(Originally written in November of 2020)
On the last day of each year, I always spend a few hours reflecting on the past year and setting goals for the next year. During 2019, I had lost touch with my love of reading amidst all of the change that saturated my life. It got left behind. So on the last day of 2019, I wrote what I then thought to be an ambitious goal: “Read at least one book a month for pleasure, not for school. In this upcoming year, I need to make that time and space for myself to do the things that I love.”
Fast forward eleven months, and we have lived through the hardest, most soul-breaking year that I have experienced in my twenty years on this planet. A global, deadly pandemic, a shocking call to move back into my childhood home, millions taking to the streets to protest the unjust murders of black bodies by police, education occurring (or rather, pretending to occur) through a screen, and a contentious presidential election that at times felt like a life or death situation. Anxiety has saturated the air we breathed this year, a cultural and national year of reckoning, of disappointment, of grief. It weighed on me greatly. I was scared. I was yearning for normalcy. I desired to live, and live fully, and yet was constantly unable to. Everytime I turned on the news, it was a catalogue of disaster and death. I needed a way to stay sane, to stay centered in a year so utterly devastating. I needed a lifeline, and I found one: books.
I cannot remember any time in my life where a reliance on books has felt this central to my mode of being. While living at home, I always fell asleep looking forward to the mornings spent reading with Kailea and George and copious amounts of coffee (I hoped to curb my caffeine addiction over quarantine, but quite the opposite occurred) – all of us in silence, yet together in space and joined by our mutual adoration for words. Those were such beautiful, ethereal mornings. I will cherish them for years to come. After watching humanity being denied by those meant to protect life and experiencing a national call to action, I took to books for self curriculum. After becoming frustrated by feeling as though I was not learning as much as I desired via zoom, I compensated with books. When my anxiety seemed to take control of my life, I returned to words as if my life depended on it. Books brought me back to myself this year. Books, more than anything else this year, saved my happiness. I did read at least one book a month this year, but something much more transformative occurred. I learned to love reading again.
I have read 48 books this year – as of today, November 25th. Narrowing down to my favorite books has proved quite the challenge, so excuse me if this list seems extensive. These texts shaped my 2020 experience, providing a calm background noise to the chaotic noise of the world. I hope that they can provide you the same peace. Without further ado, here are my favorite books that I read in 2020:
Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
Chimamanda Adichie’s novel was the beginning of my personal quest for texts that would challenge and expand my worldview – the first text I chose to inform my personal anti-racism work. This is a fictional account, but by all parameters that matter, it is true. It tells truths that our world needs, provides a voice that speaks through dominant ideologies. This 600 page masterpiece took me a while to work through, but it truly was so seeping with beauty and knowledge that I am grateful I took my time. It deserved that time. In Americanah, Adichie tells the story of a Nigerian woman who immigrated to America for seven years and then eventually returns to her home country that she no longer recognizes. Much of the novel takes place in that inbetween space – in the space of straddling identities and reckoning with cultural disparities. The protagonist, Ifemelu, appears so fully human, so three dimensional, so sympathetic and so real. It’s a love story and a story of history and a story of race and a story that feels of the utmost importance. I cannot recommend it enough.
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others.”
Me, my mother, and Kailea passed this book around – all voraciously tearing through it in under three days. One night after dinner, when my family was sitting around the table chatting as we always do, I graciously excused myself and said that I had to go finish Homegoing or I might go insane thinking about it. That’s the kind of book Gyasi wrote – one that takes hold of you and doesn’t let you go. Homegoing is a historical fiction novel that starts with an Assante woman in eighteenth century Africa and her two daughters who are half sisters. The half sisters are separated by circumstance: one marrying the British governor of Cape Coast Castle and one held in the dungeons below and sold into the American slave trade. Each subsequent chapter details the story of a different descendent, alternating between the two lineages and detailing very different destinies. The movement through time shows various historical events: the introduction of the cacao crop in Ghana, Anglo-Asante wars, the slave trade, segregation, 1970s Harlem, and so much more. The structure of the book seems to argue for the interconnectedness of all of history – showing us that old wounds still bleed.
The Topeka School – Ben Lerner
“But there are no grown-ups, that’s what you must grow up to know fully; your parents were just two more bodies experiencing landscape and weather, trying to make sense by vibrating columns of air, redescribing contingency as necessity with religion or World Ice Theory or the Jewish science, cutting profound truths with their opposites as the regimes of meaning collapse into the spread.”
“I think I’d felt that as long as I avoided looking for the tickets, they would be there; it was only if I searched the archive that they’d disappear, as if the past were up until that point indeterminate, that I might outrun it.”
