Well friends, we made it to the end of 2020. The thing about global pandemics is they give you lots of time to read. When having a social life becomes a public health hazard, books make excellent companions.
Before I get to the book list, here are my reading statistics this year:
|First Time Reads||150|
If spreadsheets are your thing, check out the Excel file that I use to track my reading. I list all the books I read, their length, what format I used, and rate everything on a five-star, highly subjective scale. If you explore the tabs at the bottom, I break things down month by month to track trends. Spoiler alert: I read the most in April, May, and August with approximately 20 books, 6,000+ pages per month.
Something I’ve learned over the years is I’m an erratic reader. I’m interested in a wide variety of topics, genres, and go where my mood takes me. Sometimes, that’s into dense classics like Augustine’s Confessions or the complete works of William Shakespeare. Sometimes, it’s binging fluffy romantic comedies–I covered almost 30 this year. My work as a librarian has taught me there is no right or wrong way to be a reader. I love that I’m at a point in life where I can dig into the deep, serious stuff while also having fun.
The following books were all first time reads and, in some way, standouts this year. Many of them helped me see and understand the world in a new way. Some of them are on the list because they sucked me in, helping me escape my cares for a little while. I read a lot of good books this year–this list is just a sampling.
If you’d like more bookish content, the best place to connect is to add me on Goodreads. I’ve been tracking my yearly reading there since 2011 and am consistent in updating my reading list. If we’re friends in real life and you’d like to talk about books, feel free to strike up a conversation!
You know those books that you can’t put down, but never want to end? This was one of those books for me. At it’s most simple form, it’s a book about writer’s block. It’s the story of two writers and former college rivals, January and Wes, who live in adjoining beach houses on the shores of Lake Michigan. Faced with writer’s block, they swap genres for the summer. January takes on Wes’s gritty, realistic fiction and Wes writes a romance novel. But Beach Read is more than that. You think you’re getting fluff, but instead Henry provides a rich story about family, loss, and how to love those who have hurt us. It’s about second chances and being open to love. I’m not one for cheesy, sentimental stories (I can’t stand the likes of Nicholas Sparks), but Henry’s tale was genuine and warm. I adored everything about this book.
When every installment of a fantasy series wins a Hugo Award, it’s worth your attention. N.K. Jemisin has been on my radar for quite some time, so I picked up her Broken Earth trilogy over the summer. Jemisin is among the best of fantasy world builders–explaining very little, she throws you right into her world and you must learn your way through the eyes of her characters. The Fifth Season is the story of a seemingly ordinary teacher who returns home one day to find her husband has murdered her son and kidnapped their daughter. At the same time, the empire in which she lives falls and the world splits open, signaling the end of the world. Jemisin’s trilogy is both intimate and cosmic in its reach, exploring themes of motherhood, survival, and systemic oppression. These are slow reads. Jemisin builds her epic with precision and care, demanding your full attention. Fantasy lovers, these are must-reads.
One of the most anticipated releases of 2020, the first half of Obama’s presidential memoirs did not disappoint. It’s an intimate, detailed account of the former president’s life from his birth through the his first two years in the White House. I listened to this one on audiobook in early December made it through the 30-hour, 700+ page behemoth in less than a week. Whenever I listen to memoirs narrated by the author, I feel like I’m their best friend for a week. After four years of Donald Trump as president, spending a week with Barack Obama was refreshing and wonderful. This is a book for those interested in the nitty gritty details of political life. Obama takes readers deep behind the scenes of his upbringing, family life, political campaigns, and cabinet appointees. He takes you into the process of patching up the 2008 economic crisis, passing the Affordable Care Act, and overseeing the military raid that killed Sadam Hussein. It was absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait for part two.
I paired this one with Becoming by Michelle Obama. It was fun to hear both perspectives, to see how their early years shaped the people they became and how their marriage has grown over the years. There are times when Barack and Michelle share the same stories, but from wildly different perspectives, which gave for a more complete picture of their lives.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Back in March, when my library closed and life felt out of control, I began what I affectionately referred to as “The Shakespeare Project”. My goal was to read one act of Shakespeare each day. It took seven months, but I made it through the complete works. I will admit, there are plays I don’t remember and plots I didn’t fully understand. But that’s the thing with Shakespeare–the first time through, you focus on the basic plot details and, the more times you revisit a play, the more it’s riches are revealed. What I love about Shakespeare is his work captures the scope of the human condition. His work is full of beauty and full of depravity. The characters stay with you–their bravery, despair, pride, hope, greed, love, and longing. I still think about the way Prince Hal grows from a debauched teen to a regal king in Henry IV-Henry V. I think about the passion of Romeo and Juliet and their helplessness in the face of a community founded on hate. I think about Rosalind in the forest of Arden, unpinning badly written sonnets from trees, determined to teach Orlando the proper way to love (As You Like It). I think about the toxic ambition of the Macbeths, the misplaced idealism and ambition of Julius Cesar’s Brutus, and Hamlet’s bleak despair. I think about Beatrice and Benedict’s biting cynicism (Much Ado About Nothing), Miranda’s awe at seeing other humans after a lifetime on an island (The Tempest), and Puck’s carefree pranking (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
One could spend their lifetime studying Shakespeare and still come up with new insights. The Shakespeare Project wasn’t an easy endeavor. It required daily dedication, but I’m grateful for my seven months with the Bard.
Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read Elizabeth Acevedo. As soon as I read the first page, I was hooked. Written in verse, Acevedo’s National Book Award AND Printz Award winning debut centers on Xiomara, a teenage daughter of Dominican immigrants in Harlem who finds her voice through slam poetry. Tackling family, faith, sexuality, Acevedo holds nothing back in this heart-warming, gut wrenching coming of age story. Acevedo’s poetry is absolutely stunning. After finishing, I proceeded to read Acevedo’s other books and am convinced I will read anything she publishes from now on.
This was, simply, the right book for the right moment. I picked it up at a time where I was feeling exhausted and burned out and the shelter I found within these pages was nourishing for my soul. I have a soft spot for Celtic spirituality–the Celtic mystics have a deep understanding of the wild, uncomfortable in-between spaces that I find comforting. Tuama’s work nestles well with poets like John O’Donohue and David Whyte. He explores the spiritual practice of welcome using poetry, story, biblical reflection, and prose as an invitation to live well in a dark world. Tuama generously offers to readers his own story. As a gay man drawn deeply to theology, welcome (both internal and external) was hard to come by. Tuama is a rare soul who uses his own struggles to light the way for others. It was a blessing to journey with him for a while.
I read a lot of romantic comedies this year and Well Met was one of my favorites. I practically read it in one sitting. It’s the story of a twenty-five year old college dropout named Emily who is fresh off a bad relationship. Upon arriving in a small town to care for an injured sister, she’s roped into volunteering at the local summer renaissance faire. She soon finds herself at odds with the faire’s organizer, Simon, a serious and irritating local English teacher. But come faire, Emily dons her tavern wench costume, Simon becomes a pirate, and it doesn’t take long for sparks to fly. Coming into my hands during one of the many stressful stretches of 2020, this book was an absolute delight. I read it twice.
This book took me nearly six months to finish. I first heard the author on an episode of the podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling (now known as Potterversity) and was so intrigued I bought the book. Part literary history, part loving critique, Cecire explores the legacy of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien through their own writing, the English curriculum they designed at Oxford, and the work of those who studied literature under that curriculum. Lewis and Tolkien’s love of medieval texts formed waves with long-reaching impact, including the legacy of empire, racial exclusion in children’s literature. Cecire even spends an entire chapter on the topic of Christmas, examining what it tells us about the roles of childhood and enchantment in white, Western culture. Cecire’s writing is dense, insightful, and rich. The reason I took six months to get through this book was I could only process ten pages at a time. As a lifelong lover of Tolkien and Lewis, this book challenged my uncritical appreciation for their work and I’m better for it.
Like many, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I did some reading on the history of racism in the United States. Alexander’s book came highly recommended from Lisa Sharon Harper, whose book The Very Good Gospel was on my best reads list last year. Alexander’s book chronicles the history of caste-based racial oppression, focusing on the way the War on Drugs in the 1980’s led to mass incarceration, which keeps people of color in an unseen, oppressed social caste. It was a dense read, but a powerful one. This book unveils problems in the United States that are impossible to un-see and absolutely essential to understand. I read it in tandem with rereading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a story about a teen who is witness to her best friend’s murder at the hands of a police officer. Alexander’s book provided the information, Thomas’s provided the heart. I’m glad I read the two together, as they gave me a more complete picture
I was gifted this collection of essays for Christmas last year (thanks, Joe and Emma!), but didn’t pick it up until the pandemic hit. I read this book slowly, savoring each page. The essays cover a variety of topics: artistic labor, finding solace in the woods, and the beauties of the natural world. She ruminates on the work of Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth–the great Transcendentalist and Romantic writers that I loved in college. The essays are quiet and focused, filled with the same awe and reverence found in Oliver’s poetry. Based on the amount of underlining I did, I know I will return to this collection again and again.