In 2020, I honestly didn’t read, or write for that matter, as much as I should have. But, a lot happened this year, so I’m ok with it.
As for what I did read, this year saw me reading a fair amount of books that had sat unread on my shelves for years given that libraries were closed, a focus on biographies, and a rediscovery of the novel.
Here’s every book I read in 2020 and a paragraph, give or take, of my thoughts on each.
Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend by Robert James Waller: A novel about a disgruntled college professor having an affair. How…original…..
Digital Minimalism:Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport: For most of Janaury, I followed the advice of this book and didn’t use any social media. It was absolutely fantastic. Then the pandemic started and I spent the rest of 2020 watching the dumpster fire unfold on my phone screen.
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter: This book is a fantasic exploration of the used goods industry. It also allowed me to overcome my childhood trauma of thrift stores, which I never though would be possible.
Best American Essays 2018 by Various: Highlights include “The March on Everywhere” and “Eat, Memory”
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo: The time period of revelance for Don Delillo’s novels is long gone.
Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck: Consider this my formal petition to be adopted as one of Rinker Buck’s brothers, so I can take part in cross country journeys with him.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: The highlight of reading this essay collection for me was realizing that Leslie Jamison’s father used to live near my hometown and that maybe, just maybe, I might have crossed paths with her in a store or somewhere else about fifteen years ago. Of course, I was a child then and would have had no clue of who she was, but still it’s always cool to hear of someone who knows the area that you grew up in who you would have never expected to know of it.
World War Z by Max Brooks: A solid, early pandemic reread.
Bogart by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax: A paint by numbers, cradle to grave, absolute bore of a biography.
Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Micheal Dobbs: When I was in A.P. U.S. History class, we were taught the world view that Francis Fukuyama labeled as the end of history; That the downfall of the Soviet Union was the triumph of western liberalism and capitailism and that going forward, the world would be better place and that capital H History was over. But of course, history has not ended, the world is not that simple, and this book, along with Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev does a good job of showing that. It is also very relevant to the current U.S.- Russia relations, as it biographies Boris Yeltsin’s power grab, which has a direct lineage to Putin’s own power consolidation.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv: While I agree with the author’s sentiment, at times he can be cloying and overly romantic. Also it was written in the early 2000’s and is a bit dated.
The Best American Essays 2019 by Various: Highlights include “Forever Gone” and “Comforting Myths”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: My favorite read of 2020, though I should have read it long before this year.
So Long a Letter by Mariam Ba: This contains the best use of a book saying the title in the text that I’ve ever seen.
The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero by Michael Kranish: Did you know that the most popular sport in America during the 1890’s was bicycling racing? And that during the height of Jim Crow, that Marshall “Major” Taylor, a black cyclist, who faced relentless racism and segregation barring him from many races, became the fastiest and most revered cycliest in the world? Listen to this interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air to learn more.
Survive: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere – Alive by Les Stroud: On of my favorite things in 2020 has been Les Stroud’s prolific use of his Youtube channel during the Pandemic, which has allowed me to revisit and rediscover so much of his works.
Expanding the Black Film Canon: Race and Genre Across Six Decades by Lisa Doris Alexander: An excellent collection of film criticism examining some underapreciated African American films.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: When I read this book as a kid, it scandalized me due to its use of the S*** word within the first chapter. Rereading it, I was very suprised of how tame it is, as it only uses curse words like three times and is very PG-13 overall. Mark my words, I will hike part of the Applachian Trail in 2021.
Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel: “To defeat an enemy, you must know them.” – Grand Admiral Thrawn
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why? by Laurence Gonzales: A thoroughly researched look at the pyschology of disaster and wilderness survival, that reads like an extended I Shouldn’t Be Alive episode. (Several experiences in this book, in fact would later become, I Shouldn’t Be Alive episodes.)
Backpack by Emily Barr: My favorite discovery of 2020, as I took a chance on it for 50 cents at my local Goodwill. While I didn’t like the main character at first, I really enjoyed her character growth and the mystery plot kept me hooked. (Bonus points for several of the chapters being written in epistolary format.)
Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley: What passed as satire about America’s meddling in the Middle East in 2004, does not at all hold up today.
Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. This book was written in 2008 and is a very poignant reminder of how little progress we have made to address climate change, or really any sort of environmental progess, since then.
Who Was Harriet Tubman?, Whose Was Abraham Lincoln?, Who Was Rosa Parks?, Who Was Martin Luther King Jr?, and Who Was Milton Hershey? by Yona Zelda McDonough, Janet B. Pascal, Yona Zelda McDonough, Bonnie Bader, and James Buckley Jr. respectively: I enjoyed reading this series as a kid, so I could not pass on a good deal for these five books, to give to my younger cousins for Christmas.
Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement by James Farmer: Going forward into 2021, I will always be asking myself, what would James Farmer do?
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert Caro: Techniquely this isn’t a 2020 read for me as A. I started reading it in September of 2019 and B. As of Janaury 30th, 2020 I still have over 100 pages left to complete it. Coming in at a beefy 780 pages, book one of five chronicling the entire life of the 35th president, is perhaps the most extensively researched work I have ever encountered. The entire time I’ve been reading it, I have just been in awe of Robert Caro’s attention detail and simple, yet descriptive prose. This quote from Caro sums up entirely how I feel about it and why you too should consider endeavoring to read The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
“Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson – understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States – is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century. During his Presidency, his Great Society, with its education acts and civil-rights acts and anti-poverty acts, brought to crest tides of social change that had begun flowing during the New Deal a quarter of a century before; after his Presidency, the currents of social change were to flow – abruptly – in a very different course. When he became President, 16,000 American advisors were serving in Vietnam – in a war that was essentially a Vietnamese war. When he left the Presidency, 536,000 American combat troops were fighting in Vietnam’s jungles, 30,000 Americans had died there, and the war had been “Americanized” – transformed into a war that would, before it was ended, exhaust America financially and soak up the blood of thousands upon thousands of young men; into a war abroad that at home caused civil disobedience that verged on civil insurrection; into a war that transformed America’s image of itself as well as its image in the eyes of the world. Lyndon Johnson’s full term as President began in triumph: the 1964 landslide that Theodore H. White calls “the greatest electoral victory that any man ever won in an election of free peoples.” It ended – to the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” from a generation to whom he was the hated war maker – with his announcement that he would not again ask the nation to elect him its leader. The Great Society; Vietnam – the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, only five years in span, was nonetheless a watershed in America’s history, one of the great divides in the evolution of its foreign and domestic policies…”