Following are my completely subjective favorite reads of 2020. Books didn’t have to be published in 2020, just read by me this year. So in no particular order, here we go…
Universal Love: Stories by Alexander Weinstein
An amazing book of short stories all centered around the theme of how near-future technologies will change and shape the ways we humans connect to each other -- from romantic, friendship, to familial. These stories hit the sweet spot between exploring big ideas while grounding them in the personal stories of the main characters.
The Test by Sylvain Neuvel
This novella about a citizenship is tense and suspenseful, and chock-full of social commentary. Because Idir is such a likable main character it made the stakes so much higher because I just didn’t want any of the bad stuff that was happening to him to be happening to him. I don’t want to give away too many of the twists, but just know the plot is a lot more than what it seems in the opening chapters.
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
This isn’t just a book about what asexuality is as a sexual orientation or what it is to the author (though it covers both) but an exploration of when we take asexuality into account how it makes us re-exam how we as a society assume how everyone feels or should feel about sex and relationships, as well as what it is the “right” or “healthy” way to engage in these.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
I read this masterpiece of a book-in-verse by Jason Reynolds in one day. When a teenage boy’s brother is killed in gang-related violence, he has to decide whether or not to continue the cycle by avenging his death. Takes place primarily during the length of an elevator ride down the apartment building. Powerful and heart-wrenching.
March: Book 1, 2, 3 by John Lewis
I finished reading this series of memoir graphic novels coincidentally just around John Lewis’ death. Framed around Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Lewis reflects back on his time and work in the Civil Rights Movement, providing insight and depth I have never gotten from the history textbooks: the inner politics of the different civil rights organizations, the philosophy of nonviolent protests, the downright brutality of protestors and civil rights workers faced. It’s a history lesson that’s 100% percent applicable to today.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Technically a reread, but the first time I read it as an adult (the real first time I read it was in high school), but it has to be included because reading this classic novel a second time blew my mind. Main character and narrator Holden Caulfield is either adored by readers for his unique perspective on the world or loathed by readers for his unique (read: pretentious) perspective on the world. Yes, Holden is pretentious (he’s a #teenager with #opinions); however, it slowly dawned on me during this read through that this story of young man’s weird little weekend romp in New York City after he flunks out of yet another school is actually chronicling his mental breakdown as he is desperately trying to connect with people while clearly not over the death of his younger brother. It is, in fact, quite heartbreaking. And I feel like this a whole giant layer of the story that is usually ignored in the pop culture discourse in favor of deciding who is the real phony. If this is a novel you read and rolled your eyes over in high school, it is worth another look.
My completely subjective list of my favorite books I read this decade and a few sentences to describe them.
5. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell & In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brenan
I put these two titles in a tie because they are so similar in concept and different in execution, and I love them both a lot. These two titles are send-ups/twists/subversions/homages to YA fantasy fiction of the last decades, with Carry On specific to Harry Potter and In Other Lands pulling from several sources. They both question who the real heroes and villains are, tell epic series-length plots in one book, have a character grow wings near the end (the strangest of the likenesses), and add in queer representation that this genre has been lacking.
Despite those similarities, they are very much both their own separate books in terms of style, theme, and characters, and both are deliciously fun reads with a strong heart pumping at the center.
4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I know Marie Kondo’s tidying philosophy has been the butt of a lot of jokes when reduced to soundbites, but if you haven’t read it and tried it, then you’re all just a pack of big meanies who don’t understand. :P. I used Kondo’s method to clean out my childhood bedroom post-college (which ended up being very useful to both me and my parents when I moved out a few years later) where I had pack-ratted up a lifetime of stuff.
While I rolled my eyes when reading the corny sounding suggestions of Kondo, like thanking the items you were getting rid of, in practice it really helped the emotional processes – whether sentimental attachment or guilt – of getting rid of stuff. I still use her methods of joy-bringing to cull my stuff every so often and the way she teaches you to fold laundry to fit in your bureau drawers ended up being a game-changer. Of all the books I read this decade, this one affected my day-to-day life the most.
3. Prince’s Gambit by C.S. Pacat
This middle volume of the Captive Prince trilogy has a little bit of everything that makes this series such an engrossing read: political intrigue, sword fights, hidden identities, enemies to friends to lovers trope, one of those scenes were they do a game of chase on the roof tops of a town at night, and layers and layers of themes. It’s the payoff to the slow build of the first book, leaves you with cliffhangers for the third book, and is overall a tightly written story that maintains both plot and character tension, and always reveals more details and nuances through rereads.
(But as much as I love it, don’t jump into reading this series without talking to someone whose read it first because the first book can be pretty off putting if you’re not prepared for the heaviness of the content.)
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
It’s hard to explain what makes this book so good. It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but like a literary one? Crickets. No, I swear it’s great. Because it’s not a story about warfare and chaos, it’s about the fight to survive after the initial chaos where survival is more the act of living but found in art and music and the tangle of human bonds.
