2020, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year
I read 81 books in 2020. That's almost exactly the same number of books I read in 2019, which feels a little surprising. You'd expect 2020, a year of lockdowns, shuttered entertainment venues, and quarantines to result in a lot more reading. And conversely, you'd expect 2020, a year of worries about health, politics, and the environment, to leave one too stressed to focus on a book. And yet, on paper, my reading doesn't seem to have changed at all. That's looking at the numbers, though. When I sat down to review my year's reading lists in preparation for writing this post, what I realized was how few of the books I read this year had stayed with me. For many of them, I have vague recollections of enjoying them, but would have struggled to say anything more meaningful. I read the normal amount of books in 2020, but didn't seem to have the mental energies to retain much from them. (This is probably also the reason that my TV viewing saw a huge explosion in 2020, as I've written in my review of the year's best shows at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)
The exceptions seem to have been the books that spurred me to write about them. I wrote more long-form book reviews on this blog in 2020 than I have in recent years, but even writing a shorter review in a Recent Reading Roundup seemed to require a lot of mental energies, and happened only with books that struck me powerfully (for good or ill). So my wish for 2021 is to be able to read with more attention again. Or rather, for the year to prove less distracting and disorienting, so that I can give my reading the attention it deserves. In the meantime, here are the books that stood out, even in a year that made it so hard to focus on them.
Best Books of the Year:Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu
The Wall by Gautam Bhatia
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (review)
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez (review)
Mary Toft: Or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
Polite Society by Mahesh Rao (review)
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (review) - Mantel's long-awaited conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy doesn't do much that the previous two volumes didn't do, which is perhaps why it's fallen a bit under the radar after the flurry of excitement that greeted its publication. But what that actually means is that this is, once again, a rich and fascinating historical novel starring a complicated hero who becomes, in Mantel's hands, a staunch humanist, casting a skeptical, class-conscious eye on the events of Henry VIII's reign. You could do far worse, in 2020, than let Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell carry you off into the past on such an expertly-crafted journey.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor - This brutal, tough-to-read novel offers multiple perspectives on the murder of a woman—believed to have been a witch—in a small, poverty-stricken Mexican town. We hear from the victim's friends, from her murderer's relatives, and from those more distantly connected to the murder, whose lives were nevertheless irretrievably disrupted. With each narrative, our awareness grows that the real crimes here are poverty, misogyny, and a social system that has been so hollowed out by crime and corruption that it no longer even tries to protect the weak. The novel's conclusion—that this act of violence is only one among many—is as necessary as it is gutting.
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner - It's hard to sum up Warner's 1948 historical novel (reprinted last year by NYRB Classics), because the novel itself doesn't try to be about anything, except the day-to-day lives of the nuns in a small, rural convent in 14th century England. Events come and go—plagues, new bishops, the construction and destruction of a new spire. Novices arrive at the convent, become nuns, and grow into leadership positions. Abbesses arrive and are replaced. And yet nothing really changes, because the lives of these women have been dedicated to a renunciation of the world, and thus of any real possibility of change. The result is surprisingly gripping, thanks to Warner's effortless grasp of the rhythms and rituals of her setting.