2020 in Review

In 2018 and 2019 my annual recap focused on the books I read. Books still occupied a large space in 2020, but with so much change I wanted to widen the lens for a year-in-review.

The year’s biggest change was a sharp drop in travel due to the pandemic. Over the last 3 years, annual work and personal travel spanned 80+ days and 75k+ miles. In 2020 I stayed in Portland from late February on, which was a welcome change. It’s my longest work travel gap in a decade.

Morning light coming into Sagrada Família.
Sagrada Família, from a trip in January.

Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was on pace to be an even busier year and January and February meant trips to Barcelona, California, Washington D.C., and India. Staying closer to home left more time for local activity, with hikes on Mt. Hood and Kings Mountain, along with salmon fishing on the Columbia. It was also nice to have more time for cooking, from pot roast to cinnamon rolls and cake.

This lack of travel meant vast amounts of time for reading as I read 103 books across 2020, which is about twice my pace in 2018 or 2019. Most of those were print copies, a change from last year’s Kindle focus. Without needing the portability of a Kindle my long-standing preference for print won out (though shelf space is a concern at this rate).

In fiction I particularly appreciated rereading books, which brought a sense of the familiar back into a strange year. Of new novels I read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future was my favorite, partly because it’s the first science fiction book I’ve read that directly deals with a near future driven by climate change. It was also fun to read Jane Austen’s work, in part for the reminder that people led rich lives in comparatively simpler and more geographically-constrained times.

Of the non-fiction I read, two books stood out. Chris Arnade’s Dignity is deeply compelling and uses a journalistic eye to bring moving stories of people to the forefront. If you add one book to your list I recommend Dignity. Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales, which I shared notes from, is a clear handbook for how to keep the customer at the center of your company. I highly recommend it to anyone working in a for-profit business.

On this site I wrote more regularly about the craft of customer support and started a twice-monthly newsletter in late September. Posts go to both this blog and an email list, for which Buttondown provides just the right level of detail. I like the ability to add to my home on the open web and publish to a known group of readers. But it’s the act of writing and giving shape to ideas that I most enjoy.

2021 seems, more than most, like a year that will laugh at grand plans. My plans are simple: more reading, writing, and time close to home.

Plan Ahead and Speed Up Email

The gift and curse of email is its delay. It gives you space to solve a customer’s issue but extends a customer interaction across days or even weeks. It’s important that your replies help a customer move forward. And your very best replies help them resolve everything in just one or two responses.

I’ve found the best way to do this is to ask myself: what will happen if my suggestion doesn’t work? Even when I’m certain in my suggestion I consider what will happen if I’m wrong. I never want to put a customer in a position where all they can tell me is, “That didn’t work. Now what?” This puts us back at square one, introduces more delay, and leaves the customer waiting on me.

If you plan ahead and enlist the customer in your process you can avoid this situation. This can help you speed up the flow and prevent the customer from feeling stuck. There are two main approaches that help.

Think Conceptually

Part of your role in support is to teach a customer new concepts. These can range from how a feature works to the location of a browser’s address bar. When learning one new concept it’s only a short jump to learn other adjacent ideas.

For example, if you suspect a browser issue and direct a non-technical customer to clear their cache and cookies, consider if the console output or network details will also help. They’re already venturing into the great unknown of their browser settings so make sure you get the most of that. This helps you rule out their browser in one step so you don’t go through individual causes piece-by-piece. Here’s one example:

Thanks for those details about what isn’t working for you. A browser issue is the most likely cause in these situations; things can get stuck and lead to all sorts of odd behavior. There are a couple steps I’d like you to try that will help us rule this out.

1. Clear your cache and cookies and try reloading the page. We have a help article that explains how.

2. Check your browser console for errors. This one’s a little tricky, but we have instructions that show you each step.

If you see any errors in your browser console please copy those and let me know what they say.

