My Books of 2020 — Tosin Adeoti

'Tosin Adeoti
16 min readDec 25, 2020

Whew! 2020! What a year!

I started the year hopeful that I would do 52 books as highlighted in my To-Read Booklist of 2020, but it was not to be. But 44 books when I did 41 books in 2019 can be said to be an improvement.

I have heard several people say that the turbulence of COVID-19 was responsible for the book laziness this year. On the contrary, it spurred me to read more, to take advantage of the lockdown. I slowed down a bit due to the sudden volume of work I had to contend with in the third quarter of the year. Still, I finished strong.

I share these lists every year for three reasons:

  1. To encourage others to read. I will not get tired of saying we need to read more as a people.
  2. To provide a list for those who don’t know where to start. With 44 books, there is a lot of options.
  3. To document my own personal book history. I take writing seriously because I know that a pen is many times better than the best memory.

My Best Books of the Year

These two books are my favourites for the year.

I first heard of Ricardo Semler’s Maverick! from a conversation I had with someone I respect a lot. He raved about it so much I wondered what is so special about. Then I read and realized it was all that and more. Maverick is the story of Semco, a manufacturing company in Brazil. I was jolted by many of the company’s employee-centric management decisions. Some of the worker-centric decisions made in the 1980s, at a time when almost no company elsewhere in the world thought about them, are still a struggle for a lot of companies today. Take for instance, Work at Home. Semco was structured in such a way as to encourage everyone who can work at home to do so. The company stresses to the workers that working from home enhances concentration and productivity and gives them more flexibility. Some workers did 3 times at the office, 2 days at home.

Oh Glawell! Talking to Strangers offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers — and why they often go wrong. Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world. The book caused me to reflect as I read it, one of the hallmarks of great books.

To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative — to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception — is worse.”

Nations

As someone interested in nation building, I’m highly interested in the workings of other countries. The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree is about the economy of India and its development path from 1991 to around 2010. As I said when I did the review, India is simply Nigeria on a larger scale. There is a huge amount of anger and outrage at the growing inequalities of the country. And which is why Corruption in India by Bibek Debroy is so relatable to Nigerians. It explains how the mechanism of corruption works in Indian public life. It takes reams of data and juxtaposed it against the archaic rules, lack of enforcement discipline and the lack of incentives to not be corrupt, which all exist simultaneously in India. And anyone who talks about corruption without referring to China is not ready. Pei argues in China’s Crony Capitalism that corruption in China is not the result of “a few bad apples”. Instead corruption is institutional — the product of post-Tiananmen changes “significantly altering the incentives, risk-reward calculations, and ability to collude among Chinese officials.”

Investigative journalist Jacques Pauw exposes the darkest secret at the heart of Jacob Zuma’s compromised government in The President’s Keepers. Zuma and his cancerous cabal that eliminated the president’s enemies and purged the law-enforcement agencies of good men and women. A sad commentary.

I took another shot at Studwell’ s How Asia Works this year. This time around, I came out with how important land reforms were to the nine countries studied extensively for the book. Land reform has been essential to the success of Asian economies, giving a kick start to development by utilizing a large workforce and providing capital for growth. Any country not taking land reforms seriously is not ready for development. Nigeria is not ready. I took another look at Bhu Srinivasan’s Americana. This book was one of my three favourite books of 2019. A wonderful book reviewing the history of capitalism within the history of the US, focusing a lot on technological advances that spurred the advance of America’s economy.

Nigeria

Nigeria is my country and will always be. And I like to think I love the country. Yet how can anyone claim to love a place without knowing about it? So I make efforts to read about this place. Emirs, Evangelicals & Empires by Ian Linden was the first I read this year. The book is set between the late 1890s and early 1920s as a partial narration of the biography of the missionary, Dr. Walter Miller, and some of the extraordinary events that led to the creation of the first Christian community in Northern Nigeria; a result of the earliest Christian Mission to establish itself inside a Muslim walled city in Northern Nigeria in Zaria. Why is Christianity not as ubiquitous in the North like we have in the South? This book explains exactly why. Soldiers of Fortune by Max Siollun should be part of my favourites for the year but it’s not because it left such a sour taste in my mouth after I finished. In the author’s words,

This book is the story of Nigeria’s political journey between December 31, 1983 and August 27, 1993. This is the story of how things fell apart.

I’m currently reading Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous and mehn…the issues with Nigeria are ‘plenty’. Nigeria is a crime scene, honestly. The book gives a lot of insight on some of Goodluck Jonathan’s administration’s questionable policies and decisions as well as the complex socio-economic dynamics of Nigeria. These insights along with some of her recommendations for fighting corruption should be of interest to young Africans who want to make a difference. Segun Adeniyi’s From Frying Pan to Fire which is about some Nigerians’ quest for the greener pastures in other countries mainly through the Mediterranean sea is a heart rendering tale of the dangers of illegal migration. In my opinion, it should have been an article instead of a book. Too many fillers so we can get a 170-page book.

