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.
…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?
For me, favorite books, favorite books series, and favorite authors are three very different lists. In this post I’ll be talking about the last of three. My qualifications for favorite authors is that I’ve read a large body (if not all) of their work, and I’m totally here for it.
In no particular order, let’s get into it.
I was going to open this up to say I have read everything she has had published, but checking goodreads, it seems I have fallen behind in the last few years. Well, I still have read every novel she’s ever published, just not all the short stories or graphic novels.
From YA to new adult to adult, from realistic to other world fantasy to magical realism, Rowell’s novels cover a lot of territory. However, no matter what muck -- emotional or magical -- the characters have to trudge through to get their happy endings, they make it in her heartfelt and introspective tales.
Does this man need any introduction? From A Series of Unfortunate Events to All the Wrong Questions to any number of his picture books, I’m a fan. I started reading him as a child when ASOUE was originally being published and continue to keep up with his work, including using some of his picture books like The Dark, which makes a regular appearance in my story times in my librarian career.
His dark and humorous stories, his cheeky turns of phrase, and unique narrative voice will always keep me engaged and entertained.
Sharp Objects? Yes. Gone Girl? Hell yes. Dark Places? Eh, that one was a bit of a misstep for me -- the plot really didn’t come together. The Grownup, though? Here for it.
I’m eagerly awaiting Flynn’s next dark, psychological thriller starring a woman with certainly enough twists to give you the whiplash. She is the queen of this trend.
I just love her. Beautiful prose. Clever prose. Original prose. Great settings and atmosphere in character-centric genre fiction.
Also, following her on social media is a riot. She gives great writing advice, answers questions about her published materials in clever, humorous ways that usually aren’t straight answers but reveal something anyway, and continually teases about her ongoing/upcoming projects.
I’m still working my way through her writing-ography as I got on the fantrain of hers late, but even one of her books isn’t my cup of tea, such as All the Crooked Saints, I can appreciate the craftsmanship of it.
I haven’t read him in a while, but their was a time from 2012-2014 that I picking up all of his titles. Beautiful prose telling beautiful stories about LGBT teens. Not all of his novel’s have been home runs for me. His experimental Every You, Every Me didn’t really land, for example, but Everyday and The Lover’s Dictionary were brilliant.
Levithan has also co-authored a lot of books, which must mean he is easy to work with, but every time I try one of his co-authored titles, I can’t help but want to skip the other author’s section because his are so much more engaging!
Looking at this list and the explanations, there are some unifying factors. One is prose, which I brought up for three of the six. There are also disunifying factors -- Rainbow Rowell and Gillian Flynn couldn’t be writing more different styles and types of stories.
While I didn’t mention “good storytelling” they all are good storytellers, or I wouldn’t be freaking out over them and wanting to read all their books after just reading one. In different genres and for different age groups, they all write strong, interesting, insightful, thematic stories.
(Or Reaffirmed The Fact)
((In Roughly Reverse Order))
4 & 5
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I’m pairing the four books of Stiefvater's Raven Cycle and Rowell’s Carry On for two reasons: (1) I read them for the first time the same year, just a few months apart, and (2) they reaffirmed the same main emphasis.
That emphasis being that YA lit could be complex and told complexly, with alternate character POVs, and lots of tangled history behind the infrastructure of the story that holds up the main narrative. As a writer who was struggling with writing a tangled, multi-character narrative that was more heavy on character than plot, I was so frustrated by conventional wisdom about YA lit -- the narrative needed to be simple, follow one character, not head hop, and so on. I was so pleased, reading these book, to realize that these complicated stories were things you were allowed to write as a writer, and that readers want to read.
More individually, The Raven Cycle enriched me with a beautiful, clever, original prose style that I want to make love to. Carry On, in how it riffs on Harry Potter and fandom, showed me that they words of fan culture and original story were not opposites, but could flow together.
Both of these YA marvels were door openers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book came out a few years ago to some acclaim, popularity, and award-winning, and it showed me what was possible in genre-mashing story. I was formally trained in literary fiction in my undergraduate writing program, but my reading interests have always fell on to the sides of things not considered the highest quality amongst the literary elite: ya, children’s, scifi, fantasy, chick lit, mystery, and fanfiction.
