2020: A Year In Books
Early on in the pandemic, I challenged myself to read 60 books in 2020. 60 seemed like a stretch-goal in late spring (calculated then to be roughly 2 books per week). These books could be from any genre, any author (although I did give some preference to BIPOC and LGBTQ authors), any topic, and any length.
The goal of this reading challenge was two-fold: catch up on books on my “to be read” shelf (courtesy of GoodReads) and get back into a hobby that supported my mental health. As I write this post I have read 100+ books this year. Whatever books I couldn’t find through my local library (shout out to the New England Noble Network!), I purchased through local booksellers and Amazon. Below, in reverse chronological order, are my Top 10 Reads of 2020.
10. She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton & The Women Who Lived Her Songs (Sarah Smarsh)
If you know me, you know I absolutely adore Dolly Parton (once quarantine is lifted, our first trip is to the Tennessee Mountains to visit Dollywood!). In our family, Dolly Parton is the common language we all speak. Dolly is the non-partisan, no-nonsense sister/grandmother/aunt we all wish we had.
Sarah Smarsh’s book is the amalgamation of 4 essays written for The Journal of Roots Music, No Depression. This book isn’t so much a tribute book as much as it is Smarsh’s detailing of how a girl from rural Kansas found comfort and inspiration in the superstar and how Dolly’s example inspired women like her to bust the patriarchy and reclaim their time. And yet, Smarsh does a fantastic job detailing the history of famous Dolly songs (“9 to 5,” “Jolene,” “Two Doors Down”) and some lesser-known fan favorites (“Down from Dover,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” and “Applejack”).
She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs
She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs [Smarsh, Sarah] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping…
9. Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire (Rebecca Henderson)
Earlier this year I took a class at Harvard Business School by the same name as Rebecca’s book (she helped create the course). Initially, I couldn’t believe that students at HBS would ever really try to “reimagine capitalism” because, in the words of Mr. Gekko, “Greed is good!” I was wrong.
Rebecca’s book looks at five critical dimensions that can reshape capitalism as we know it. For me, the most interesting dimension Rebecca discusses is creating stakeholder value in lieu of merely maximizing shareholder value. Rebecca throws water on Milton Friedman’s Theory of Corporate Social Responsibility and gives readers new ways to analyze the role of the corporation in society along with new financial metrics like ESG scores/ratings that can drive social well-being (while at the same time producing an active return on investment- alpha). I suggest readers look up the “Elephant and the Rider” theory prior to reading- it’s a simple but powerful theory for driving change.
Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire
Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire [Henderson, Rebecca] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers…
8. Red, White & Royal Blue (Casey McQuiston)
Don’t let the cover fool you, McQuiston’s fictional rom-com is one of the best LGBTQ reads in recent memory. In a nutshell: the First Son of the President of the United States falls in love with Prince of the U.K. What could go wrong?
McQuiston marvelously steers clear of gay-tropes and navigates an often tenuous relationship between the US and the UK like a consummate student of international relations. If you love The Crown, you will undoubtedly fall head over heels for this book.
Red, White & Royal Blue: A Novel
Amazon.com: Red, White & Royal Blue: A Novel (9781250316776): McQuiston, Casey: Books
7. Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin)
In 2020 I re-discovered James Baldwin. Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” and Misha Green’s HBO series, “Lovecraft Country” inspired me to re-read some of James Baldwin’s works this Fall.
“Giovanni’s Room” was my favorite Baldwin read this year. Baldwin’s masterpiece was published in 1956 and recounts the story of an American man living in Paris as he slowly and painstakingly lays claim to his Queer identity. It has lessons that are easily transferred to the present day and I hope more high school history and literature classes include Baldwin’s work in their syllabi.
6. Ninth House (Leigh Bardugo)
Leigh Bardugo’s debut adult novel, Ninth House, is a magical and intellectual tour de force. Leigh weaves a story about Yale’s secret societies with incredibly complex and emotional characters. Warning: there are many triggers in this book including murder, rape, dark magic, and human mutilation.
Ninth House [Bardugo, Leigh] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. Ninth House
5. The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy (Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter)
The Politics Industry applies Michael’s famous Five Forces to the US political system while exploring new ways to innovate from outside the system.
The book largely focuses on the need for Final 5 Voting, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), and an Innovation Commission within the House that drives bipartisan support for change in legislative proceedings.
Even though some of the recommendations prescribed by Porter and Gehle may be wishful thinking (unfortunately, RCV did not pass on the MA ballot this past election cycle), overall, the construction of layered remedies (and not an outright call to demolish the system) is what I think can drive meaningful change in our floundering political arena.
The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy
The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy [Gehl, Katherine M…
4. A Promised Land (Barack Obama)
Coming in at roughly 700 pages, President Obama’s A Promised Land, has something for everyone. Obama recounts his administration’s response to everything from the 2008 financial crisis & associated reforms, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the signing of the 2016 Paris Agreement.
President Obama’s retelling of the circumstances around the repeal of DADT is my favorite part of this 2-part memoir.
Obama’s insertion of voices like Brian Bond, Mike Mullen, and Robert Gates, and other advisors and chiefs of staff gives us our first complete narrative of the repeal. Obama doesn’t shy away from admitting his evolving viewpoint on issues related to the LGBTQ community. I also love that he ties in these issues with larger issues around immigration, religious freedom, and systemic hatred to those society considers “others.”
Obama, the Best-Selling Author, on Reading, Writing and Radical Empathy
He invited authors and historians to the White House and had already published a best-selling memoir. That didn't make…
Interestingly, in a New York Times article published on December 8, 2020 (above), Obama discussed his writing style and evoked the memory of James Baldwin: “When I think about how I learned to write, who I mimicked, the voice that always comes to mind the most is James Baldwin.”
3. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Erik Larson)
Larson’s (no relation) latest historical narrative is his best yet. If you’re a fan of Devil in the White City or any of Candice Millard’s books then you will love this fast-paced and detailed look into the life of Winston Churchill & the start of WWII.
The Splendid and the Vile recounts the first year of Churchill’s ascendency to Prime Minister of the UK and his heroic efforts to guide a beleaguered nation out of the grasps of Nazi Germany.
Side note: While this book reads like a work of fiction or an episode of The Crown, it is entirely factual. Larson’s research into the personal diaries of Winston’s secretary, cabinet members, and close family is almost too good to be true!
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz [Larson, Erik] on Amazon.com…
2. The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett)
That this book was published in 2020 is pure serendipity. I read this book for the first time in early Summer when the murder of George Floyd led to a resurgence of the BLM movement and forced dominant Caste members to reflect on their privilege. Brit picks up where Nella Larsen left off in Passing (a novella first published in 1929). If you haven’t read Nella’s novella- I highly suggest you read it prior to reading The Vanishing Half.
Not only does Brit marvelously weave together a story across generations of the Vigne family, a Black family in the Deep South, but she also explores Queer identity through non-gender-conforming characters.
Simply put: Brit’s book is a triumph & I hope literary and non-literary circles continue to analyze and dissect all the many intricate characters and themes in this book.
The Vanishing Half: A Novel
The Vanishing Half: A Novel [Bennett, Brit] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. The Vanishing Half: A…
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson)
Wilkerson's call for “radical empathy” (“putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experiences”) should be the motto for 2020 and beyond.
Wilkerson marvelously draws parallels between the caste systems in the US, India, and Germany (specifically under the Third Reich). If one thing is evident from this incredible research it’s that a caste system makes a prisoner of every single person (yes, even the “dominant” Caste members).
Here are a couple of quotes that sparked “ah-ha” moments for me:
“The caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity.”
“When you are caught in a caste system, you will likely do whatever it takes to survive in it… You will emphasize the inherited characteristics that rank higher on the caste scale.”
Wilkerson draws a clear need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the US in order to properly deal with our country’s dark and brutal past. Her references to current day Germany and the country’s attempts to reconcile its Nazi past give some indicator that systemic change to the US caste system is possible… if we collectively try to change it.
Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents
Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents [Wilkerson, Isabel] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on…
What did you read in 2020? Let’s connect on GoodReads!