At Least 2020 Was Good for Something

2020, for all its faults—and they are legion—provided a sly benefit to introverts and others who are always secretly looking for an excuse to stay home. For me, it offered ample opportunity to write, but also a lot of time to settle in with a book—particularly catching up on a number of classics that have been sitting on my bucket list for too long.

I started the year with War and Peace and am ending it with Don Quixote—tragedy and madness literally and appropriately bookending a year like no other. Here are some of the books, old and new, that offered some solace from the pandemic, murderous cops, a nail-biting election, wildfires, murder hornets, and all the rest.

War and Peace. I’d put this off for years, in part because I was so disappointed by the self-righteous spirituality and sexphobia that dominated Anna Karenina, but it was well worth the wait. Once again, Tolstoy has a bit of trouble with women characters (giving the immature Natasha too much sympathy, whereas the passionate Anna got far too little), but War and Peace seamlessly merges the public and the private into a profoundly moving brew. An indisputable masterpiece.

To get some historical perspective on pandemics, I dipped into another classic, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), for a glimpse into the Great Plague of London in 1665. And, flashing forward, William Maxwell’s exquisitely moving They Came Like Swallows (1938), examines the 1918 influenza pandemic and its devastating effects on one family.

My disgust at the fates of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others drove me to learn more about systemic and insidious racism in America. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2018) offers a clear and disturbing history of redlining, and Carol Anderson’s White Rage (2017) expands the lens to explore the systematic march of racial injustice from Reconstruction to the present.

Not coincidentally, I got a craving for James Baldwin over the past year. I’ve read a few of his novels over the years, but in 2020 I added two more: the moving If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), his psychologically complex and gorgeously written first novel.

For contemporary fiction, I finally embarked upon Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, with the first two volumes in the quartet: My Brilliant Friend (2011) and The Story of a New Name (2012). My grandfather was from Naples, which I’ve never visited, so Ferrante’s masterful portrait of that world sucked me in with its story of two gifted women whose individual struggles to overcome their surroundings yield very different results. I’m eager to finish the series in the new year (before HBO beats me to the punch).

I buy so many books each year that I end up reading only a few in the year they’re published. Three such books jumped to the top of the list in 2020. Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Downfall, 1939­–1945 concludes his two-volume biography with a detailed history of the war years and a satisfying depiction of the psychological decay and suffering of the madman at the center of it all. As in the first volume, Ullrich reminds us of history’s tendency to repeat itself: Hitler’s increasing desperation in the war has haunting echoes in his American protégé’s hysteria over the 2020 election.

For an enlightening explanation of how we got here, I turned to Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, which recounts how the greed and bigotry of the Reagan 80s led, in systematic fashion, to the antidemocracy and open racism unleashed by his orange heir.

My favorite fiction of the year was Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Lyrical and heartbreaking, this novel lays bare the difficulties of expressing one’s identity and the tragic consequences of denying it.

Other highlights of the year’s reading include:

  • Karl Ove Knausgaard’s impressionistic Autumn (2019), so different from his mammoth My Struggle, but infused with the same enlightenment about the human condition. I plan to read the rest of the volumes in the series as their titular seasons tick down on the 2021 calendar.
  • Emmanuel Carrère’s complex and disturbing memoir My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), which directly confronts the troubling nature of a genre that invites narcissism—but this time, examining its consequences.
  • Peter Dubé’s haunting fable The Headless Man (2020), which, through a series of lyrical prose poems, paints a surrealist picture of existential crisis.
  • Psychologist Walt Odets’s Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives (2020),which illuminates the differing effects of the AIDS crisis on three generations of the community.

These are just a few of the books that had a powerful impact on me last year, and 2021 is shaping up to be just as satisfying. Now, back to Don Quixote—only 600 pages to go!