This has been…a year. If there were ever a need for escapism, 2020 has been it, and we’ve been doing that heavily through books – Svetlana is an avid reader to begin with, but she read 80+ titles in 2020; Megan, meanwhile, has read 25 so far, which (she thinks) is a personal record for her adult existence. So here we are to tell you which books we read this year that made this trash fire feel more bearable:
2020 was a year that made us more isolated from each other than every before, and as a result crave relationships more than ever. Bryan Washington’s honest, spare-yet-messy novel about two young gay men (one Asian, one Black), trying to make it (emotionally, professionally, etc) in Houston while their families swirl around them captures the delirious highs and lows of loving someone (and putting up with them) better than maybe any book I’ve ever read.
Two novels about siblings and identity that could not be more different thematically but have one thing in common: they remind us of the power of a great novel: a place to get lost in for hours and days at a time while the pandemic and our emotions rage. Once you are done with these two – read Benett’s Mothers and Patchett’s Truth and Beauty.
It is no secret we are all not-so-low-key obsessed with Sam Irby in these parts (I am forever working on getting her to a BYT festival of some kind, and I will keep working on it until that goal is achieved) and this latest collection of essays is a great: her writing, warts and all, is the kind of combination of funny and sad that instantly, irrevocably feels REAL. In short: Her misery makes for great company, especially since our misery needs great company, more than ever, these days.
In a year where travel and escapism were pure fantasy, came this book (based on the Instagram handle sensation of the same name) offers the best kind of wanderlust: two hundred locations that feel like a movie, just waiting for you to appear in them. Wes Anderson offers his blessing in the intro essay. Think of this as 2020’s ATLAS OBSCURA, but twee-er (which is what 2020 needed).
If I had to sum up what my 2020 reading looked like in just a few words, I’d say it mainly had to do with ecology, food, physics, grief and/or queer stuff; below are titles released this year and in 2019 that I especially enjoyed, and yes, practically all of them made me cry at some juncture. (For me, crying was v. important re: making this year bearable.)
Transported me to: THE WORLD
This one takes a look at the environment and food systems through facts, travel, mourning…all of the things. It made me cry (therapeutically) several times. For example, there’s a whole section about the history of turtle soup. (Have you ever envisioned a sadder scene than turtles on ships, waiting to be turned into soup, “as silent and stoic as weathered mountains”? IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO FEEL DEVASTATED FOR TURTLES HUNDREDS OF YEARS AGO.) While I’ve had trouble engaging with certain travel content this year (I MISS IT SO MUCH), this felt like something I could very much get on board with, even while confined to my home.
Transported me to: Massachusetts, Rome, the sea, the stars, the past
Brilliant, easily the best thing I’ve read this whole year. (And beyond?!) It’s the convergence of pretty much all of my interests (science, art, history, feminism, queerness…the list goes on), so even though it’s over 500 pages (the digital version is, anyway) I finished it in no time. Lots of interesting information presented, not to mention I walked away with a handful of new lady heroes! Plus the themes of interconnectedness and human connection throughout felt v. appropriate for the overall climate this year. (I cried p. hard reading the love letter that physicist Richard Feynman wrote to his dead wife, Arline // if you would like to maybe cry p. hard, too, here is an excerpt from Popova’s Brain Pickings entry!) Highly recommended if you want to get outside of yourself a bit.
Transported me to: Florida, my youth
This memoir (which came out in 2019) weirdly felt like my own in a lot of ways, which is why I think I personally connected with the pages so hard, but the writing is excellent regardless. Mourning, queerness, early aughts…here for all of it. (And, you guessed it! I cried!)
Transported me to: THE EARTH
I have found reading about science to be weirdly comforting (and strangely poetic) for the past few years now; it’s good for trying to fall back in love with the world. While my interest kicked off with quantum physics (which I got super into when I had a good ol’ mononucleosis relapse in 2015 and didn’t leave my room for an entire summer), I’ve become v. interested in mycology and the fascinating world of fungi. (YEAH, THOSE ARE WORDS I JUST SAID.) Seriously, though…not to go all Paul Stamets on you guys, but I genuinely think we have so much to learn from (and still to learn about) fungi and mycelial networks. Merlin Sheldrake showcases all of that beautifully in this book, which is one of my favorite things I’ve read this year.
Transported me to: Hong Kong, Ireland
There was a lot of buzz (rightfully) about this novel, which I devoured REAL FAST. (We stan a literary palate cleanser in the form of Hong Kong-based fiction.) It’s an interesting meditation on power dynamics through the lens of relationships, class, and even language, and major bonus points for queer vibes! (Double major bonus points for reminding me why it was v. excruciating when I got a crush I didn’t want on an Irish person one time! Too many weird rules re: expression of feelings! Dear universe: no more of those ever, please!)
Transported me to: THE UNIVERSE
At the risk of sounding like a totally insufferable kook, I thought this one was p. revolutionary! There is admittedly a lot of “jargon”; I don’t know if I had a leg up re: easy(ish) comprehension since I have been reading books about quantum physics (somewhat inexplicably since I do not have a science or math brain) for the past five years or so, but I imagine it can’t have hurt, and I’m glad I had some baseline knowledge. (Like, my mind was blown thinking about the uncertainty principle in the context of how it applies to the macroworld because those are things I was already familiar with.)
That said, even if you’re not familiar with ye olde quantum lexicon, there are a lot of great, graspable points to consider re: not buying into ultra-contrived societal norms, and I would highly recommend giving it a go, even if it’s just for the part where he tells you to close your eyes and imagine your inner self going way beyond your physical body to fill up the room. (Again, I sound like a f*cking kook, but IT IS A RELAXING EXERCISE FOR THE QUARANTIMES!)