At the top of my notes for this, my annual blog post, I wrote “memorable 2019 reading,” which is maybe just your average new year’s date error, but sure feels like an attempt to block something out.
It was a year when, buoyed by my success in meeting the 95-books goal in 2019, I set that as my goal again, only to be struck, like everyone else, with an imposed fit of unproductivity and doom-scrolling which also pretty much doomed my reading goal by the coming of the spring equinox. So I downgraded to a 52-books challenge like the one I first did in 2018. And I barely made it.
Unsurprisingly, 2020 has been my worst reading year since I started, but I’ve taken to reminding myself why I started tracking my reading in the first place: because the internet had been making me stupid, and I had not been reading nearly so much as I had in my youth. I have no idea how many books I was reading each year before 2018, but I’m certain it was far less than 52.
I also stopped using Goodreads to track books this year, because it’s owned by Amazon, and Amazon is particularly evil if you care about books. But (because U.S. politics) I do still subscribe to The Washington Post, also owned by Bezos, and thus my righteousness is diminished.
Here are my most memorable (for me) books of 2020:
Most memorable fiction was definitely Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. I read this early in the year because Luiselli was scheduled to keynote at a conference I was going to, and I wanted to be up to speed. Well, she cancelled, but wow wow wow this book bowled me over. It’s a hard-to-describe novel that I am drawn to for the form and the language more than the story, but I could say it’s about audio recording, research, family, and, centrally, unaccompanied migrant children. Luiselli had previously written about her experiences volunteering as an interpreter for asylum seekers in New York, experiences which seem to have informed this novel. It’s also a book full of bibliographies, so it’s given me a big list of more things to want to read.
I read a lot of nonfiction this year for a project I was researching, and the most memorable one for me was Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Arriving via Hägglund’s appearance on my favourite CBC show, Tapestry, I came for the existentialism, and I stayed for the unexpected economics. Some things annoyed me about the writing style, and there were precious few women quoted in the book (like maybe 2 or 3 in a book chock-full of references and on a topic–the value of time, see below–that is has huge feminist implications). But in the end it did bolster me with what I took to be its main insight: the only thing with inherent value is one’s own time. Treat it thusly.
But I’m a fiction reader at heart, and the rest of my memorable books of the year are all made-up stories.
Or at least mostly made-up. I read both Bring up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, the sequels to Wolf Hall (which I read in 2019). These are very long books—the last one was somewhere close to 900 pages—but oh so worth it. You have to get used to the style, at first—a style which begins to change in the last book as the narrator, occasionally, accidentally on purposely, uses the first person. That protagonist is Henry VIII’s chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell, and his rise and fall over the course of the three books are so subtle and yet so gargantuan and unmistakable, they are rivalled only by the arc of the series’ other chief character—the antagonist, I suppose–Henry VIII himself.
When I finished Wolf Hall, I missed Henry; he was so jovial and lively and seductive. But by the end of The Mirror and the Light, he is clearly a dangerous tyrant, and that change was slow and painful and inevitable and made so much sense.
Reading these reminded me a bit of when I read, ages ago, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, which took me months to read in its intricate faux-18th century prose but which was so good, once I was fully immersed, that when I finished I was tempted just to start back at the beginning again so I wouldn’t have to leave. (But, as it was also a zillion pages long, I didn’t.)
Oh–and there are no real spoilers here because Mantel’s books are historical for crying out loud–call me when to get to the mob from York, stirred up by unfounded rumours, conspiracy theories, and politicians counting on plausible deniability, who descend on London looking for an unlikely regime change. I don’t think politics had descended so far when Mantel first started, but the nasty politics of Tudor England started to look more contemporary as the series went on.
In the blast from the past category, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary. Oh yes, I did. And I thought it was delightful. I now understand what all the fuss was about more than 20 years ago when this book launched what would be called “chick lit” (still a terrible name). I was fresh out of grad school in English, and I’m sure I thought it was beneath me. And sure, some things in here don’t date well. All the smoking and the dieting. And ho boy, casual workplace sexual harassment that the characters joke about. But hear me out: this is a fantastic exercise in voice. It’s super-duper first-person, and she owns her obsessions, whether it’s weight loss or her jerky boss. Also books like this make me want to go to London again so bad.
On a completely different note, I finally finished Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I’d repeatedly started and stopped. (I sometimes read like that: I can be “reading” a book for years, without really abandoning it.) If you know anything about this book, you should understand why: people have called it “pain porn” and objected to—in addition to issues such as the depiction of disability–the over-the-top horror of the protagonist’s life.
Seriously, whenever you think, oh, finally, that’s the worst that can happen to him, no, really, she has thought of something even worse, and [SPOILERS] yet, given SO MUCH TRAUMA—I can’t emphasize enough how much trauma is going in here, folks, this book takes the “what’s the worst that can happen” to an extreme—he becomes a successful, filthy rich corporate lawyer who marries a movie star. But even though I have mixed feelings about this book for so many reasons, it is, if nothing else, very memorable. There’s a lot to like about the care with which Yanagihara has built the cast of characters and their intricate, fully developed relationships.
The last book I read in 2020 was the salve I needed to end the year on: Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. It’s got everything: plagues and apocalypses, new takes on urban legends, a cast of kooky artists at an isolated residency, lots of women, lots of queer women, and, best of all in my opinion, a story made up entirely of Law and Order: SVU episode descriptions. This book was just up what I call my weirdness alley.
I am, hopefully and perhaps foolishly, starting with 95 as a goal again in 2021. Wish me luck.