This was the first book I read in 2020, and it has lingered in my inner ear ever since. Few authors affect me as deeply as Ben Lerner does – his words seem to cross some threshold into the self, closing a gap between author and reader so completely as to deem it nonexistent. This book, in many ways, is a commentary on white male rage, an exploration of masculine emotion. This book is based in 1997, and yet is in many ways informed by the current climate – Lerner focuses on the way our collective use of language has informed our current social moment in which men are not allowed emotions other than violent rage. The narrative of the novel focuses on Adam, a high school debate champion, and it is a pretty classic example of a bildungsroman (or, a coming of age story), as well as incorporating hints of autofiction drawn from Lerner’s own life. The narrative is nonlinear in typical Lerner style, and it explores the authenticity and reliability of language as it functions in America. Lerner himself has stated that this text was inspired by the white male identity crisis that allowed for the election of Donald Trump in 2016 – giving an immediacy and necessity to this work. There is one chapter in the novel that takes place in a playground, and it could clearly suffice as a stand alone story on patriarchal indoctrination among young boys. If you read it, you’ll see what I mean.
South of the Border, West of the Sun – Murakami
“Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I’m gazing at a distant star. It’s dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe the star doesn’t even exist any more. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything.”
“I was always attracted not by some quantifiable, external beauty, but by something deep down, something absolute. Just as some people have a secret love for rainstorms, earthquakes, or blackouts, I liked that certain undefinable something directed my way by members of the opposite sex. For want of a better word, call it magnetism. Like it or not, it’s a kind of power that snares people and reels them in.”
South of the Border, West of the Sun is a novel that centers around the haunting of “what if’s” – those thoughts of how the past could have been different, how the past could still become the present, and how the future can be manipulated that penetrate our minds every day. The narrative begins with the protagonist, Hajime, as a young, lonesome child with one singular friend in the world: Shimamoto, a young girl in his small Japanese town. They have quite the idealized childhood together, listening to records on her stereo and discussing topics far more mature than their years. They go to different high schools and grow apart, and Hajime eventually gets married, has children, and begins two successful jazz clubs in Tokyo – just in time for him to be reunited with the mystical figure of Shimamoto, who has never wandered far from his mind. She keeps him at arm’s length, never revealing details of herself and appearing to the jazz club only on rainy nights – and yet, she still constantly haunts Hajime’s internal monologue as a what if. This is a short, fast, and fun novel that explores unrequited love, longing, and existential angst.
In The Time of the Butterflies – Julia Alvarez
“It’s about time we women had a voice in running our country.”
For a long time at Maclay, this text was a staple of AP Literature curriculum, but my class never ended up getting around to it. It had been sitting on my shelf at home since then, occupying the space as one of those books I always told myself I would eventually get around to. I’m damn sure glad I did. Julia Alverez’s book is a historical fiction novel that relates a fictionalized account of the four Maribal sisters – three of whom make a commitment to overthrow Trujillo and put an end to the murderous regime in the Dominican Republic, and one of whom survives to tell the tale. The three sisters take on the alias of “mariposas,” which to my satisfaction gives a whole new significance to my butterfly tattoo that I sport on my right rib cage. It is a story of the power of the human spirit to seek justice, even in terrifying circumstances. It is a story about feminine resistance to harmful male regimes. This book inspires me to be better, to seek justice, to be brave. It was truly a joy to read.
The Book of Longings – Sue Monk Kidd
“When I tell you all shall be well, I don’t mean that life won’t bring you tragedy. Life will be life. I only mean you will be well in spite of it. All shall be well, no matter what.”
“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
My mom convinced me to read this book and I was at first quite hesitant. The Book of Longings tells a fictional story from the perspective of Jesus’s wife, filling the blank space of Jesus’s life in the bible from age fourteen to age thirty. As a fairly non religious person, it didn’t seem right up my alley. But Ana quickly gripped me into her story. Ana, the wife and narrator, struggles throughout her life to live in a strictly patriarchal society in which she is constantly yearning for a voice, for agency. The novel leans into the fully human aspect of Jesus, showing him as a father, husband and son. It’s a retelling of the gospel that makes space for women. It makes me wonder how the western world would have been different in a bible that included women. Although it may be fiction, I like to believe that parts of it could be real. I like to believe in Ana, for I see parts of myself in her.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
Honestly it’s pretty hard to believe that I haven’t had to read this before as an English major, and yet here I am in 2020, reading this classic for the first time. I woke up one September morning only 30 pages in, and I was finished by the time I went to bed that night. I spent all day laying in the grass on campus on a warm fall day, soaking up the words and reading good ol’ high school angst. I didn’t know how or if I would like this book, if I am being entirely honest. But I quickly found myself laughing out loud several times. One of my favorite things about this novel, I think, is how fully formed Holden Caulfield comes across the page. Although he may be a fictional character, to me he feels real – I feel like I know him well. In fact, at times I felt as though I used to be him – overwhelmed by grief and trying to make sense of my world through that painful lens. When I finished the book, I felt like I had made a new friend. While an easy, fast read, it also contains themes of identity, superficiality, capitalist gain, grief, and alienation. This is one of those books that you can take as deeply as you desire. It has that flexibility, which I found really impressive in a writer. I’m glad I finally got around to it.
