What a year.

I read more than usual this year. Staying at home because of the pandemic, finally making use of the enormous collection of ebooks and audiobooks from the library, and taking a summer class all contributed to the unusual (for me, anyway) number of books I read.

As with last year, this list isn’t composed of books released in 2020. It’s a list of books I read this year, regardless of when the book was published. Also, this list doesn’t include books I reread this year (of which there were several), only those books I read for the first time.

Ranking books is tricky; if I were to write this post next week, the list would probably change. Such is the nature of ranked lists in time.

Likely the most thematically timely book I read this year was Emily St. John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. It didn’t make my top 10, but—having read it in March—it certainly set the mood for the uncertainty, suffering, and apocalyptic feel of 2020 (the book isn’t quite as dark as that makes it sound).

I read 77 books in 2020. Here are my 10 favorite books I read (or listened to) this year.

10: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Like last year’s Dreyer’s English, this book about grammar and style had me laughing out loud. Granted, you’ll probably only appreciate this book if you’re nerdy about the English language, but humorous books about copyediting are becoming for me a new favorite subgenre.

9: Burn the Place: A Memoir

I can’t say I’ve read many memoirs from celebrated chefs, but this one from Iliana Regan is excellent. Growing up foraging in Indiana, Regan recounts her sometimes tragic, sometimes personally destructive path to becoming one of the most admired chefs in the U.S.

8: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

There are few books, at least those written from this author’s perspective, that so succinctly and convincingly convey why we’re in this political moment. The perilous effects of Reaganomics, leading to the proto-fascism we now see, are captured in striking detail here. The outcomes are mostly…not good, especially for women.

7: Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women

As with Down Girl last year, Kate Manne’s Entitled reveals how ingrained misogyny is in our society, and how it’s becoming even more dangerous. I’m not going to lie…this is a difficult read, in part because of the frequency and extent of the violence against women it documents. Mapping that violence—along with more mundane and more common expressions of misogyny—to male entitlement is important for us to understand how misogyny gets regenerated in our culture.

6: Dog Songs

We lost both of our dogs within the last year, one of them in March just before the pandemic really set it in. I turned in my grief to this lovely book of poems about our canine family, and it still makes me cry with grief and joy to even think about this book. We’ve since started a new journey with another dog, and this book has room for that, too.

5: The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology

There’s a disturbing undercurrent in this book about Mark Boyle’s life without technology. His decision to go completely off the grid, with no electricity, no car, and no technology beyond the very basic, is persuasively argued as the only way of life we can lead that will allow us to avert devastating environmental and social harm. I suspect he’s not wrong, but contemplating under what conditions we all agree to return to “primitive” lives leads to a depressing realization. Boyle is aware, of course, that he alone can’t make a difference on the scale we need. But it seems obvious we won’t collectively, voluntarily return to a truly sustainable way of life, at least as articulated in this book. I think we’ll be forced by nature to do so eventually, and that is a terrifying prospect. But I admire Boyle and his commitment. Instead of retreating to despair and debilitating anxiety, he’s doing what he can.

4: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

I can’t do better than this quote from the publisher:

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert).

3: That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation

If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement. - Soren Kierkegaard

There may not be a more damaging Christian theological doctrine than that of the existence of eternal damnation and the selfishly motivated “personal salvation” that is its concomitant. And yet, as David Bentley Hart argues in this accessible book, the concept of hell as dogmatically rendered is effectively absent from the biblical text.

As with his translation of the New Testament, Hart proves once again that the version of Christianity propagated by, for example, evangelicals and adherents of the “prosperity gospel,” is one based not on the Bible, but on a self-serving, individualistic, and exploitative perversion of the text.

No principle is more deeply embedded in the soil of protestant belief than the assertions that we are saved, not by works, but by faith alone. And yet the only appearance of this phrase in the whole of the New Testament, James 2:24, is in a verse that exactly contradicts such a claim.

And how many modern evangelicals think of salvation as something one receives by “accepting Jesus” as one’s “personal Lord and Savior,” even though such language is wholly absent from the New Testament, and even though all the real scriptural language of salvation is about a corporate condition of sacramental, moral, and spiritual union with the body of Christ.

I want to say something far more radical…I want to say that there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons, except in and with all other persons.

2: Capital and Ideology

Even more voluminous than its predecessor (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), this book is more of a historical survey than an economic analysis. For that reason, it is more accessible in some ways. But it is still a demanding read.

Piketty argues, contrary to Marx, that inequality isn’t an inevitable outcome of history leading to revolution and the subsequent victory of the working class. Rather, he conveys the extent to which capitalist inequality is nurtured and promoted through ideology. That, of course, implies that conditions can be changed through the active promotion of an alternative ideology. I’m not going back to brunch…how about you?

1: It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand

This has been the most difficult year of my life. That’s probably true for many people.

Apart from the pandemic, and evacuating our house because of wildfires, and both my wife and I suffering debilitating injuries, we, as I mentioned above, lost both of our dogs this year.

We don’t have children, and even if we did, our dogs would still be family members, not just pets. Losing them both at almost the same time was beyond devastating, and we haven’t quite recovered, even after almost a year.

A former colleague of mine shared this book with me, right when I needed it. It doesn’t make things better, necessarily…that’s part of the point. But it does help make it okay that things aren’t better, and that is crucial when experiencing grief.

I hope you don’t need this book, but if you do, it’s the best of its kind that I’ve read.

Grief is not a sign that you’re unwell or unevolved. It’s a sign that love has been part of your life, and you want love to continue, even here. You are here now, and here sucks.

In times of stress your mind can get ravenous and start eating itself.

Insightful, self-reflective people tend to be far harder on themselves than other folks…In this instance a sharp mind is not necessarily your friend.