Post-apocalyptic stories are usually depressing, about societies falling apart, but this one is about hope and societies rebuilding.
1. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I’m letting the first book in this four-part stand in for the rest of this contemporary, character-driven fantasy series, because otherwise this list might’ve ended up just all four books of The Raven Cycle. If you like stories about ghosts, psychics, and/or dead Welsh kings written by an author who knows how to turn a clever and powerful phrase, check this beautiful series out. The amount of magic and character-depth Stiefvater can pack into these books is astounding.
Ever since I read it for the first time in 2016, I have been obsessed.
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My completely subjective list of favorite books I read for the first time in 2019, plus one sentence to describe them.
10. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
This investigative journalist account of the escalating fraud and artifice of startup Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes is a mutant child of a train wreck and a soap opera that you just can’t look away from.
9. The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
This near 800-page tome about grief, antiques, and lying to yourself is either brilliant or vastly overrated – I can’t decide which – but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it.
8. Crush by Richard Silken
The ‘you’ve probably seen quotes from this on a tumblr gifset’ book of visceral poetry that I know I’m going to had to reread to let properly sink in.
7. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Found the story from this translated novella about a young woman who must stand up to the pressures of conformity to live the type of life that makes her happy even if it seems too simple or unsatisfactory to others a personally relatable tale.
6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The most prestige novel on this list, this story that flips between two timelines -- during the 80s AIDS epidemic and a survivor decades later -- was like a punch to the soul and has deserved all the credit it's gotten.
5. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
A folkloric-esque fantasy novella about a magical woods, its caretaker, and the spirit that haunts feels like it was written to fit my exact interests and aesthetics and is making me eagerly await Tesh’s next publication.
4. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Steifvater
The much anticipated follow up to The Raven Cycle, Steifvater delivers on the Lynch family backstory, the world of the Dreamers, and the magical black market that had been suggested and brewing unexplored on the edges of her previous contemporary fantasy series.
3. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Technically cheating because I listened to the audio in 2018 but read for print for first time in 2019, this fantasy book has everything: a magic warrior school, battles, a school drama production, a matriarchal elf society, a bunch of last names that are only funny if you know too much about YA lit, a boy who grows wings all the sudden, and a caustic nerd who just wants to be loved.
2. The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers by Matt Bird
Screenwriter Matt Bird shares some writing tips that changed the way I write, with the major takeaway being the importance of creative contradictions in character and plot development.
1.The Prince and Dressmaker by Jen Wang
A teen graphic novel that is a beautiful story in a beautiful color palette about friendship, fashion, and gender representation with an ending that will make you go, ‘I’m not crying, you’re crying.’
…and the philosophy behind her book limit.
(Not that she needs me to defend her.)
Wow, it’s like deja vu. A snippet of Kondo’s tidying advice has gone viral and a lot of people are reacting to -- from joking and memes to more serious responses -- without actually knowing the context or Kondo’s tidying philosophy that goes behind it.
A few years ago it was about only keeping things in your like that spark joy. Now it is her comment from her new Netflix show (or promoting her new Netflix show… I’m not sure of the source of the screenshot) about only owning thirty books.
Now look… I’m a librarian, a writer, a reader, and a booklover, and maybe if I hadn’t had a previous experience with Kondo’s work I would be reacting like the rest of the book-loving internet, but have had previous experience -- positive experience and an emotional emotion -- with her work. Needless to say, I’m a Kondo fan and I’m defensive and I’m going to get into it right here.
I have not watched any of her new Netflix show, but several years ago I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and, more importantly, used her methods to clean out my childhood bedroom. When I say childhood bedroom, this was the room I had lived in since I was a toddler through my mid-twenties. It had a closet I didn’t even go into, built in cabinets, shelves full of knick knacks collected over the years. I could never keep it organized and tidy, and I would often lose things in the mess that would take me a long time to find. I had a lifetime of stuff in there: toys, collectibles, magazine clippings on my favorite actors from various times in my adolescents and so on. Almost all had nostalgic memories attached.
Kondo’s method helped me sort through this childhood of accumulated stuff, pare it down, and get organized. Which is not as easy (or un-emotionally fraught) as it sounds.
Kondo’s method is built on a couple tenants.
The first is that the reason you can’t get organized and stay tidy is that you have too much stuff and you need to get rid of some of the stuff.
The second is that you get rid of stuff by categories (as opposed to a room by room process). In the book (and in her cleaning method when she works one-on-one in people’s homes), that starts with clothes, goes through several others (including books), and ends with sentimental items.
The third is that she uses an emotional gage for judging what items you should keep and discard. This is where the ‘sparks joy’ thing comes in that so many people make fun of or just don’t plan understand. She defines joy broadly, and honestly, it is not until you are going through the mountain of stuff you have that you realize how so much stuff that you keep is because of negative or neutral emotions. It’s obligation or guilt, because it was a gift, because you spent a lot of money on it, because you used to like it, because you really meant to get around to using it but never did, and so on and so forth.
