The Top Ten Books I Read In 2020
History, Paris, Islam, Germany, Memory
It was the year books made a comeback. The forced isolation of the pandemic drew us back to the one art form that always delivers.
There were small pandemic joys of being trapped in a library I had been building since freshman year. I picked out random books, went back to original sources, sought out inspiration in unlikely quarters.
The only thing to say about books this year is that I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful for the people who write them, for the editors and agents who spend hours laboring over them, for the independent booksellers who work tirelessly to create a place for stories to blossom. A year like this one is a good reminder that books are an essential good—and that we are nothing without stories.
Here’s to a better 2021. The movement continues. Brown Boy up next.
Below are my top ten books, followed by the full list of thirty-five.
10) The Rose That Grew From Concrete, Tupac Shakur
Please wake me when I’m free
I cannot bear captivity
where my culture I’m told holds no significance
I’ll wither and die in ignorance
But my inner eye can c a race
who reigned as kings in another place.
I picked up Tupac’s poetry collection as racial protests were convulsing America. I wanted to return to the music of my childhood, and these writings were one avenue.
Tupac Amaru Shakur wrote these poems when he was 18-20 years old. They show the perspective of a boy becoming a man, observing the world with a child’s eyes, realizing the abundance of danger, violence, and tragedy around him. Young Tupac is a gentle boy, making art in his notebook. He writes an ode to Vincent Van Gogh, expressing “a creative heart, obsessed with satisfying / This dormant and uncaring society.”
Just a few years after Tupac wrote these poems, he would become one of the biggest artists in the world. Then he was gunned down. I still find it so striking that Tupac was just twenty-five when he was murdered. What they say about great minds is true of Tupac Shakur: He was before his time. And the problem with being before your time is you end up ahead of your people —and some part of the world despises you for it.
9) 21 Things You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph.
When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. — Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, House of Commons, 1883.
This is one of those short books that made me feel embarrassed about my ignorance. I thought I knew the basics of Indigenous history in Canada, but this pamphlet made clear that the violence of the Indian Act was worse than what I imagined.
The Indian Act inflicted many horrors upon the Indigenous, from denying women status (1869 to 1985) to restricting the Indigenous from leaving their reserves without permission from an Indian agent (1885 to 1951). Worst of all was the residential school policy: 150,000 children were taken from their homes and forced to attend these dreaded prisons. 6,000 of those children either died or disappeared. The last residential school did not close until 1996. Many children suffered physical and sexual abuse on a scale that should make a Christian country feel shame even today.
The intergenerational violence to Indigenous communities and families—especially women and girls—continues to this day. Reconciliation is a long ways away, but it begins by looking directly at one’s own history, coming to terms with it, acknowledging injustice, and making real reparations to the descendants of the colonized.
8) Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
The art of painting, and particularly of the “Persian miniature”—exquisitely detailed scenes surrounded by floral and geometric borders—climaxed in Safavid Persia. Calligraphy, regarded as a major art form in the Islamic world due to Muslim reverence for the written Qur’an, also reached perfection here. The two arts came together in illuminated books, the highest artistic products of the age.
This is a swift and highly readable one-volume history on Islam, and will help fill the gaps that high school and college history courses have created in a generation of students.
Enter the deserts of Arabia, where a new doctrine is proclaiming the absolute equality of all people in the eyes of God, a religion that blossoms into a new and lasting civilization in Baghdad, Egypt, Persia, India, and Spain. A few of these places—the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and the East-West jewel of a city that was Cordoba, Spain, were some of the most enlightened places on earth. The book covers right up until the twentieth century—the tone can be chatty and informal at times, but the pages are packed with information.
Caliphs, crusades, Mongols, Saladin, Vienna, philosophers, mystics, civil wars, Sufis, slaves conquering armies—the history of Islam is better than Netflix.
7) The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes
Art may commemorate the sitter, but may also change him, even cancel him, despite the wishes of both parties. At the lowest level of competent representation, there is less of a problem. But when high talent, let alone genius, comes in, the painter is preparing an image which will represent the sitter after death, and thus in some way replace the living person. “Look at me for a moment and you will look at yourself forever.”
The Man in the Red Coat is entitled after an 1881 painting that Julian Barnes saw in a London gallery. It depicts Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi, a medical doctor in Paris whom Barnes has plucked out of history and given his due. Dr. Pozzi was a surgeon and gynecologist known for his advanced ideas, an aesthete and cosmopolitan. He lived in La Belle Epoque, that period of art and sensualism that reigned in France from 1880 to 1914. Proust, Maupassant, Flaubert, Wilde: they’re all in this work, which pulls you into its portrait much as Barnes was pulled into the portrait of the man in the red coat.
6) The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, André Leon Talley
I love memoirs that can take me into a world I don’t know. High fashion is one of those worlds. André Leon Talley was for decades the number two person at Vogue Magazine. His story of coming-up in the fashion journalism world as a Black man is fascinating and at-times infuriating. The real story here is of how a Black man tried (and tried and tried) to find acceptance in a rich white industry that had closed itself off from outsiders.
But the whole narrative is lively, with a wonderful cast of characters: Andy Warhol; Yves St. Laurent; Tom Ford; John Galliano; Karl Lagerfeld; Anna Wintour; Paloma Picasso, etc. This was an era (the 1980s) where designers were still artists of the highest caliber, where Vogue reigned supreme, and André Leon Talley was a major player.
