Books I read in 2020

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A lot of things were hard this year. We had it better than many, better than most. No serious illnesses here, mainly just sadness and loneliness and tedium stitched together with moments of dread and panic. But those are all things that you can cope with. In my head, they were circumstances you could adapt to, even if you didn’t like them. People are capable of a lot.

But the change that probably surprised me the most was reading. At the beginning of the year, I’d promised myself to try reading an average of one book a week. This was a little bit up on the last year, but seemed doable. Then, when the pandemic hit, I just got blocked. I barely even picked up a book for three months, and certainly didn’t finish one. I was overwhelmed, busy as hell, and all my reading energy was going into Right Now. It wasn’t so much a loss as it was a symbol of how little space I had to think or act normally. I laughed at my earlier self, the fool.

When I realized how much this affected me—how much it reflected back my weaknesses—I picked up again and tried quite hard to catch up. Helped by some judicious choices, some demanding work reads, and inspired by John Lanchester’s review to start working through the entire Maigret series, I started making steady progress, and then as my sanity returned that turned into remarkable progress.

As of today, so far, I close read 53 books. It really was stupid to keep trying, and I’ll be kinder to myself in future, but I can say it kept me going.

Here’s my top five.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is riveting and tight. It’s a novel about a boys’ reform school in Jim Crow that took what I thought I knew about boys, about reform schools, about race and cruelty, and turned them into something different.

In a year of loss and grief, there was something almost mystical about The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. In writing about how her life fractures and collapses after the death of her husband, she captures the personal and the universal. But in the context of the pandemic, it took on another voice, too. We all break sometimes.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of a series of books I read this year that took similar forms: uneasy collections of short stories or novellas that verged on horror. It was the one that stuck with me the most, a tale of people who are wrestling with dark things they struggle to understand and control.

I had to read a lot of books about the food system as I researched this recent essay, but the most useful guide was the seven-year-old Feeding Frenzy by Paul McMahon. It walks through everything that works well about food and everything that doesn’t and connects them together.

And finally, I read a few books this year that dealt with modern life, but somewhat clumsily. In a year of reckoning, though, even the most heavy-handed felt appropriate. Suddenly their flaws became obvious when I read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections. The stories in this collection were so sharp and carefully-built that they just left me breathless. I only finished it a few days ago, so maybe it’s recency bias, but I don’t think so.

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