Have we ever needed a quote to be true more than this one? Housebound, locked down and ~isolating for much of the past year, books were in many ways our single means of escape, our one opportunity to have meaningful life experiences outside of our steadily narrowing worlds. But this is pretty grandiose talk from someone who wasn’t an especially prolific reader in 2020. Books remained a significant part of my life, but I fell short of a lot of my literary goals. Plenty of books were returned to the library unread, and the majority of the year’s most discussed titles never made it to my shelves. I truly had nothing but time, so that’s no excuse. Let’s blame tiktok and instagram.
But even if my final tally number was disappointing, a handful of books still managed to leave lasting impressions in my brain and on my soul. Some were novels I was able to devour in a matter of days, others required more time to understand and to savour. Some were memoirs, some were journalistic investigations and some were, at their core, just old fashioned love stories. One was a novel I know I’ll think about regularly for the rest of my life.
Right now I have no idea what 2021 will hold for us, if we’ll be able to have real adventures on our own or if it will still be safer to live them vicariously. Either way, I hope I remember that it’s books, and not the instagram search bar, that never fail to provide the most rewarding and immersive escape.
Daisy Jones & the Six (Taylor Jenkins Reid)
Daisy Jones & the Six seems like it was designed in a lab to earn my love, it features so many of my interests: the music scene of the 1960’s/70’s; complicated inter-band dynamics; wild, reckless, selfish characters who captivate you despite, or maybe because of, the fact that they are terrible. Reid has imagined her fictional band so fully that their story feels as real as any of their purported real world contemporaries, and she has a particular talent for conveying music and sounds, which is impressive given the limits of working with just words on a page. Both main characters (Daisy, the it-girl with a generational talent in the mode of Stevie Knicks, and Billy, the bad boy guitarist plagued by demons) are vividly drawn, and the fraught tension that exists between them is another feat of Reid’s writing, because how often outside of a Jane Austen novel do you describe fictional characters as having chemistry? The entire book is styled as an oral history, which I give points to for originality, but which did also often felt a bit gimmicky at times, and like a disservice to its characters, who deserved more interiority. Overall though, this book is like 70’s rock n roll itself: an engaging, exhilarating, occasionally self-indulgent, gold-tinged good time.
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
In the early days of the pandemic, plenty of people turned to baking for comfort, and much has been written about our collective need to occupy ourselves with simple, old-fashioned pleasures. I am a person who mixes butter with sugar rather frequently even when there isn’t a virus wrecking havoc on the world, so instead of additional stress-baking, I stress-read, and my old-fashioned pleasure was Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. I don’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t familiarly acquainted with the March sisters, that I didn’t know the beats of their story by heart. Between the book and the 1994 film adaptation, I spent a significant portion of my childhood longing to be a part of their serene, domestic, imagination-fuelled world. After watching Greta Gerwig’s 2019 interpretation I decided to revisit the source material, and this time around I was able to appreciate what the book had to say about a woman’s ambition, about what we owe to our loved ones, and what is involved in living a meaningful life. With all of its religious moralizing, Little Women can feel a bit antiquated, a little hopelessly out of date, but in a world where the future felt disturbingly uncertain, there was no warmer comfort than spending time in the past.
The Ride of a Lifetime (Robert Iger)
Former Disney CEO Bob Iger fascinates me in the way that watching LeBron James dunk a basketball fascinates me, the way that listening to Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites fascinates me. People who perform at a consistently high level can seem almost supernatural, so it’s illuminating to follow along with a firsthand account of what drives someone towards that kind of excellence, what mindset they employ to get there. During Iger’s tenure at Disney, he took the company from where it was wobbling along a path of obsolescence and transformed it into Hollywood’s most reliable powerhouse. In his book he details all of the acquisitions that were central to this process (Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox) and the relationships he developed with major players like Steve Jobs, George Lucas and Rupert Murdoch. It’s a high wire act, touting all of these accomplishments and still remaining a likeable narrator, but Iger strikes a good balance by positioning his successes as expressions of his principles, like fairness, optimism, and authenticity. He sometimes speaks in platitudes, but the words never seem empty, considering he backs them up with forty years worth of proven experience, and there’s something inspiring about a person who can succeed at the highest levels in the cutthroat entertainment industry without losing their own sense of decency.
