It’s that time of year again. Time to look back and reflect on the books that I most enjoyed reading. And during this most discouraging of years, I’m perhaps more grateful than ever for the sanity-restoring diversion of getting lost in a book.
If you’ve seen my previous lists, you know the drill. This isn’t a list of new books that were released this year; it’s just a list of books I happened to get around to reading in 2020, some older, some newer. In addition, this isn’t meant to be a list of some sort of objective “best of” titles; instead, it’s entirely the result of my own selfish whims and preferences. The numbers next to each title don’t signify a ranking of any sort; I’m simply listing them in the order I happened to read them.
Perhaps you’re looking for something to read in 2021 and you’ll find a small fraction of the joy in one of these books that they granted to me.
So, here they are:
1. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt). Queue up all the cliches about being a real “page turner” and a book you “can’t put down.” They all apply to this one. Most 900-page books can’t be described as “fast-paced,” but The Goldfinch is one that can. It’s an engrossing story, and Theo Decker is as memorable of a character as I’ve ever met in a novel. Also, bonus points for this book keeping me company during multiple visits to the hospital while the dear wife was being tormented by kidney stones.
2. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt). This one is a bit dated, but I just got around to it this spring. And although it took me awhile to figure out what the heck I was actually reading (“wait, is all this true?“), it turned out to be an utterly fascinating book. It’s a crazy world we live in, and this book provides a close-up view of an intriguing little slice of it. This is humanity at its most bizarre, and boy is it entertaining.
3. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace). The first rule of reading Infinite Jest is that if you successfully finish reading Infinite Jest, you get to brag about having read Infinite Jest. So here I am to brag. (Don’t judge me; I’ve earned it.) But still, this behemoth has way more going for it than the staggering word count. It has complexity. And humor. And astonishingly perceptive cultural commentary. And seemingly endless vocabulary. And of course the classic 20-page DFW digressions about some technical obscurity you never knew you cared about. It was worth the months of slogging through page after page just to get a glimpse of the genius behind it.
4. Falling Upward (Richard Rohr). At one point this year I heard Richard Rohr talking about the contents of this book on the On Being podcast, and his paradigm of the “two halves of life” felt like a bona fide spiritual revelation. I’m honestly not sure how much additional insight the book supplied, but I’m putting it on the list here because of how groundbreaking its content was for me at a time when I deeply needed to hear it. Rohr gave me categories to understand my own spiritual evolution in a way that left me feeling genuinely hopeful for the future.
5. Beartown (Frederik Backman). In many ways this is a hard book to read. But it addresses a challenging topic in a way that elevates the humanity of everyone involved…even the “bad” guys. Although I think it borders on preachy at times, there’s definitely a compelling message embedded in the narrative that demands to be heard. Beartown expanded my awareness of so much: the pain of sexual assault, the influence of teenage peer pressure, the complexity of parenting, the blessings and pitfalls of a close-knit community, and the dangers of sports fanaticism just to name a few. I came away from this book with a whole new appreciation for the many hidden burdens people bear (no pun intended).
6. The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen). I picked up this guy on a whim at the used bookstore down the road, and it was 5 bucks (or maybe 4 bucks?) very well spent. I found myself feeling sympathetic toward Franzen’s wildly dysfunctional Lambert family, in part because their dysfunction didn’t really feel all that odd (aren’t all families somehow screwed up beneath the surface?) and in part because of our shared geographical origins (we Midwesterners gotta stick together!). But as dark as this novel is, there are glimpses of light and love throughout that make it unexpectedly uplifting.
While you’re here, feel free to check out the lists from previous years: