The best books I read in 2020

It’s been an exhausting year for me, not a great one for reading. I resorted to a lot of escapist fiction and comforting re-reads to keep going. Still, I made some pretty good new discoveries that I am happy to recommend. The favorites below are listed in roughly the order I read them:

Nonfiction

  • Claud Cockburn, A Discord of Trumpets. The endlessly entertaining autobiography of a British journalist who was born in Beijing, spent his childhood in England and Hungary, and worked in Germany and the US. A feast of snarky one-liners, but also good first-hand account of events like the 1929 stock market crash.
  • Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel. The first and possibly best collection of Dyson’s essays for the New York Review of Books; invigorating reflections on science, politics, and history. Every one follows his cardinal principle: “It is better to be wrong than to be vague.”
  • Hou Li, Building For Oil: Daqing and the Formation of the Chinese Socialist State. A unique blend of bottom-up and top-down history, and very well written in spite of the academic title and pricing. Actually one of the best books for understanding life in the early People’s Republic. (More discussion here.)
  • Michael Schmidt, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem. A deep appreciation of the oldest work of human literature that confronts its strangeness and mysteries head-on.
  • Neil S. Price, The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Fascinating on both the broad sweep of the Vikings’ impact on the world (much bigger than I had ever realized), and the often-surprising details of their daily life.
  • Don Kulick, A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. An anthropologist’s first-person account of three decades of off-and-on visits to a remote village; alternately funny, sad, and angry, but above all honest. There should be more anthropologists’ books like this.
  • Zachary D. Carter. The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. This very engaging account of Keynes’ career and thought explains how his economics fit into a broader philosophical and political project.

Fiction

  • Robert Charles Wilson, Spin. A classic piece of what-if science fiction that brings the expansive drama of cosmic time down to human scale.
  • C.J. Samson, Dissolution (and its sequels). Page-turning historical thrillers that also happen to be deeply researched and critical accounts of the cruel politics and ideological orthodoxy of Tudor England. Malcolm Gaskill’s appreciation in the LRB is a good guide.
  • Lydia Fitzpatrick, Lights All Night Long. A troubled youth travels from one isolated oil-industry town in Siberia, to another, in Louisiana.
  • M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again. A profoundly unsettling book involving water, conspiracy theories, and miscommunication. Harrison’s prize-winning prose is spectacular, every sentence precisely turned.
  • Paul Howarth, Only Killers and Thieves. Two boys confront violence on the Australian frontier; consistently compelling though often brutal.
  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. This tale of a man finding meaning in repetitive acts inside confined spaces was, in retrospect, highly appropriate pandemic reading.
  • Emily Wilson, trans., The Odyssey. It’s been a while since I’ve re-read Homer, and it felt like a complete rediscovery thanks to Wilson’s translation. What struck me was how concrete and physical the language is, and how focused the poem is on morality and duty rather than adventure. Her enlightening introduction alone is worth the price of admission.

Previous lists: 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

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