This presumes that you have clear help articles for those two steps (if you don’t it’s a good reminder to add one!). The idea is to put the customer into an exploring mindset and combine similar requests. If neither option works, you ruled out both common causes in one reply, saving you and the customer time. And because you planned ahead and connected similar concepts it eased the customer’s experience, hopefully boosting their confidence in both you and themselves.

Think Sequentially

We all make heavy use of documentation in our support replies and often those help articles cover an involved series of steps. It’s a mistake to send that to a customer without first thinking about how they might struggle.

When you send someone to a multi-step support doc they can end up stuck or lost, which is why it’s important to guide them on what to do in that case. When you do this well you can get them back on track and avoid the dreaded, “That didn’t work.” response. As a brief example:

This is a great question; it’s one we hear often. We have instructions on what to do in our support site. There are 12 steps outlined, which I know is a lot, but each one has a screenshot to help walk you through what to do.

Can you try those steps and let me know how it goes? If you get stuck, no worries! Just let me know which step you’re stuck on and what you see at that point. It will help me figure out where things went off track so that we can get this all fixed up for you.

This kind of message increases the likelihood of a response like, “I got all the way to step 6 but when I got there what I saw didn’t match the instructions. Instead I saw…” By acknowledging that the customer may get stuck somewhere in the sequence you help them feel less lost as they always have your backup step. That step will still feel like progress. Plus, you will occasionally get an immediate pointer to where your documentation is out of date or less clear than you first assumed.

Final Touches

When you bring the customer into your process like this you create a smoother and more responsive experience. Gone is the one-step-at-a-time debugging that can lead a customer to feel like you’re guessing. In its place is a more considered approach that ties concepts together and moves in sequence.

The last thing you want is for this to feel like extra work, so be selective in what you ask of someone and only request the most relevant next steps. Don’t throw half a dozen things into one reply. Be deliberate and ask yourself what next piece of information you’ll need if this doesn’t work. Every customer’s time is valuable and the more you speed up email exchanges the better.

Finally, as I tried to show in those examples, remember to (briefly) explain why this information will help. It’s best to connect that to the customer’s own best interest, since customers will take an extra step if they trust it means a faster resolution. Email will never compare to live chat or a phone call for speed, but if you plan ahead you can significantly cut down on its inherent delay.

Customer-focused Sales

A few months ago a tweet from Jason Fried led me to Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales. I figured that anything Jason would write a foreword to must be worthwhile and bought a copy right away. I’m glad I did as the book is a quick, 200-page read packed full of clear, cogent advice on sales.

The book focuses on a customer-centric idea of sales. This isn’t a book about high-pressure tactics that try to amp up the appeal of certain features or gadgets. Instead, you find practical advice for understanding customer behavior. It’s a clear, customer-first philosophy of sales that anyone working in customer support can learn from to improve their own craft. This makes the book a good reminder about practices you can fold into your day-to-day support work.

The Philosophy

Bob Moesta’s philosophy of demand-side sales boils down to putting the customer at the center of things; gone is a focus on what the company can deliver and in its place is the progress a customer desires. If you’re familiar with the Jobs To Be Done framework this understandably sounds similar as Bob was a contributor to JTBD research.

This view also removes what can often feel abrasive about sales. Instead of trying to push your product on to someone, you start by trying to understand what’s important to them and whether your product can help (it might not be able to!). Bob’s definition of great salespeople could also be said about customer support experts:

People need someone to help them navigate their way to make progress. The salesperson’s job is to help customers figure out what the options are by first understanding what’s important to them.

Bob recommends interviewing your existing customers to find out what’s important to them. The goal is to understand the people who have already made progress with your product since it’s only by doing this that you can find the patterns that’ll help others succeed. If you’re keen to start this practice within your own team the book’s full of practical advice, sample interview questions, and example case studies that give you a great starting point.

Demand-Side Sales Framework

The starting point for any sales process is what Bob calls the struggling moment. It’s this moment when you realize that the status quo isn’t working, so you look around for something that you can buy to overcome the struggle. If you’re not sleeping as well as you used to, suddenly you pay more attention to that mattress store you drive past each day.