How Literature Saved My Life – David Shields
“Isn’t this what all writing is, more or less – taking the raw data of the world and editing it, framing it, thematizing it, running your voice and vision over it?”
“Writing, at its best, is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness.”
“Language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn’t, not quite.”
During the week of the presidential election, I needed reading – a pull so desperate that it often felt as though my very survival and mental sanity depended upon it. This David Shields book was my lifeline during that most stressful time, and now, I can’t imagine having read anything else throughout that historical moment. I read it in stress and anxiety, and I finished it in the minutes following Joe Biden securing the presidential nomination – moving through the world lighter, more free. How Literature Saved My Life is a autobiographical collage of disparate parts, musings, and meditations of a wildly intelligent man. His style is very intimate, personal, and meandering – much like that of Ben Lerner in that he makes the distance between reader and author collapse. It explores how literature can save us in a world so fractured, and it resigns that it truly can’t – and this willingness to admit its own failure is what makes our reliance on language so beautiful. I convinced a former teacher and dear friend, Mr. Norment, to read this book, and he described it as capturing “how we consume and are consumed by the art we devour,” adequately pinpointing the very project of this book. This book reminded me why I read, why I write, and why I can’t imagine my life any differently.
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
I have been on a huge Joan Didion kick for the past year, but especially so in the past couple of months. I always devour her works – reading ferociously and spending any free second I have immersed in the text. The more I read of her, the more I come to believe that she is my definitive favorite author. There is something about her sentences that seem thoroughly more beautiful than all others – their cadence is special and intelligent and graceful. She writes in exactly the way that I hope to, and I find myself stealing much of her style as I craft my own. The Year of Magical Thinking is a meditative nonfiction piece written in the year following her husband John’s death and during her daughters various health scares – a time in her life characterized by grief and mourning. It is one of the few texts I’ve found that offers no romanticization of grief – it tells it as it is, in all of its ugly parts. And yet, even in a text so seeping with melancholy, Didion never loses sight of beauty and craft. This book seemed to put words to sensations that I have never had the ability to name – thus is the power of Joan Didion.
Bluets – Maggie Nelson
“156. Why is the sky blue? -A fair enough question, and one I have learned the answer to several times. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it to myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.
157. The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it. As one optics journal puts it, “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.” In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”
I read this little book in one day, sitting on the beach in Seaside and staring at the ocean or sky when the book called me to. This book is a combination of lyrical prose and poetry, and it explores Maggie Nelson’s multifaceted experience with the color blue. It is a personal meditation on lost love, grief, and existential solitude, and it is full of literary and artistic references throughout. It contains an arrangement of 240 roughly linked prose poems, and their association (or apparent lack thereof) was quite interesting to explore. Maggie Nelson continually breaks conventional modes, inspiring me to write more freely and creatively. It has constant insights into the emotional depths that make us most human. Above all, I think, this book made my list because it showed me beauty – it showed me beautiful words and a book divorced from the rules of narrative, which can be quite freeing at times.
Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson
“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
After reading this book, I violently closed the book and stormed downstairs asserting to my entire family that I was going to go to law school. I had always toyed with this idea in my head, but this book made it feel like a necessity that I gain the knowledge required to make real change – change that Bryan Stevenson has been working for throughout his entire career. Bryan Stevenson has emerged to be one of the most influential and compassionate public interest lawyers of our time. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality in the modern American justice system. It’s narrative backbone is the story of Walter McMillian, who was wrongly placed on death row in the 1980s for a crime that he clearly did not commit. The book traces the lineage of the death penalty as a direct result of lynching during the 20th century, and it is blatantly honest about both our nation’s pitfalls and Stevenson’s relentless hope for an America that is more just. Stevenson asserts that we are all better than the worst thing we have ever done, providing a concise and effective argument for the redemptive powers of mercy.