In this post-apocalypse story in which a band of actors and musicians in a traveling caravan try to live out the importance of art and meaning in a world previously decimated by a sudden epidemic and the following violence, Station Eleven takes the best of speculative fiction -- the imagination and what ifs -- and the best of literary fiction -- the character focus and thematic resonance -- and put them together. Additionally, it didn’t focus on action plot beats like post-apocalypse fiction usually does and injected the ending with a big dollop of hope. Station Eleven showed me the potential for stories and how they did not have to be neatly packaged into one genre box or the other, with all the surrounding conventions.
Literally, when I got to the end of this book I said to myself, “This is the kind of book I want to write, but I didn’t know I was allowed!” What a freeing read.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I feel like so-called “classics” are getting a bad rap as of late as things that no one actually wants to read or likes reading. But, heck, I sure liked this one when it was assigned to my AP Lit class in my senior year of high school. I’ve since then had to reread it for college, and have reread it for myself.
It is not so much this entire book -- which is slim and bit a heavy on detail and a bit slow on plot and very much a portrait and condemnation of the time and place and the people -- but moments in it. Moments profound and powerful in their twisting poetic prose, in their themes, and in how they pay off for what had been built to before.
I think that’s an important thing to a note of a book that has slow or beleaguered parts that ultimately have a wallop of a payoff at some point -- that the payoff is robbed of its power if that build up hadn’t been put in place.
But, yeah, I totally flip back to different passages and pace around reading them outloud because they’re so good.
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” ←I know you can’t tell, but I totally typed that from memory. No lookups.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Ah, the mother of them all. The Outsiders is often considered first modern YA novel. While in the big picture this novel about a group of brothers and friends struggling with poverty, classism, and gang violence in 1969 Tulsa may have helped birth a genre, it was also the novel that showed me that books could be profound.
It was assigned reading by my 8th grade teacher. For years before then I had been a greedy reader of Nancy Drew and other mysteries, American Girl and other historical fiction, as well as Lord of the Rings and other fantasy. Being such a vicarious reader, what made The Outsiders such a changing point for me? Perhaps it was the character focus. Perhaps it was the realism. Whatever it was, I definitely had that ‘I’m being moved by great literature’ moment that most English teachers probably hope to inspire in their students.
Knowing that a book, a story, a narrative could have that much power, could mean so much, could real, could move me… well, it was something I wanted to try my hand at too.
Here’s my straight up disclaimer: I do not intend this to be a snobby hate fest for ebooks supposed inferiority in comparison to print/physical books. This is intended to be an exploration of my reasons, as well as a thesis on what makes ebooks lack a certain appeal for readers like me. Disclaimer ended.
There are probably several reasons that need to be addressed first before I get to my thesis.
First of all, despite being a smack-dab-in-the-middle millennial, I was a late adopter to smartphones, having only transitioned from my flip phone that had battery power that would last a goddamn week, to a smartphone about one and a half years ago in summer 2016. For reasons of monetary frugality. Which is the same reason why I never had a tablet or ereading device before that point. It’s not that I’m a luddite, but my favorite piece of technology is not my phone but will always be laptop computers, recently being my wonderfully portable chromebook. As a writer, having a qwerty keyboard is a necessity for a useable piece of tech. All this to illustrate the point that (although you can read ebooks on computers), I never owned one of the portable devices used for ereading until fairly recently.
Second of all, I’ve worked consistently in the public library since I graduated from college in 2012, meaning I’ve always had free and easy access to every book I could think of without even having to drive out of my way to pick them up.
Third of all, I must consider my book buying habits. See my point above: public library and free books. I am a giant library user, and a giant reader, and a giant book lover, but also frugal and have limited space. I don’t buy every book I read or want to read. I buy books I know I want to reread, to pick up again, skim favorite parts, and put sticky notes in. I buy books for aesthetic reasons: for the cover art, for anniversary editions, for complete sets. I have multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings, and The Outsiders entirely for aesthetic and collector reasons. I also buy strange and interesting finds in used book stores for discounted prices, although that experience tends to be more like a search through a thrift shop or antique shop for hidden treasures than a trip to Barnes and Noble.