Oh, there’s also parties and cocaine—lots of it.
5) Inside Story, Martin Amis
Christopher’s last words, unlike James’s (and unlike Larkin’s) were unrehearsed. Also inadvertent, because he lost consciousness in mid-thought: his last words — there were only two of them—were simply the words he said last.
[Christopher’s son] Alexander (and Steve Wasserman, also in attendance) drew closer and urged him to repeat it. He did so. ‘Capitalism.’ When Alexander asked him if he had anything to add, he said faintly, ‘…Downfall.’
I’ve been learning from (and arguing with) The Hitch since I was in college. I still miss his voice, contradictions and all. Sir Martin is in tip-top form here. The whole novel feels like drinks with the author, a break from the inanities of daily life.
4) The Selected Works of Audre Lorde
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.
Audre Lorde had a rare gift to make plain the wounds that society demanded she hide. Her poetry and essays speak to the pain, the liberation, and the injustices in her life and among Black women. Reading Lorde, one begins to feel comforted, recognizing the bravery and courage of this poet and author: fighting sexism, racism, and cancer. The poems in particular reach a spiritual level that I found deeply moving.
3) Buddenbrooks / The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
The days lengthen in the winter-time, and when the longest comes, the twenty-first of June, the beginning of summer, they begin to go downhill again, toward winter.
Thomas Mann has a bad rep these days as a stuffy old German man with indecipherable books. In reality, Mann is hilarious, ironic, intellectual. Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel, published in 1901 and the reason he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is an intergenerational saga that depicts the gradual unraveling of a north German family. The details and descriptions make it lively throughout. I won’t spoil what happens. But this takes my top prize for Family Epic, worth every minute.
Meanwhile, I finally read The Magic Mountain over the summer, stuck in the heat but transported to the snowy Alpine mountains, walking with Hans Castorp and his friends who represent the entire intellectual history of the twentieth century (and really, the West). Take the lift up to the sanatorium of Davos and get lost in this masterpiece.
2) A Promised Land, Barack Obama
I had been waiting to see how Obama-the-writer would craft his memoir. I really enjoyed the book, and I think it mostly lives up to the hype. It’s classic Obama: gracious, thoughtful (sometimes too much), and bipartisan to the core. Even the racism and birtherism do not dim his hopes for America.
I found myself arguing with the President in the margins, especially on drone strikes and the financial crisis. Obama the man is still with us, thankfully. But the Obama Presidency is now in history, and will be discussed and debated for years to come. History might view Obama as an admirable two-term president between two incompetent ignoramuses. Or, Obama might be viewed as truly transformational: the first Black President, yes, but also a world-changing leader like Lincoln or Roosevelt. Obama’s memoir subtly makes the case that he should be grouped with the latter, maybe even given GOAT status—i.e., the greatest of all time.
The jury is still out. We’ll see when Volume II drops.
1) Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
Our concern with history, so Hilary's thesis ran, is a concern with pre-formed images already imprinted on our brains.
This is the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an orphan brought up in Wales, who learns that his real name is Dafydd Elias, who goes to Oxford and pursues an intellectual life—contending always with his exile. Austerlitz is the alter-ego of the author, W.G. Sebald, a German writer, living in England, who created his own literary form: a blend of history, memoir, fiction, and photography. Sebald’s eye is precise in the details it captures, perceiving threads connecting history, memory, and the ceilings and monuments and engravings of the European cities he visits.
There is a wonderful German word for Sebald’s project—the project of his generation. Vergangenheitsbewältigung—say it three times—means “struggling to overcome the past.” In Germany there had been a conspiracy of silence on the Nazi atrocities. Sebald’s sentences are haunted by such silence. His project is to reckon with the past, often elliptically, and his own disillusionments with the falsity around him. Sebald stares at the silences, listens. He is the man hovering through a city of ghosts, recording the impressions the past still makes for those who know how to look.
All 35 books I read:
The Code of Capital: How The Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, by Katharina Pistor
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
21 Things You Didn’t Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph.
In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet
Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann
The Triumph of Justice, by Emmanuel Saez & Gabriel Zucman
The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes.
Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, by Anne Harrington.
Money and Government: A Challenge to Mainstream Economics, by Robert Skidelsky
Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, by David Halberstam
When Einstein Walked With Gödel, by Jim Holt
Notes On A Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, by Bernard Lewis.
The Rose That Grew From Concrete, by Tupac Shakur
The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon Wood
Slavery and the British Empire, by Kenneth Morgan
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter
The Chiffon Trenches, by Andre Leon Talley
Inside Story, Martin Amis
The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods, by Antonin Sertillanges
Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
On The Natural History of Destruction, by W.G. Sebald
Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
A Promised Land, by Barack H. Obama
The Economic Consequences of the Peace, by John Maynard Keynes
The Collected Letters of Ralph Ellison
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary
Tales From The Ant World, by E.O. Wilson
The Question, by Henri Alleg, forward by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Selected Works of Audre Lord, by Audre Lorde and Roxane Gay
Faithful and Virtuous Night, by Louise Glück
To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
Intimations, by Zadie Smith