Hood Feminism – Mikki Kendall
“The fundamental problem with white feminism has always been that it refuses to admit that the primary goal is shifting power to white women, and no one else.”
In Hood Feminism, Kendall addresses the ways in which white supremacy has shaped white feminist narratives and agendas, and the harmful impact these ideologies have had on marginalized women and communities. She argues that the feminist movement has a glaring blind spot – and paradoxically, this blind spot is women. Mainstream feminists, she argues throughout the novel, fail to address meeting basic needs as feminist issues. Food security, gun violence, access to quality education, reliable housing, mental and physical health care institutions, and parental challenges are feminist issues just as pressing as reproductive justice and equal pay. The narrative, as this text has shown me, is all too often about increasing the privilege for the few while failing to fulfill basic needs for the many. While reading this book, I became acutely aware of my own failings as a feminist – and though I can’t say it will make me perfect over night, it certainly began to educate me, call me out, and change my ideologies and goals in profound ways. If you are a white woman, and you consider yourself a feminist – you need to read this, and re read it, and then keep coming back. I know that I will continue to read this book for years to come, and keep absorbing information in order to improve. Alas, the road to self education and self improvement should not rest on the labor of women of color calling out our faults and failings constantly – we must consistently turn to text, to resources like this. To work towards becoming an effective and respectful accomplice, is my own responsibility to the world, and no one else’s. This text reminded me of that responsibility.
Me and White Supremacy – Layla F. Saad
“Anti-racism is not about perfectionism. It is about the intention to help create change met with the consistent commitment to keep learning, keep showing up, and keep doing what is necessary so that BIPOC can live with dignity and equality.”
“White silence is violence. It actively protests the system. It says I am okay with the way things are because they do not negatively affect me and because I enjoy the benefits I receive with white privilege… Remember, white supremacy is not just about individual acts of racism, but rather it is a system of oppression that seeps into and often forms the foundation of many of the regular spaces where you spend your time. ”
Me and White Supremacy is a workbook of sorts that takes you through 28 days of deep, heartbreaking, and eye opening anti-racism work. Saad guides the reader through tone policing, white exceptionalism, whire feminism, how to approach racist family, and so many more topics. She calls the reader to look at the ugly, evil parts of herself – to root out her subconscious or unconscious racism and understand that all of those who hold white privilege are a part of the problem, whether we see ourselves that way or not. She calls the reader to be better, to leave the world better, to raise their kids better – to commit to this antiracism work as a lifelong endeavor. I know that I will continue coming back to this text, continue working through it and rooting out the parts of myself that I at times would like to believe do not exist. I think every white person ever should be required to read this book, and not just read it, but do the work that the text requires.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
“Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.”
I have this massive, beautiful red book in my collection. It’s deep, deep red, the color of cabernet in the sunshine. It’s thicker than my childhood bible, and wider. I have long ago lost the book sleeve. It’s title is written on the spine in ethereal gold foil. It is, by all definitions I can see, the most beautiful book I own. On the spine it reads We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live – the very inspiration for this blog, for my writing. I cherish this book, and if I were to have to travel anywhere for an extended period of time with only one book, it would be this one. I received it as a graduation present from a dear friend, and it has gone everywhere with me since – I have read it all the way through several times, rendering the spine perfectly broken in. If a book could ever be called faultless, it would be this one. And of course, it’s Joan Didion. This book began my love affair with Joan Didion – a collection of her nonfiction work that I can never seem to get enough of.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the first book contained in this collection, one that I have read and reread and will continue to reread. The title comes from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, which earlier asserts that “The falcon cannot hear the falconer / things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Throughout this disastrous year, I have heard these lines in my mind hundreds of times – I often felt like things were falling apart, that the center was not holding. And her collection of essays that takes its name from this poem too, joins in the collective feeling that things will always be falling apart. The collection is based on Joan Didion’s life in California during upheaval that was the 1960s – the summer of love, wars, murder, love. Although this collection is by definition journalism, I find it to be the most artful, beautiful prose I have ever encountered in nonfiction writing. And it is all contained in my perfect little red book. And it all asserts that the center cannot hold, and perhaps will never hold, but that we love and we write and we create anyway. In 2020, things were constantly falling apart – and Slouching Towards Bethlehem held my hand through it all, showing me that things have always been falling apart, and that things will always be falling apart, and that we will always create beautiful things anyway.
These are the texts that have shaped my 2020 experience – the texts that were my salvation, my lifeline.
I hope they can provide the same sanity to you that they did to me.