A Gentleman In Moscow (Amor Towles)
I am a hyperbolic person by nature, but I do try to set some rules for myself when it comes to declaring something one of my favorites of all time. Namely, a thing should have been in my life for a period of at least five years, so as to confirm that it truly is a favorite, and not something that’s been unjustly promoted due to recency bias. But when it came to A Gentleman In Moscow, I think I read about a page and a half before I was waiving the wait time criteria and inducting it into my personal literary Cooperstown. I am enchanted with every inch of this book, from the indefatigably charming Count Alexander Rostov (the title Gentleman in question) to the unhurried pace of the prose itself, which doesn’t let a stray thought slip by without examining its historical context, weighing its socio-political consequences, and sending it on its way with a pat and a poetic flourish. Reading this book feels like lingering around the table with a blueberry tea after a multi-course meal with friends you’re not ready to say goodbye to, absolutely decadent, satisfying and almost unbearably pleasant. A unanimous MVP, Hall of Fame kind of read.
She Said (Jodi Kantor & Meghan Twohey); Where Law Ends (Andrew Weissmann)
Non-fiction, first-hand accounts of two unrelated investigations that each played a seismic role in shaping recent history. She Said relays the story behind the New York Times’ original exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuse and harassment, a story which triggered a cultural reckoning that not even the two meticulous reporters could possibly have expected. Where Law Ends details the much publicized but little understood Robert Mueller investigation from the perspective of one of its primary leaders. I imagine that both books will still be considered essential reading decades from now when students of history are studying this time period. The #metoo movement and the impeachment of Donald Trump were both central topics of the global conversation over the past few years, and both are also emblematic of this larger moment we’re living in where powerful men are finally being held to account– even if only one of the corrupt subjects of these investigations actually faced real consequences for his actions. News reporting on stories this dense can only go so far, which is why I found the full books helpful to my understanding of who all the players involved were, how the various timelines played out, and the amount of nuance involved. I also came away staggered by the personalities that dedicate themselves to this kind of exhaustive work, whether they’re reporters or a team of legal minds. The diligence, resourcefulness, and coolness under pressure are characteristics that most authors can only hope to imbue their protagonists with. That these people exist and do their work and have shaped history in real life makes their stories that much more impressive.
Normal People (Sally Rooney)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how books are marketed, how the decision is made to position some books as high minded and literary while others are dismissed as “chicklit” even when some are ostensibly concerned with the same things. Normal People is a wonder for a lot of reasons, but perhaps most of all because it is a book that the literary establishment actually took seriously, despite the fact that its central conflict is a romantic relationship between high schoolers, written by a woman who was only in her mid-twenties herself. You won’t find Normal People on the YA shelves– a genre, for the record, I am personally no snob about but which is often not treated with the seriousness it deserves. Sally Rooney is nothing if not serious in how she handles her characters; their contradicting thought patterns and behaviors, their fragile selves. Marianne and Connell, respectively a wealthy misfit and the working class high school hero, are the sort of characters who burrow into your heart, and their love story is the kind that makes it rot from the inside. Rooney has a relentless honesty that ultimately protects the book from being pigeonholed as something that is “just” for women, “just” for teens, “just” for dark romantics. Her blunt writing makes you consider all the ways two people can hurt each other, either on purpose or accidentally, along with the ways they hurt and sabotage themselves. And what is more universally human than that?
2 thoughts on “Books I Loved in 2020”
I am not ashamed to say that I spent majority of this year reading regency romance lightweights and re-reading my favourite authors, G.G. Kay, Arthur C. Clark, Brendan Senderson etc. (Fantasy and SF cultist here) My brain declined any attemp on my side to introduce new material. I actually started reading 4th instalment in one of my all time favourite book series (it came out this year) but gave up after realizing that 120 pages in I didn’t remember a single new character. I realized at that point my reading this year will be an equivalent of watching Tiger King and Tiger King only. Oh well..
Comfort re-reads were definitely the way to go in 2020, we all had to find our happiness in the readiest means available to us. Any chance the series you mentioned is The Hunger Games? If so I definitely struggled as well to feel anything about the prequel (and if it’s not, obviously 2020 was also just a tough year for beloved series in general.)