Bob also introduces a framework that I found particularly valuable for thinking about sales. The book details 4 forces that influence someone’s progress:

  • The push of the situation (i.e. how bad is it?).
  • The magnetism of the new solution (i.e. how much better is it?).
  • The anxiety of the new solution (i.e. how unknown is it?).
  • The habit of the present (i.e. how much has to change?).

What stuck with me here was the acknowledgement that two of those forces pull someone toward purchasing a product and two push someone away from doing so. From a support perspective that means I want to think about how to amplify the first two points and how to assuage the third and fourth concern. In those first two there’s excitement I can tap into, in the second two is worry I can help someone get past.

How It Works

This all can sound great in theory, but it’s the real-world examples that drive the book’s advice home. The most memorable examples come from Bob and his co-author Greg’s time building homes for retired, over-55 people in the Detroit area. Their competitor in the area tried to motivate home buyers through traditional tactics like free granite countertops or multi-thousand dollar discounts. As you might guess the authors did not take that approach.

Instead, they learned a major barrier to moving was figuring out what to do with sentimental family belongings. They raised the price of the homes, built a storage center across the street, included moving services as part of the package, and added a clubhouse room connected to the storage facility. That boosted sales by over 20% and gave families a way to store their belongings and sort through them on their own terms.

The three case studies in the book also include great examples from banking, healthcare, and consumer electronics. They also present those case studies in a way that helps you understand how to make use of their interview-based approach.

What This Means for Support

Part of why I find this model of sales so compelling is the central role it gives existing customers. Customer support teams talk with existing customers every day! Demand-Side Sales is a reminder to practice a few behaviors.

  • Don’t be shy about selling your product, just focus on what the customer wants to achieve. Remember that they’re struggling with something and trying to make progress. You can focus on this, help them reach their goal, and forget any pressure you may feel to push your product onto them.
  • Don’t get stuck in rabbit holes about a particular feature. This is particularly true if the customer themselves is also stuck! Instead take a step back and make sure you understand what the customer wants to achieve, then help them work toward that in the best way possible.
  • Don’t settle for surface-level details; ask specific, inquisitive questions. The more context you can gather the better working model you can form for what someone is struggling with and what progress looks like to them.

Finally, Demand-Side Sales is a good reminder to get outside your comfort zone. It’s an approachable, customer-focused way of doing sales that taps into some of the same motivations that bring us to customer support. If you’re someone who’s skeptical of salespeople or feels that great customer support is at odds with effective sales practices, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy and approach the book with an open mind. Great customer support, like great sales, helps a customer achieve their goals.

Expectations of Ease

When we set expectations we create a framework for how people experience our product. If we set different expectations, the same result can lead to a meaningfully different overall experience. The experience of using our product is as much about how it feels as it is about the end result.

We set a high bar for our product to live up to when we call something easy to use. That frustration you feel when assembling a why-is-it-this-&%$#@-hard piece of IKEA furniture is real. And part of it stems from the very fact that you bought the IKEA version because you expected it to be quick and easy.

Setting an expectation of ease often feels like a good idea as we rush to reassure a customer and try to provide lost confidence. Instead, we set someone up with a dangerous expectation: that new feature is easy to use, the task is quick to complete, the workflow simple to figure out.

What’s really behind an expectation like this is a baked in set of assumptions about how people use our product. We assume that someone can devote their full attention to the task, that they’re not unduly pressured or stressed, or that they’re comfortable embracing a level of uncertainty while they figure out a new or challenging product.

Attention, stress, and uncertainty. All things that have changed in this year of strange years. It’s a good reminder to re-evaluate our approach. No matter your product, your customers today likely aren’t at their best.

So what can you do? First, be cautious about setting any expectations of ease. Instead just focus on the fact that something can be done, you don’t have to qualify it as easy, quick, or simple. Second, ensure the customer knows it’s okay if they don’t get it. You want to keep them connected to you so you can learn when they’re stuck and lend a hand. Finally, review all those text snippets you rely on. You may be inadvertently sending things out of habit rather than out of their relevance for the person you’re helping today.

