With plenty of time on my hands because of the pandemic, I expected I’d have read many more books than I did in 2020. Then I realized that I used to do most of my reading during my train commute!
Still, I recommend a few, mostly written by women:
“Vesper Flights” is a beautiful collection of essays by the British naturalist Helen Macdonald. The title essay is one of the best things I read all year – deep and powerful and inspiring. The book was my constant companion while reading in my garden this summer, with a pair of binoculars at my side in case any interesting birds stopped by.
I also enjoyed reading the science-fiction short story collection “The Future Is Female,” which includes stories by famous and obscure writers, some of whom hid their gender from magazine publishers. One story in particular, “He Created Them,” by Alice Eleanor Jones, has haunted me. You can read it here.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to educate myself more about racism and get ideas about what I could do. I read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo after attending a lecture she gave about her research into racism and white people’s inability to discuss or reckon with their actions. This is pretty heavy book, but it’s also very approachable. DiAngelo is not trying to shame anyone, she’s just trying to encourage white people to be better.
I also wanted to read more books by nonwhite authors, so I read “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin – a science fiction novel about a society that enslaves and denigrates people who can save their society from ruin. I also recommend another science-fiction anthology, “Dark Matter,” stories written by Black authors. Science fiction works best when it shines a mirror on our society, and there are plenty of stories in this book that will make you think.
For pure escapism in books, I didn’t get far in 2020. (I guess reality was pretty strange enough). The closest I got was “Natural History” by Carlos Fonseca. The first half of the book was excellent – beautiful and strange with fabulous characters and atmosphere – but the second half was very disappointing. Boo.
Finally, to try to understand what is going on in American society and the power of Donald Trump, I thought it was important to look beyond the headlines. I recommend “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Appelbaum. She lays out many examples of history where people get sucked into support for authoritarian regimes – most often not because they really agree with authoritarianism or hope to profit from it – but because they see no other choice, lack courage to fight, hope to use the system for “good,” or think they can work from within to defend their society from authoritarianism’s darkest impulses.
She also provides lots of examples of die-hard supporters of regimes, who suddenly see authoritarianism for what it is, and then work to defeat it. One good example is a man who was a devoted foot soldier of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, who’d blindly followed and did anything asked of him. One day at party headquarters, he met a similar Communist foot soldier from another country, who was visiting to learn about the Soviet system. The visitor asked for directions to the cafeteria to get a meal. He was asked what kind of meal ticket he had – there was one cafeteria for the rank-and-file and another for the elites. The visitor was outraged at this system – are they not all brothers in Communism? Why do they not all eat together?
Good point, the Soviet party foot solider thought. Why is that? And with this little seed of doubt planted in his mind, this man would doubt more and more, and eventually go on to be a leader in the fall of the Soviet Union.
I end with this little story of hope in bleak times.
Looking forward to 2021, what do you recommend?