History

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I love history. Studying history helps us understand and grapple with complex questions and dilemmas by examining how the past has shaped the present and will likely shape the future. That was why I was excited when the daughter of Prince Bolakale Kotun gave me a copy of her dad’s book, History of the Eko Dynasty. It is such an interesting book. The book narrates in a chronological sequence the events in, on, around and after the founding of Eko as a town. #DoYouKnow that Eko was named Lagos by the Portuguese due to its semblance with a certain Lagos in Portugal? I love this book.

Rise and Kill First by Ronen Bergmen is a really remarkable history of the violence undertaken by the modern Zionist movement, starting all the way back from Mandate Palestine. This book has blood written on every page. This book evokes a sense of despondency on the Israel’s political establishment. The title of the last chapter succinctly captures the result of Israel’s targeted killings: ‘’Impressive tactical success, Disastrous strategic failure’’. Nonetheless, you will love reading this action-packed book. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy by Tim Harford is based on the series produced for the BBC World Service. The book is his attempt at identifying fifty stories about inventions that have shaped the modern economy. It’s illuminating.

I got the inspiration to pick up Munich, 1938 by David Faber from Malcolm’s Talking to Strangers. History has judged Neville Chamberlain quite harshly owing to what transpired between him and Hitler. The book sets the record straight about what really happened in the years leading up to WWII, and just how Hitler and Germany played the rest of the world like a fiddle. Lastly, Tim Brooks’ Lost Sounds is such a big book - an in-depth look at the contributions made by African-Americans on record from the birth of the recording industry in the 1890s to the 1920s. It’s difficult for a lover of music not to appreciate this book.

Fiction

I upped my fiction game this year compared to past years. 5 fictions. I tried. The ones I read further encourage me to read more. That is good.

Chinua Achebe says Arrow of God is one novel of his he is most likely to be caught sitting down to read. Always a legend.

“The first thought that comes to Ezeulu on seeing him was to wonder whether any black man could ever achieve the same mastery over book as to write it with the left hand.”

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee is a deeply engrossing novel about four generations of a Korean family in Japan. There was a lot of story here and a lot of history. It has the best opening of any book I read this year. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is a compelling but heartbreaking story of two women, both with distinct family background and about a generation apart, who were brought together under the same household through the tragic sweep of war. This book played with my heart in an uncompromising way. The last two are historical fiction — one of Korea and the other of Afghanistan.

With sweeping themes like poverty, mob violence, army brutality, religious indoctrination and intolerance, corruption and love, Elnathan John’s debut novel — Born on a Tuesday — is an ambitious story told in enchantingly simple language through the voice of a lovable kid. I hated that I reached out to Elnathan after I read and he ignored. C’est la vie, I guess. Diaries of a Dead African by Chuma Nwokolo is a stunner. A merciless comedy. I have not read a book like this in a very long while. I laughed and laughed, many times crazily.

“I lay there on my bed assessing my last eleven inches of yam. If there’s one gift we didn’t discuss on the day God made me, it was the gift of fasting. The very thought of a full day without a meal gives me a headache.”

Biography

I find biographies quite fascinating. The biography of Leonhard Euler by Ronald S. Calinger however while thorough and authoritative is as dry as a desert. Euler is a genius. Few if anyone equaled his mathematical prowess during his lifetime. A mathematical powerhouse. To give an idea of how prolific and advanced he was, he would be remembered today for Euler’s number and work on logarithms alone. For five of his breakthroughs, logarithms and calculus of variations and a few others cumulatively, he’d be remembered as a giant of math. But he probably had 120 or so such discoveries. And he was totally blind for the last 20 years of his life. He died at 76. While I expected David by David Wolpe to be as boring as Euler, it was not. It is an account of the biblical David — a complex historical figure.

He is rarely directly guilty in the downfall of his foes but they do indeed fall. And the swift certainty of their fall inevitably gives rise to theories. To the faithful, it is the hand of God. To the suspicious, David’s plotting. To the generous (or the credulous?), astounding luck.

In Principles, Ray Dalio, one of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs, shares the unconventional principles that he’s developed and used over the past forty years to create unique results in both life and business. It has to be the most disappointing book I read this year seeing how much hype it’s got in the business community. Much of the advice is painfully unoriginal. Read my full review of the book here. Hit Refresh is different. This is a story about how Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, sought to change Microsoft’s culture and rediscover it’s soul. It makes for interesting reading, especially with his emphasis on empathy being the bedrock of his thinking.

I discovered Buddha did not set out to found a world religion. He set out to understand why one suffers. I learned that only through living life’s ups and downs can you develop empathy; that in order not to suffer, or at least not to suffer so much, one must become comfortable with impermanence.

If the Cold War interests you, then the Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf is your book. It’s a fascinating story about the cold war era through the eyes of someone with an incredible perspective. Wolf’s stories feel real while somehow managing to be entertaining.

“The Intelligence Services of East and West have given Europe over fifty years of peace — the longest the Continent has ever known. They did so by keeping their leaders from being surprised.”