There is a fine line here as we shouldn’t discourage people. The right approach isn’t to under promise by setting a mundane task up to be a labor of Hercules; nobody is that much of a hero. We just need to help people feel confident and in control. We need to listen to where people are today and help them move forward, even if that isn’t easy.

A Complaint Is a Gift

Dealing with complaints can be drudgery, and complaining customers can be angry, stressed, and harsh. The emails, live chats, and phone calls to resolve these complaints often aren’t much fun. They can push us to our most defensive, when we inadvertently make the situation worse.

For all of those reasons I find Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller’s A Complaint Is a Gift to be a go-to resource. The book, first published in the mid-1990s with an updated second edition from 2008, remains a solid handbook for handling complaints with grace and ease.

Within their philosophy of complaints are a few important takeaways:

  • Elegantly handling complaints is possible.
  • People only complain because they hope something will happen.
  • Only a small percentage of people take the time to complain.
  • Each complaint is an opportunity to learn and improve your service.

That last point is central: each complaint is a gift someone gives you. The customer could have just stayed silent and left your company behind. But they spoke up and presented an opportunity to restore their trust, partner with them to fix the problem, and improve your process for next time.

Below I outline three principles that let you make the most of this opportunity. They’re straightforward on the surface, but I’ve found each helpful to revisit and practice. I’m just summarizing, though, and all credit goes to the authors.

Be personal

The first step is to be personal and rebuild trust, and the best way to open is to thank the customer (remember, they brought you a gift). If you’re apologizing, make it genuine and say “I” instead of “we.” Apologize for what happened, not for the inconvenience. And don’t blame the customer (that’s just pouring fuel on the fire), but do offer complete explanations, ask lots of questions, and reassure them you’re invested in fixing the problem. No matter the medium, you want the customer to understand you’re personally working to understand their complaint. You’re not just going through a form or script.

As consultants the authors travel quite often and they share an example from United Airlines that drives this home. After a cascading series of problems with luggage, a United VP proactively followed up, set the script aside, and was sincere. As they relate:

Finally, Janelle wrote a letter. She got a telephone call and a letter in quick order. Then it happened again; no luggage. When Janelle arrived at the TMI office the next morning, a caller was holding for her. The voice at the other end of the line said, “We did it again, didn’t we?” Perfect. A vice president from United was calling and obviously had been alerted to the delayed-luggage report that was filed the previous night. Again, we say that so much of effective complaint handling is in the way it is done.

Make it a partnership

Don’t try to fix your customers’ problems too quickly. Give them a chance to express the emotions they feel.

Complaints often come alongside anger and frustration. To resolve them it’s important to not rush into anything as that won’t help your customer feel heard (it’s also how you can make mistakes). Instead, work to build a partnership with the customer. If things remain adversarial they’ll stay angry, and you’ll be limited in how you can help.

One of the best ways to build a partnership is to detach yourself from the situation. You want to remain invested in fixing the problem while keeping your emotional responses out of the equation; this balance helps you work with the customer. The authors outline 5 behavioral approaches and phrasing models that can help:

  • Investigatory: “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
  • Advisory: “We can approach this a couple ways.”
  • Listening: “Tell me what happened, I’d like to know as well.”
  • Analytical: “Let’s go through things in order.”
  • Reassuring: “Did I understand all of that correctly?”

The entire “When Customers Go Ballistic” chapter is an excellent set of action-oriented suggestions. There are phrasing suggestions like those above throughout. Two more of my favorites:

  • Instead of “Sir, I can’t help you if you don’t…” try, “Could you help me understand more about what happened…”
  • Instead of, “No, we can’t get that for you today.” try, “We can get it for you, and it shouldn’t take any more than three days.”

Focus on process, not people

Service recovery has two aspects: emotional and tangible. The emotional aspect is helping everyone feel better about the situation that created dissatisfaction. The tangible aspect is doing something to fix the situation.

