It’s been two years since I posted last (!) but I wanted to share my favorite books of 2020. I’ve always read a lot, and it’s now my job to read, but 2020 still shifted many of my habits and my time, freeing up the 3-5 evenings I used to be gone every week. I am of course looking forward to the time when we can safely host events at the store again, but we will never host as many as we used to pre-pandemic. I love being home more in the evenings – we cook more family dinners, we’re all together more and, a happy byproduct, we’re all reading more.
Here are my favorite books of 2020 – three fiction titles (1-3) and three nonfiction titles (4-6)
1. Transcendent Kindgom. Yaa Gyasi
A very different novel than Gyasi’s celebrated first book, Homegoing. To me, this feels more personal and sustained. Gifty, a Ghanian immigrant, is nearing the end of her training as a neuroscientist at Stanford, studying addiction in mice. Her brother died of a drug overdose and her depressed mother is staying with her in a small apartment close to campus, sleeping much of the time. This is a deeply reflective rumination of faith, science, love, mental health, and family.
“The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else, isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.”
2. Hamnet. Maggie O’Farrell
In this imaginative and beautifully written novel, Shakespeare remains a shadowy figure. It feels right: she centers the heart of the novel around Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, a healer and herbalist. Their young son, Hamnet (essentially interchangeable with the name Hamlet at the time) dies of the plague and O’Farrell tremendously explores grief, marriage, and creation after the death of a child.
“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself. Cold and lifeless, on this board, right in front of you. Look, here, see. And Hamnet?”
3. Novels of Jane Austen
Comfort reading at its finest. When I wasn’t working to keep the bookstore going in the chaotic months of March, April, and May, I walked a lot and listened to the six perfect novels of Jane Austen in order of when they were written, starting with Sense and Sensibility and ending with Persuasion. I reread Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice relatively often but I was happily surprised how often Northanger Abbey made me laugh out loud this time. Alas, poor Fanny of Mansfield Park is still my least favorite.
4. One Long River of Song. Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle’s posthumous nonfiction collection, One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, is easily my favorite book of 2020. My copy at this point is dog-eared, beloved, and underlined. I have been unexpectedly delighted by the two-way-street of book recommendations in a bookstore. I recommend books all day, but I am equally beyond grateful for the books and writers my customers have recommended to me.
“All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. Humility does not mean self-abnegation, lassitude, detachment; it’s more a calm recognition that you must trust in that which does not make sense, that which is unreasonable, illogical, silly, ridiculous, crazy by the measure of most of our culture. You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow. That trying to be an honest and tender parent will echo for centuries through your tribe. That doing your chosen work with creativity and diligence will shiver people far beyond your ken. That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling. And you must do all of this with the certain knowledge that you will never get proper credit for it, and in fact the vast majority of things you do right will go utterly unremarked.”
5. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Caroline Fraser
This absorbing biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder has been on my to read shelf for years now. I am so glad I finally read it! Fraser’s research is impressive – she delves into the American West , the life of LIW, and the manuscripts of the Little House books in a way that paints a vivid, readable portrait of the time and LIW herself. Late nineteenth century America is every bit as complicated as our current era! I came away with an even deeper appreciation of the Little House books.
6. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Isabel Wilkerson
If I could insist that everyone in the United States read one book right now, this is it. The New York Times called Caste “an instant American classic” and it’s true. I am blown away by Wilkerson’s ability to write as a historian, a sociologist, a critic, and as a personal essayist. She’s a magnificent writer and this is the best book I have ever read on race in America.
“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”