The best books I read in 2020
Reading kept me sane during the pandemic. Here are some favorites.
This post is only loosely edited. Please send corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
Musical taste is highly varied, and personal. So are books, making reading something that we all do differently. This makes recommendations tricky, if you’d like to write a books list that might appeal broadly.
I don’t. Because reading is so very individual, all I can do is tell you what brought me delight and a burning need to read the next page, chapter, or installment in a series.
The list below skews heavily towards science-fiction, and fantasy. There’s a simple reason for that. I live on Earth, and often would rather be somewhere else for a little while. Books are my spaceship, my magic ring — my ticket away.
But not everything listed below fits into those two niches. So, I hope you find something for yourself; a book to treasure as this new, more hopeful year begins.
Hugs, love, and may we keep discovering new stories in 2021. (Here’s nearly everything I read this year, for a more varied list.)
The Inheritance Trilogy
[here] N. K. Jemisin is a goddamn mastermind. Her Broken Earth series shattered me in 2019. The Inheritance Trilogy might be even better. Pantheonic gods, the morality and mortality of power, and what redemption might look like in a world of pain? Not to mention a genesis story of beauty. So good.
The Obsidian Tower + The Once and Future Witches
[here] and [here] I’ve put these into the same recommendation bucket as they are both so fucking good, and each features a female protagonist/female protagonists in a world of magic. Past those similarities there’s very little the two share. You will enjoy both journeys immensely. Read them.
Enemy at the Gates + The Guns of August
[here] and [here] I am breaking a rule and including a book here that I have not finished. I read Enemy at the Gates this year, a history of the battle for Stalingrad in World War II, which was a depressing experience.
If you’ve seen the movie, you have some idea of the horror of that particular period of combat. The book makes it plain that the movie was hugely sanitized. Reality was infinitely worse. The book is incredibly well-reported, and full of details that make the terror of that siege feel human in a painful way. In a way that will make you rethink war movies, and indeed any glamorization of war.
The Guns of August is a prelude of sorts to the Enemy at the Gates. I am about 100 pages from finishing it (it’s the current book I’m reading with my Dad in our little two person book club; we read the Federalist Papers earlier in 2020 after slogging through Democracy in America and some other stuff in 2019.) But if you want to understand the political, social, and philosophical climate that led to World War I, it’s a must read.
Barbara W. Tuchman, the book’s author, is a brilliant journalist with a knack for making complex issues fit neatly into chapters that build sequentially. It’s bonkers good. And she’s funny, which helps get you through the history.
Is it short? No. Is it a quick read? Yes.
The Three Body Problem trilogy + The Redemption of Time
[here] and [here] I got to mention these books in a TechCrunch post, so I’ll be brief here: Read the Three Body Problem trilogy. And then when you’ve sat down for a day or two, read The Redemption of Time, a book that started off as a work of fanfic, but has become canon to some degree with the blessing of Cixin Liu, the original series’ author.
Each section of the final book in the Three Body trilogy is a triumph of imagination. Cixin Liu is goddamn amazing, leading me to read some of his other work this year. (More below.)
Code + Radium Girls + Hidden Figures
[here] and [here] and [here] I am in a book club in which I am the only man, which has been a huge treat as the books picked by the group have led to areas of history that I would have otherwise missed.
In 2020 we read Code Girls, Radium Girls, and Hidden Figures among other books. I’ve selected these three to highlight as they are each brilliantly reported and written, and also because they detail the huge — and overlooked, underpaid, and underappreciated — work that women did in the background of the stories that we grew up hearing.
I read lots about naval warfare in the Second World War when growing up, for example. But I read nothing about the army of women who stepped into code-breaking jobs that made victory possible during those fights.
And I read lots about military aircraft while a child, but I read nothing about how the dials were be painted with night-friendly luminous, radium paint, leading to mass-death for myriad of female laborers who were then treated as disposable by corporate America, even as their bodies decayed in plain sight.
And Hidden Figures will walk you through the hallways of NACA and NASA, and the war that brilliant Black women had to fight to just get a semblance of fair treatment for exceptional work.
These books are all American stories. They show at once our failures as a nation, and, to some degree, our progress. Books to chew on and think over.
The Poppy War trilogy
[here] Fuck. I’ve only read the first two books of this trilogy but am goddamned hype to read the final book, which just came out.
Some books demand perfect heroes. That the leading character can’t make mistakes, a bit like some sort of meta-Harry Potter. R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War series lacks that sin.
Instead, Rin, your new best friend after 17 pages of the first book, is all too human, precisely as she isn’t. Which makes for a molten conflagration of death, war, and unfairness.
That the books have echoes of historical Chinese-Japanese war and war crimes, as well as a deep echo of European and American imperialism (especially in the second book) makes it all the more engrossing.
Fuck! So good!
Chinese sci-fi more broadly
[here] and [here] Citing the Three Body Problem trilogy is hugely cliche, even if it is worth the praise. So, to broaden the recommendation pool a bit, you should read Broken Stars, a collection of Chinese science-fiction that is fascinating. And then read Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu because it’s fucking good fun.
An Unkindness of Ghosts
[here] Rivers Solomon is a genius. It’s hard to describe this book, but it explores racism in space, and the ability of our species to treat one another as less than human no matter where we are.
I won’t spoil it any more, but this is a must read.
The Locked Tomb trilogy
[here] I was pretty unsure going into Gideon the Ninth, the first book in the Locked Tomb series. I am not really into death-magic as a general concept as it always feels overly dramatic and gobbish. But, Tamsyn Muir is amazing, and the book was nothing like what I expected. At all.
I read the first book, and am ripping through the second at about as fast a clip as I can. It’s what I am reading when I finish not editing this post. It’s so inventive and interesting and confusing and huge and funny and sad and more. I have only one friend who has read these books. Please become my second so that we can talk about them.
Every year that goes by I discover new music and new books and that helps keep me going when life otherwise seems to repetitive to break free from its own patterns. Without books, 2020 would have been a hell of a lot worse.
I enjoyed your article and added a couple of the books to my reading list for 2021. Since you liked Barbra Tuchman, I would like to recommend her book The Proud Towers, which is sort of a prequel to Guns of August.