Once you’ve diffused the emotional aspect of the complaint you can begin to work on the tangible side of things. Here it’s important to consider two levels of fixing the situation: How can we fix it for this customer? And how can we fix it so that this doesn’t happen again?

You want the individual customer to have their complaint resolved and you want to prevent other customers running into the same situation. The goal is not to get really good at handling complaints you could have prevented! That’s why you need to learn what first led to this problem. The cause is very likely to be on the process side and they use a phrase borrowed from an early 1990s medical paper, “Punish process, not people.” With this mindset the more complaints you hear the better.

I hope this gives you a good idea of what you can learn from A Complaint Is a Gift. There’s something in the book for every level of an organization, from a brand new customer support team member on up to the senior leadership team. Its straightforward principles are ones that I’ve found regularly worth revisiting.

Bug Expectations

When someone runs into a bug our natural inclination is to help them feel optimistic. We likely can’t personally fix the problem and we want to reassure them that their issue is important and will be fixed. This might create short-term happiness but it risks long-term frustration and disappointment.

It’s a lesson that’s often learned the hard way. You tell a customer that something will be fixed only for it to linger in the bug tracker and, 6 months later, cause that customer to be furious with you. It happens to all of us. I sent far too many replies like this early in my career:

Unfortunately this is due to a bug on our side. Don’t worry, though, I reported it to our development team and we’ll get it fixed soon. I’ll let you know when that happens and thanks for your patience!

So optimistic! But there are three problems in that type of response: it promises a solution, it suggests a timeline, and it fails to provide a workaround.

We just created a cascading series of problems for our future selves. We didn’t provide a workaround so the person we helped is now stuck and likely to ask for an update next week. We promised that we would fix the issue and put our development team on the hook for an expectation they had no hand in creating (and are likely unaware of). And we set a timeline and created a ticking clock in our customer’s mind.

Plus, if we don’t deliver we let the customer down twice: we have buggy software and we can’t follow through on our commitments. Let’s avoid that! Instead, it’s best to set less concrete expectations and follow three guidelines.

Figure out if there’s a workaround

The best bugs are those we can avoid by working around them. They still need fixing but avoidable bugs are simply less annoying (for both us and those we help). To find the right workaround, ask the person about their ultimate goal. If you listen closely to their goal (rather than the exact steps they want to take) you can often find an inconvenient-but-feasible solution. It may not be what they hoped for, but it gives them a way to move forward.

This also lightens our self-imposed pressure. Avoiding the bug is already a positive result! You can close the conversation with something like, “We’ll look into what’s happening here and I’m glad we got another option set up for you.”

Decide if you’ll keep the customer updated

Bugs that people experience every day merit periodic updates. Those customers, even if they memorize a workaround, will have a daily reminder of your product’s flaws. But that’s not every bug, and you certainly don’t have to keep every customer updated about every bug. A good question to ask yourself is whether this bug exists in an infrequent product flow or in a pattern of regular usage. Infrequent bugs mean there’s less value in ongoing updates, especially if you already helped them avoid the bug with a clear workaround. For those customers the bug may just be a one-time occurrence.

It’s best to have a consistent approach across the team so that customers get a similar experience once they run into a bug. One way to create that team-level consistency: audit the last 100 bug tickets you resolved, measure how long it took between initial report and resolution, and measure how many total replies your team sent out with status updates. If it’s taking months to resolve the typical bug those followup replies are likely wasting time for both your team and customers. Calibrate your approach to your customers and your product as the right answer depends on context.

Promise information, not solutions nor timelines

This can push against every tendency you have. The problem is that software development is a complex process in which even seemingly “simple” bugs can stump a team or sit in a backlog.

The only situation in which I feel comfortable providing a timeline is when the bug is already fixed and that release is already planned. In other scenarios there’s just too much that can go wrong.

The best approach is to set simple expectations. It’s better to promise future updates instead of specific next steps. As one example, you can write, “We don’t have a timeline right now but if that changes I’ll let you know.” and avoid writing, “I’ll let you know once our team has [investigated, fixed, or looked into] this bug.” People may be disappointed, but you’re at least not giving them false or risky hope.