Look, if you think ‘sparking joy’ is kooky, then you’ll think the part where Kondo suggests you thank each item you are getting rid for the joy it gave you in the past really kooky. Which I did think when I read it, but ended up being very useful in practice, because getting rid of your possessions can be very emotionally fraught it turns out. (Especially ones you that attached guilt to.)
Please note that Kondo, in broad strokes, is not one of those minimalist that usually ascribes numbers to the amount of this and that possessions you should have. The nature of sparking joy is very individual. We have different interests and tastes, so where on person may have a lot of… sports memorabilia that sparks joy, some others have none of that but have a lot of cooking supplies that spark joy, and someone else has a lot of, say, books.
Alright, books. We’re moving onto books.
Books is one of the categories Kondo has in her process of purging and tidying. I don’t recall -- although it has been several years since I read it -- Kondo giving that ‘30 book’ ideal in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I do remember her writing about winnowing down your books collection was this:
Imagine looking at a bookcase and it is just filled with books that you love. Imagine how good that would feel.
Seriously, just take that idea and seperate it for the rest of the conversation here for a second. Isn’t that a lovely image in your head? Doesn’t that fill you with an inner warmth?
Maybe you say you love every book in a 300 book collection, and maybe you do. I know I love more that thirty. But I also know that there are many on my shelves right now that I don’t.
Anyway, yes, I did purge a significant number of books from my collection, selling some via amazon and others at a new and used books store. (And then used the store credit to buy more books :P.) Many of them were books I had acquired at used books stores and had never read. Others were books I had acquired (as gifts or purchases) as a young person. I may or may not have read them in the past, but had no attachment to them in the present.
Did I keep more than thirty books? Yes. Could I purge that book collection I have built up again since then? Yes. Would it still be more than thirty books? Yes.
But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers may very well have more books that they L-O-V-E love than the average person. I know that between just a few book series that I do. But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers might like to remember than not everyone reads as much as they do or loves as many books, and that is totally okay. Thirty books might be a lot for some people and a little for others. Marie Kondo, who clearly greatest pleasure in life is tidying, may be part of that second group.
(And also, just because you don’t own a physical book doesn’t mean you aren’t reading. There are e-book and audio books people. People that use this thing called libraries that lets you borrow books. People that purchase books and then, once done, resell, give away, or donate.)
Sometimes I feel the booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers put a little too much stock into owning books for just the sake of owning them. I may be saying this as a perspective of a librarian who borrows most of the books I read (and then only buys the ones I love after reading… I rarely purchase a book before reading it unless it is in a series or from a beloved author). Maybe I say this as a person who has purged books via the Marie Kondo method and doesn’t regret it (it sure made moving easier a year later), and as a librarian because weeding (aka removing books from the library collection) is literally part of my regular job duties.
I suppose from the librarian perspective I believe that a book’s value is in its use. It is meant to be read and referenced, or to store important information, and even to be aesthetically appreciated. (I wouldn’t own multiple version of Lord of the Rings with different cover art if it wasn’t for aesthetic appreciation… And, yes, they all spark me some joy). A book isn’t sacred because it's a book. A books is important because it is useful. For information or pleasure or entertainment or artistic enlightenment.
I feel that a book stuffed in the back corner of a bookshelf that is unread, forgotten, and unwanted is not, well, fulfilling a book’s purpose. And maybe that same book could be filling its purpose on someone else’s shelves.
I guess I am one of the rare booklovers that thinks it is okay and even appropriate to purge and weed your personal book collection every so often, the same way you would purge your wardrobe or any other collections of stuff you have. Most people are going to have to purge it at one point anway. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are difficult to move. So whenever you move house… Just think about it.
So before you make reactionary posts about Marie Kondo’s thirty book comment, please consider the following…
That it is not a dictate or a judgement. It is just part of her tidying philosophy.
That the 30 books is just a suggestion for the average person, but that numbered dictates are not really a cornerstone of her philosophy. The ‘joy’ is. If you have more books that give you joy, than more books for you. But many people hold onto books (and other possessions) for negative reasons.
That if you ever need to weed down a book collection (such as for moving) rather than just spring cleaning, that her practice might be a guiding light.
And that if you prefer maximalism to minimalist, then that is your right, your prerogative, and more power to you. Kondo is there for the people who are seeking to organize and tidy, and her first step is purging. If you’re not looking for organization tips, then this has nothing to do with you and your life. Let the water roll of your back and please don’t engage in internet, snobby, booklover elitism or condensation that makes all of us books nerds look bad.
Please and thank you.
P.S. - Kondo’s method for folding clothes and how to fit them in your bureau draws is life changing. If you are constantly digging through your drawers unable to find the thing you’re looking for, messing up all that folding you dig, or otherwise have overstuffed drawers… seriously, look it up. There are diagrams and youtube videos. If you disagree with everything else here, please just do yourself and your drawers a favor. It’s so great. I’m serious.
P.P.S. - I’m just really passionate about how Marie Kondo changed my life, okay?
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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