Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2020)

It’s that time of year again and the rules remain the same (i.e. there are no rules – no particular order, no particular criteria – the list below is just what comes to mind in the time it takes to write this post). Overall, I read less this year than in recent years, at least in part because I listened to more music (and so, fewer audiobooks). It was a good trade-off.

I’m only listing one Knausgaard book below, but this will be the year of Knausgaard in my reading memory (more Knausgaard content on the way, I promise – the reading public is clamoring for it, I know). Really, I could just fill the list below with Knausgaard books. I had read Books 1 and 2 of My Struggle last year (along with Autumn, I think). This year I read the rest of his books currently published in English (yes, all of them, and re-read most of Book 1, and parts of Book 2). I became a little obsessed. I am writing up an essay on Knausgaard related things, so won’t say more here, but it was one of my peak reading experiences from the past few years. With his work, it seems you either love it or hate it and I loved it, even when I was hating it.

I’ll do links to Goodreads reviews again – just because in many cases I might have more notes there. Here we go:

Spring (Knausgaard) – Spring might be my favorite Knausgaard (and it was my favorite book this year) – but perhaps it is only my favorite because I’ve read his other books. The weight of My Struggle gives the 192 pages of this volume a gravity they wouldn’t otherwise have. From the closing pages:

We come from far away, from terrifying beauty, for a newborn child who opens its eyes for the first time is like a star, is like a sun, but we live our lives amid pettiness and stupidity, in the world of burned hot dogs and wobbly camping tables. The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time, in everything that is always the same, in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness, in the blue carpet of flowers beneath the tree. It is of no use to us, it is too big for us, but we can look at it, and we can bow before it.

And later, the final lines of the book, writing to his young daughter:

You can count to fifteen, but you always skip the number three. You know who owns every single thing in the house and like to name the owners, whether of shoes or jackets, toys or helmets. You have a stuffed animal that you drag around with you, a polar bear. You like to watch the Ice Age movies, and the first words you spoke, besides Mummy, were thank you. You like to twirl around until you get dizzy, and you like to wave to people, whether you know them or not. You like how you look in the blue dress, then you stroke your hands flat across your chest and say, nice. Do you understand? Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?

Tyll (Kehlmann) – War, disease, propaganda, demons – it’s brutal, and will make you happy to be alive in 2020 (really). Lots of fun Shakespearean stuff going on too.

The Queen’s Thief series (Turner) – Picked this up based on a reading recommendation from Francis Spufford a few years ago. Lots of playing with point-of-view (one can see the influence on Spufford’s own brilliant novel, Golden Hill), and the writing improves as the series goes on (but you should still start at the beginning).

Boom Town (Anderson) – It’s the story of America in microcosm, well-told (you’ll enjoy it more if you’re familiar with the NBA, but that’s not required).

And Then We Grew Up (Friedman) – A book whose impact on me seems larger now on reflection than it did at the time when I first read it in January (remember January, 13 years ago?). Tangled somewhere in the roots of the decision to start blogging again (for better or worse) is this book.

The Fate of Rome (Harper) – I wrote about it here.

Book of My Lives (Hemon) – Memoir-as-essays – often uncomfortable, but very good. Would make the list based on that final essay alone.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (Douglass) – Ever since reading David Blight’s biography a couple of years ago, I’ve been meaning to read more Douglass. I hope to continue to do so in the year ahead. Eric Foner’s Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery was also an excellent window into this time period.

Midnight in Chernobyl (Higginbotham) – From my Goodreads review: “I think we seriously underestimate the difficulty human beings have in accommodating new information that conflicts with previous narratives/commitments. There are examples in this story of people (accomplished! not stupid!) receiving radiation readings, or you know, looking at a giant smouldering crater where there was once a functioning power plant, and not taking an appropriate action.”

Fall (Stephenson) – One of those books I’ve chewed over throughout the year despite a somewhat lukewarm initial reaction. I talk about the book here.

Motherhood: A Confession (Carnes) – The only theology book on my list this year. From my Goodreads review: “The book is at its best when Carnes ventures out onto the limb of real, genuine memoir – even the theological insights are better when she engages a little more deeply with the personal than when she slips into a slightly more academic tone. … I think theologians should do more of this kind of thing – try new forms, be willing to take a risk – it probably won’t help them get tenure, but might mean their books are actually read. So, I applaud the risk, and encourage you to take up and read.”

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[…] And, even though there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Sam Anderson’s recommendation remains a good one (his Boom Town was one of my favorites in 2020): […]