One caveat: the above advice applies best if your product serves individuals. If the bug impacts a 6-figure enterprise account then you very likely must solve the bug and keep them updated. But work as a team and match expectations to what your development team can deliver.

People ultimately respond best to honesty. When they run into a bug in your product they’ll often feel fixing it should be your top priority. But we know that’s not always the case. It’s better to help them feel heard without setting them up for future disappointment.

Provide Certainty

One of the best things we can do in support is provide people with certainty. It gives the people we help confidence to reach their goal and increases the likelihood they’ll be successful using our service. To do this well we must pay particular attention to our language, as it’s all too easy for uncertainty to slip in. And uncertainty is not why people turn to support.

People contact support only after something’s gone wrong. They’re stuck, they fear they broke something, or they’re stressed in our unfamiliar world of bits and buttons. Our queues are not filled with messages from self-sufficient customers who have it all figured out. If only! Instead, we help motivated-but-lost people. People who are looking for certainty.

We often introduce uncertainty when we try to be conversational. In an effort to seem approachable we soften our language as if we were talking to someone in-person. This is when we dip into our bag of “should” and “usually.” Those are dangerous words for support writing.

“Usually” risks over-simplifying the matter. The problem is that usually people don’t have to contact us at all! So by the time somebody contacts us we are already into the realm of the unusual. It can also imply a sense of carelessness or a lack of due diligence. People pick up on that. When you tell someone that your suggestion “usually” fixes things they all too often think you’re just moving them along. In their mind, you’ve done the bare minimum to understand the issue and just want their problem to no longer be your responsibility.

Pay particular attention to “usually” when offering common suggestions. Take the example of clearing a browser’s cache; there are plenty of issues that this truly does fix. But it’s so common that it can feel like a guess or deflection. Instead of making the usual suggestion, tell them the best first step to take (bonus points if you also tell them why it’s a good idea to start there).

You can usually fix this by clearing your browser’s cache. To do this…

The best first step is to clear your browser’s cache. This will help us rule out any common but pesky issues that might be at play. To do this…

Every time we write “should” we need to be similarly wary and ask ourselves why we can’t just write “will.” When writing that something “should” work I picture the other person raising an eyebrow and asking, “Well…aren’t you the expert? Don’t you know?” They’re right! This kind of uncertainty is often an indicator that we’re hedging our bets or moving too quickly. We might be pattern matching instead of diagnosing this person’s situation. Instead, where at all possible, verify that your suggestion will work and write as much.

Some situations are inevitably uncertain. We investigated all we can but we’re short of complete confidence and don’t want to make a false promise. In this case we need to counterbalance “should” with a definite next step. If clearing the browser’s cache “should” fix things, then what’s the next step when that doesn’t work? Figure that out before replying and include it in your message.

Those steps above should clear everything up. Thanks for writing in!

Those steps above should fix the issue. But, if you try what I outlined and find it’s still not working, the next step is to…

These small language changes can have a big impact on the people we help. Simply using our service has likely left them more uncertain and hesitant than they’d like. They turned to our service with hope and a goal but have found themselves lost and confused. Even the software-savvy people we help are new to our particular, sometimes quirky, configuration of pixels and screens. For both, the uncertain and the savvy, confidence is elusive. We can lend people our confidence and expertise. We can show them the definite path forward.

The Craft of Customer Support

I’ve long-wished for more blog posts about the craft of customer support, posts that came from individuals rather than company blogs. Perhaps when you spend all day writing to customers the idea of even more writing isn’t exactly appealing. Fair. But there’s something qualitatively different about individuals writing in their own space on the web. And while I wrote more in the past, that’s lagged in recent years.

I’ve also long-felt that, no matter our career, we build our experience in the margins. Our expertise is driven by the small edges we find, polish, and learn deeply. That holds true for support, and when we do the work well it can be a long-term career. The question is how we as a community explore and teach that expertise. Writing on the open web feels like the best answer, though I’m naturally biased given my work of the last 10+ years and counting.

