneficiaries are residents of high-cost cities in deep blue redoubts like New York and California, even otherwise liberal politicians fight any attempt to reduce them. These programs are also entitlements that live on budgetary autopilot, meaning people get the tax breaks no matter how much they cost the government. Contrast that with programs like Section 8 rental vouchers, which cost about $20 billion a year, have been shown to be highly effective at reducing homelessness, and cost far less than the morally repugnant alternative of letting people live in tents and rot on sidewalks, consuming police resources and using the emergency room as a public hospital. That program has to be continually re-upped by Congress, and unlike middle-class homeowner programs, when the money runs out, it’s gone. This is why many big cities either have decades-long lines for rental vouchers or have closed those lines indefinitely on account of excess demand. The message of this dichotomy, which has persisted for decades regardless of which party is in charge and despite the mountains of evidence showing just how well these vouchers work, is that America is willing to subsidize as much debt as homeowners can gorge themselves on but that poor renters, the majority of whom live in market-rate apartments, are a penny-ante side issue unworthy of being prioritized.

The Nickel Boys,’ by Colson Whitehead

Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators’, by Ronan Farrow

In the end, the courage of women can’t be stamped out. And stories — the big ones, the true ones — can be caught but never killed.

The Hardest Job In The World: The American Presidency’, by John Dickerson

The success and prosperity of the United States of America, though, are still not guaranteed. They are dreams that are tested with each new presidency and that will be tested for as long as the office shall last. In our present moment of partisanship, distraction, and expectation, the office is stretched and misshapen. After 230 years, the challenge remains to keep the sun rising.

Dune’, by Frank Hebert

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.

All The Light We Cannot See’, by Anthony Doerr

“Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”





Nathan Ryan

People person, friend 🤟 CEO, @blueskyprtnrs ; co-founder, @ourgoodpolitics ; board, #LBJFutureForum; commissioner, ATX; hot takes, my own