Waiting to Be Heard, a memoir by Amanda Knox was also recommended Malcolm Gladwell. Her case was a popular one in the media in 2007. Whether you believe in Amanda Knox’s innocence or not when this story was on the front page, this is a compelling story. It depicts all the events in intricate detail proclaiming Amanda’s innocence. And then there is John Oakes’ Kitchener’s Lost Boys. It is the story of Britain’s youngest Great War recruits. Over 250,000 underage boys who found themselves fighting in World War I and more than half of them did not return. This is their story, delving into the complex history of WWI. Wars are not pretty.

Subject Books

I read the most about Mafias this year. Three solid books. While Pino Arlacchi’s Men of Dishonor is based on the interview between the author and Antonino Calderone, boss of Italy’s Catania family — one of the most influential of the Sicilian Mafia, Alexander Hortis’ The Mob and the City is devoted to the history of how the Mafia came to dominate organized crime in New York City during the 1930s through 1950s. An eye-opening piece of literature. My pick of the three has to be Federico Varese’s Mafia Life though. Touching key mafia groups originating in Russia, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan the reader gets insights into the ordinary life with its complex challenges faced by these criminals as they run their organizations. It’s an intriguing evolve of unexpected truth.

Al Capone, who became the leader of organised crime in Chicago after Torrio’s death, had the habit of testing his own men’s priorities. From time to time he would expose them to willing beautiful women. If they failed to show interest, he would grow suspicious, and assign them less responsibility. ‘When a guy don’t fall for a broad, he’s through’, his biographer reported him saying. A gangster who is so attached to his own wife would refuse to betray her; and he is by implication weak and so easily blackmailed or manipulated.

In another year, The Laundrymen by Jeffrey Robinson would be my book of the year. An extraordinary well-researched book on the topic of money laundry. It’s difficult to comprehend the scale of money laundering in our world today until you take time to think about this stat: More money is spent worldwide on illicit drugs than on food. And all those funds need to be laundered! Great book. The Attention Merchants is a history of how advertisers have tried to get inside our heads for the last 100 years. It is a book of the media. The Away Game by Sebastian Abbot is a gripping deeply-moving narration of the joys and pains of football-talented African boys in the world of wealthy Arab sheikhs, greedy agents and naive parents/guardians.

Peter Hook, the Legendary musician and cofounder of Joy Division and New Order tells a highly readable story of Manchester’s most iconic nightclub in The Haçienda, which traded from 1982 to 1997, reinventing UK club culture in the process. Hal Higdon’s The Business Healers is about a controversial industry — the management consulting industry. I left the book perplexed at the ingenuity of men in pursuit of opportunities.

No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos is the thrilling story of how the Harry, a little-known person uncovered Bernie Madoff’s scam years before it made headlines, and how they desperately tried to warn the government, the industry, and the financial press. The government failed the people in the case of Madoff. He had tipped the authorities off more than ten years before Madoff unraveled. In The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, he postulates that we are fast approaching a time when humankind will meld with technology to produce mind boggling advances in intelligence. He says that by the year 2040 there will be little left of our biological intelligence. I feel he is too optimistic and treats speculation as facts. Let me warn you, it’s not an easy book to read. Definitely a book by a nerd to nerds. And of course I had to reread Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It was one of my three best books of 2019. It changed my life. Like Bill Gates, after reading the book I decided to not play with sleeping well again. I will always recommend this book.

Economics

Thomas Sowell is my hero. I read at least a book by him every year. I read his Basic Economics again this year. An introduction to anyone who wants to learn the basics of economics in order to be a better informed citizen. Economics is about trade-offs, not solutions.

Prices are not costs. Prices are what pay for costs.

I was initiated to Tyler Cowen last year through his blog and picked up The Complacent Class this year. The book describes the complacent class — the growing number of people in the American society who accept, welcome, or even enforce a resistance to new and challenging things. He basically describes how America has become a complacent country. It was not particularly enjoyable to me.

In other words, a culture of the casual is a culture of people who already have achieved something and who already can prove it. It is a culture of the static and the settled, the opposite of Tocqueville’s restless Americans.

Personal Development

Relentless is by Tim Grover. Tim riding on his achievements with basketball icons like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, etc. provides lessons on how to be the best at what you do. I have seen reviews saying that the author is arrogant, possible, but as the pages turn, you would likely be convinced otherwise. He takes his craft very seriously and he expects you to do the same for yourself.

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel is a short book with so much wisdom and generally good advice about money. Morgan picks lessons from history, finance, psychology, etc. and applies it to everyday personal finance. Highly recommended if you are new to the world of personal finance.

Growth is driven by compounding, which always takes time. Destruction is driven by single points of failure, which can happen in seconds, and loss of confidence, which can happen in an instant.

So there you have it. My books of 2020.

In the next few days, I hope to provide a list of the books I have penned down to read in 2021.

Let’s read together, people!

I wish you a happy 2021 with plenty of reading.

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