My Favorite Books of 2020
This is a list of the 8 books I most enjoyed this year.
These are mostly older books- in fact none were published this year. I check a lot of books out from the library and don’t make it past the beginning on most of them. So these are basically the ones I finished!
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence — by Geoff Dyer
This is partly a book about the iconic English writer DH Lawrence, but mostly it’s a book about the English author Geoff Dyer and his own experiences procrastinating writing a book about DH Lawrence. For every sentence about DH Lawrence’s life and work, there are two sentences of Dyer discussing things that pop into his mind during the book research process. For instance, Dyer takes a trip to Mexico with the intent of investigating the places Lawrence stayed while he lived there, yet he doesn’t get around to doing any research. Dyer writes instead about how he and his girlfriend hang out on the beach and later become ill in their hotel. This book probably isn’t for everyone, but I loved it — there are so many hilarious and insightful riffs.
Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage— Dani Shapiro
“Hourglass” is a reflective memoir about the author’s marriage, and also about getting older and reflecting on the person you used to be. The writing is superb, and Shapiro explores her marriage in a compassionate yet compelling way. It’s easy to write about the good parts of a marriage, but at one point, her husband reviews the draft manuscript and says to her: “you‘re not tough enough on me.” And the pages that follow delve pretty deep into the fact that her husband’s professional career and life have faltered in some significant ways. It’s probably impossible to be completely honest in a book about an active marriage, but this seems to get close.
Talking to Strangers- Malcolm Gladwell
The Library Book — Susan Orlean
Both of these books were sent me by people who thought I would like them. I generally frown on this practice because I have such a low take-rate on books, but I really liked both of these books.
I stopped reading Gladwell years ago because his writing was a bit formulaic — he always weaves several different topics into one overarching narrative. And “Talking to Strangers” is no different...but it’s also super fun to read! This book made me think about several events in the news — such as the Stanford sexual assault, the Penn State scandal, the Sandra Bland tragedy — in a more nuanced way.
As for the “The Library Book” — my initial thought was that however much I love them, libraries are a dull topic for a book. Yet this book was marvelous. Susan Orlean weaves a detective novel about the huge 1986 fire at the downtown Los Angeles library into a broader exploration of the history of libraries and how they work. She is such a fantastic writer it was so easy to fall into this book every time I picked it up.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging — by Sebastion Unger
Into the Wild — by Jon Krakuaer
These books both hit on the similar theme of whether modern society is capable of satisfying deeper human needs.
“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belong” is a short book — five chapters long. Yet I found it so interesting I read it twice (well technically, I listened to it twice). Each chapter has an interesting slant on the fact that humans evolved over tens of thousands of years to live in close-knit tribal settings of approximately 50 people, yet modern society severs people from this intimate way of living with kin. The author Sebastian Unger does a great job of mixing research with stories from his own life and anecdotes from other people he has met.
I started “Into the Wild” while going on a camping trip this year, thinking it would be a fitting read for a journey into the wilderness. And while this book does track the tragic events that led to the main character’s death in the Alaskan wilderness, this book is just as much an exploration of the relationships that Chris (a high-achieving college graduate from a stable family) leaves behind and those he develops along the way as he pursues the life of a penniless drifter at the margins of American society. Chris seems to find more fulfilling friends and family among the outsiders who take him in as he hitchhikes his way through the country, and his story poses some deeper questions about American society.
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 — Jonathan Rauch
This book is about this graph:
Basically, the graph shows people getting less satisfied with their life as they approach age 50, and then getting more satisfied after age 50. Not everything in this books was engaging — there is too much interviewing academic researchers in the first few chapters. But I personally find the overall topic simply fascinating, and the book really hits its stride when it discusses strategies for dealing with a mid-life rut. This is not a self-help book about how to handle a mid-life crisis — it’s deeper and more nuanced.
You know, there were many reasons to put this book down. It drifts at several points; it has a lot of corny humor; I find it ethically questionable to write so openly and often critically about your kids; and it is based on a totally absurd premise: a suburban family of four from Virginia takes a year off and lives for three months each in four places around the world: New Zealand, Holland, Costa Rica, and Kansas. And yet…this book raises so many interesting questions about the best way to enjoy life and raise a family.
Similar to the way Dani Shapiro writes about her husband (mentioned above), Kois writes very honestly about his kids, who are around ages 9 and 11. New Zealand and its welcoming neighbors was a great for kids and parents, Holland and its insular culture was difficult outside of the great bicycle riding, and Costa Rica was just a long vacation due to the fact that they stayed in a beach rental and didn’t know Spanish. The section on Kansas was perhaps most interesting to me — it spoke most directly and deeply about the benefits and downsides of living in a small town verses a big city like where I live.
I sometimes judge a book not only by whether I enjoy reading it, but also by how much I think about it when I’m not reading it, and whether I still think about it after I’m done reading it. For all its flaws, “How to Be a Family” is one of those books that stayed with me.
That’s it for this year!
You can find my list of favorite memoirs here.