As you can see, the discounted price for ebooks does very little for me when I can free books from a library and want to buy physical copies of my favorite books and of the prettiest books.
Someone: “But what if you want to pack several books for a trip?”
Me: “I just make room to pack several books. No seriously, I packed like four books for a weeklong beach trip. Reading on my phone at the beach while wearing sunglasses doesn’t sound like it is going to work so well anyway, does it?”
Since getting my phone (and before then, using a computer), I have borrowed several ebooks via library services and purchased a few as well. (Let me make clear right now that I’m differentiating here between ebooks and eaudiobooks. eAudiobooks are the bomb, but that’s apples and oranges. Audiobooks, whether on cassette tape, CD, or digital are essentially the same end product on different types of devices.) The reading experience has never really clicked for me.
But here’s the strange thing… the problem is not reading on a device that I find troubling. I read a lot on my devices, computer and phone. From blogs to news sites to even lots and lots of fanfiction. I’m comfortable reading on a device. My excuse cannot be eye strain or the distractions of the internet that is just a touch away when I have a device in my hand (which are the common issues I’ve heard.)
So to my thesis: I propose that the problem with ebooks is their format. In their desperation to get the reluctant to convert, they decided to format ebooks ike codex books. (Unfamiliar with the term codex book, just think books as you know them, sheets of paper held together by a spaine as opposed to say… scrolls).
They have artificial page flips and print book formatting. While the user is given control over the size of the text and even have a few font options, ebooks are trying to look like print books. And I don’t like it. Like I said, I read a lot online, and reading on a screen is a different experience than reading a physical book.
For example, the page flips. Everywhere else online, we read by scrolling down, not by flipping pages. Having read fanfiction for many years before the ebook boom, that is more natural to me than the page flips, and is a more natural reading experience than flipping a page. We (in the west) are taught to read left to right, top to bottom, and we just want our ears to keep going down. Flipping the page is a necessity of the codex. There is no need for it on a screen. Furthermore, repeating many people who have said the same thing, it is a lot easier to flip through the pages of a print book than an ebook. Let us scroll. Let us use search and find features like internet browsers have casually built in.
No, I’m am not proposing we have endless scrolling 80,000 word novels. Again, I hail to the formatting decisions of fanfiction sites like fanfiction.net and AO3.org. Let the read scroll and read for the length of a chapter, and then have a next and previous buttons. That is also how blogs and sometimes longer news stories do it too.
Another nitpick, the spacing of the words on the ebooks page. Again, they emulate book formatting which is standard English practice: indented paragraphs with no spaces between. Perhaps you have noticed the unspoken rules of internet writing and publishing. (Maybe they are spoken somewhere, but I’ve just picked it up by observation.) Look at my blog post. Go look at a news article on the New York Times website. Notice something? No paragraph indents. Instead, there is a line space between paragraphs. I believe this is done probably because it is easy to format as well as easier to read on a screen. (Additionally, I believe that serif fonts are easier to read in print, and san serif fonts are easier to read on the screen, but New York Times haven’t caught up with this one yet).
I think ebooks would be a more enjoyable experience if they emulated the way every other field is publishing online, and how online readers usually read. And it definitely would for me.
Make a Reading Goal
One of the best ways to succeed in reaching in an accomplishment is to set a goal. Not just a vague notion of wanting to ‘read more’ but something more definitive. Did you know you are more likely to accomplish your goal when you write it down? Come up with a measurable amount of what reading more means to you, whether it is in number of books or time spent reading.
Your goal can be weekly, monthly, or yearly. The most popular way to track a reading goal out there is the goodreads yearly reading challenges, where you can pick a number of books you want to read.
Once you make a goal, you need to make a plan on how you are going to achieve it. Below are some tips and tricks to make the most of your time and resources and the different forms of books to increase your reading.
More Tips Under the Break
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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