BlackRock Investment Institute

2020 holiday reading list

Dec 21, 2020

This holiday season will obviously be an unusual one. Many of us will be unable to visit friends and family, while the stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic run high. While we wait for better times to come in 2021 with widening Covid-19 vaccine distribution, we at the BlackRock Investment Institute have put together a list of books that we have enjoyed this year and hope you will find inspiring to read during the year-end down time.

We split the titles into fiction and non-fiction, by alphabetical order – except for my pick, which is listed at the end.


Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Michel Dilmanian, a member of BII’s Macro Research team, recommended the book for those who are interested in the Middle East or want to better understand the region’s complex history. The book tells the history of Jerusalem through the eyes of characters that the author discovered through archives – making it much more like a story than a history book. The beautiful and humorous writing is a plus, Michel said.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. It’s fascinating to read that Leonardo championed perfectionism despite his reputation as a polymath – in our age of scarce attention, multitasking and settling for “good enough” results, said Arjun Kapur, a member of the BII team. “During the dreadful digitalized, scatterbrained isolation of 2020, I found Leonardo’s intense focus and perfectionism refreshing,” he said.

Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of Our World by Dan Davies. Eric Burroughs, Deputy Editor on BII’s publications team, said this enjoyable book by a former bank analyst has some quite amusing tables – not just the tragic ones (Enron and Bernie Madoff). Its main message: For market-based societies to function, trust always has been and always will be critical – and that trust can ultimately be taken advantage of by the ne’er-do-wells of the world.

Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell. Ben Powell, BII’s Chief APAC Strategist, said this book could help readers understand the success of China’s leader Xi Jinping in blending socialism with nationalism. Pay special attention to Chapter 12 where the author examines today’s China as compared with the country under the leadership of Mao Zedong, said Ben.

Shark Drunk by Morten Strøksnes. This is a memoir of an attempt by the author and his friend to capture a Greenland shark, one of the largest and least understood animals in the sea. “The magic of the book isn’t its plot,” said Felix Herrmann, BII’s investment strategist based in Germany, “It’s the quietness it creates in you, the respect for nature, as well as the many details you learn along the way about the earth and ocean.”

The Art of Statistics: How to Learn from Data by David Spiegelhalter. Yu Song, BII’s Chief China Economist, recommends this book to anyone that is not a professional statistician. “If you like statistics you’ll like it,” he said, “If you don’t like statistics this book may change your view.”

The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about it by Ian Goldin and Mike Mariathasan. Janyne Quarm, a member of BII’s publications team, recommended this must-read for policymakers. The book explains much of our current reality by linking rapid globalization with events that cascade beyond national borders, such as a pandemic.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Axel Christensen, BII’s Chief Investment Strategist for LatAm & Iberia, said he started reading the book as he wanted to understand the historic period when science had such a significant impact on world politics. “I believe that something similar might be starting, with biology and climate science, rather than physics, being the leading disciplines,” he said.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh. “There are few countries in the world that give rise to as much concern as Pakistan,” said Henny Sender, Senior Advisor to BII in APAC. The country is likely to be among the first to run out of water. The threat of terrorism still looms and the ongoing war in Afghanistan spills over into the border area. Relations with India remain tense. “For those who wish to understand the place in all its complexity—and considerable charm—there is nowhere better to start,” she said.


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This year’s Booker Prize winner is a story of a boy growing up in shabby working-class Glasgow in the 1980s.It is beautifully written, powerful and brutal at times,” said Jacqueline Vitello, a member of the BII team.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The novel is about an Andalusian shepherd’s journey from Spain to Egypt in search of treasures, but what starts as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasures within. “It’s about perseverance, following your dreams and never giving up even in the face of adversity,” said Patricia Albert, a member of the BII.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carrol Oates. Based on Oates’ own life, it is a compelling, chilling and often horrifying story about a family’s history and survival in the face of unconscionable mental and physical anguish. Scott Thiel, BII’s Chief Fixed Income Strategist, said Oates’ unique style of writing - her use of bolding and italic at critical moments, her own illustrations, along with a constant change of person and narrator – only adds to the addictive nature of the story.

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. The novel focuses on several generations of beekeepers – from England in 1851 to China in 2098 – highlighting our crucial relationship with the environment. It is a favorite of Elga Bartsch, BII’s Head of Macro Research, who has spent a great deal of time this year working on the economics of climate change.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. This short novel about the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is recommended by Laurence Witherington, a member of BII’s publications team. “It vividly depicts what it was like to simultaneously be the most celebrated living Soviet composer and to live in daily fear of arrest and death,” he said.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Beata Harasim, BII’s Senior Investment Strategist, recommended this passionate novel about humans and their relationship to trees and the natural environment. “After reading the book, I think very differently about trees and their stories every time I run in the park or the forest,” she said.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin. It’s a short book about an old man looking back on his life and telling his life’s tale. “You don’t want it to end,” said Lukas Daalder, BII’s Chief Investment Strategist for the Netherlands.

Finally, here is my pick:

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. This book follows the flow of people, ideas, capital and power through history along the evolving “silk roads”. This is a massive tour de force in succinctly connecting the broad dots of history from the very beginning of civilization to this day. I’d recommend it to anyone that is interested in putting the recent geopolitical tumult and accelerated global trends into broader historical context. But for now, it seems fitting to me to start the holiday seasons by going back to John Le Carré and reading A Legacy of Spies.

We wish you a safe and restful holiday!

Jean Boivin, PhD
Jean Boivin, PhD
Head of BlackRock Investment Institute
Jean Boivin, PhD, Managing Director, is the Head of the BlackRock Investment Institute (BII). He is responsible for harnessing BlackRock’s investment expertise and ...

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