Starting next week I’m going to combine those two outlooks and, twice a month, write about the craft of support. What exact form this takes is a bit TBD, but I’ve been thinking about two topics:

  • Support writing: Our words are our primary connection to customers and I’d like to explore how small adjustments in our writing can make all the difference.
  • Book recaps: Since reading is my primary hobby I’d like to recap my key takeaways from various customer support books, with an eye toward helping people find books worth exploring.

Sound interesting? You can subscribe via this site’s RSS feed or the newsletter below. The newsletter’s nothing special, since each post will be on the web, but if you prefer email this makes it nice and easy. No spam ever and a one-click unsubscribe.

Here’s to writing more about customer support and to finding our expertise in the margins. We can always learn from one another and improve.

The calm of rereading

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.

L.E. Sissman1

Even in normal times, reading is my primary hobby. In the midst of a pandemic, with none of the usual work travel that a typical year involves, that’s even more the case. My time for reading has easily doubled and, as importantly, is no longer interrupted by timezone changes and long flights.

One of the most calming ways to spend that time has been to reread favorite novels. These are those enjoyable stories that I find easy to reside within. They don’t have to be profound works of Literature, just books that I connect with.

Rereading brings something familiar back into the day. You catch an echo of previous readings and past versions of yourself. As the poet quoted above notes, rereading provides a piece of understood continuity in a world that can be anything but.

James Hilton’s Lost Horizon is near the top of this list for me. Pretty much anything by Hermann Hesse is, too, though The Glass Bead Game remains a particular favorite. And Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series held up unexpectedly well despite (or maybe because of?) a 20-something year gap from my last reading.2

If you’ve not read a favorite novel in years, pick it up again. Give your brain a break from the world and any desire to be productive, just let it fall back into a familiar story and pattern at a time when we lack those things.

  1. Poet (slash advertising executive) and winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship as quoted in Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.
  2. Try to ignore the cover art on the current edition, which feels very non-canonical; such is the problem of locking the first edition you read in your mind as The Right Edition.

2019 in books

Building off of 2018’s more organized list of books, I logged each book I read over the course of 2019. It was a more reading-filled year in which I finished 72 books. A big part of that came from making more time for reading in my vacations; the early morning hours are just the perfect time for a cup of coffee and a book.

Most of that reading happened over a digital format. The new(er) Kindle Oasis from Amazon is a near-perfect device, at least for my habits, and its adjustable warm light is one of those instantaneous difference makers I can’t imagine going without. While I still prefer hard copy books the convenience, portability, and single-purpose nature of the Kindle win out for day-to-day reading.

My favorites on the nonfiction side were Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham. They’re very different reads as one is more philosophical and the other more popular science. Status Anxiety considers why, both historically and ideologically, we feel such a need to gain and compete for status (and all the anxiety that comes along with that). The Goodness Paradox is a fascinating look how humans exhibit extremely peaceful day-to-day relations alongside vicious forms of planned violence. The discussion of bonobo and chimpanzee behavior and habitat was one I found particularly worthwhile.

On the fiction side, my standout favorites were three Classics-related books: The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. Miller’s books are retellings of myths from Ancient Greece. She really masters the storyline in a way that makes them accessible even if you’re unfamiliar with the history. Wilson’s book is a new translation of the Homeric poem. While it’s all written in iambic pentameter she relies on a voice that makes Odysseus’ journey engaging and easy to follow.

There’s a lot from 2019’s reading that has stuck with me and, I hope, will continue to filter into my thinking. A 2020 personal goal is to get more of my reading notes into a public, online format. Over the course of a typical nonfiction book I’ll take a few thousand words of notes, but they sit in raw, local text files. There’s some sort of editorial process those need to go through, though, to be intelligible outside of my own brain.

My 2020 reading list is up and running. And as I figure out how to best share reading notes I’ll link to them from that page.