Once again into a review post for the year 2020. This time I am back with the books I read in 2020 and my attempt to pick the top five.
Here again the Goodreads site was there to help me remember what I read, because some of it seems so long ago. That is the 2020 effect. The joke going around is that in the future there will be historians who will focus just on specific weeks of the year, or even single days, as their entire field of study.
It was a tough year for reading mostly because 2020 broke all my routines. The kid was home from school, my wife was pretty much out of work, I was working from home every day, there was no going out to dinner or movies or much in the way of out of the house recreation.
I feel like I mostly watched television, enough that I have multiple blog posts on that topic.
But going to my profile page over at Goodreads shows I did read some books, and the summary they put up shows I read about the normal number of titles… 31… though the page count was a bit shy of past year. You can see the summary here.
And the page count is a lie. There were a number of books in there that I stopped reading before I was finished. There were too many interruptions and too much going on for me to focus on a book at times. 2020 was the year of doom scrolling Twitter for the latest bad news.
And picking five books out of those 31… not easy, or very easy, depending on how I look at it. I was able to pull four from the list very quickly, but then there was a multi-dimensional tie for fifth place. A lot of titles on the list were the reading version of comfort food in hard times, but something in my brain feels the need to put one of the tougher reads on the list. I mean, my picks from last year were so very serious, as was the list from the year before. Also, William Gibson made both of those lists.
Anyway, I came up with five. I’ll let you figure out which one was the final addition to the list.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Clearly in the comfort category, I went back to the first three titles in the Douglas Adams classic series at the beginning of the year, back when the fires in Australia seemed like the biggest problem the world might face.
What to say about these books? If you are of my generation you probably love them or don’t care for them at all. I actually read the initial book when it was first released in the US because my grandmother was a high school librarian… back when you needed a masters degree in library science for the position, had to teach classes, run the library, and be an expert in all the odd-ball media formats that were there to supplement the books… used to hand me titles to read before she put them into general circulation. I was the litmus test for approval somehow. (Same story for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) I read it and gave it my thumbs up, and so it ended up on the shelves.
Anyway, I have the unabridged, unedited (that initial US version had a few omissions) audiobook versions read by Douglas Adams that I sat and listened to at the start of the year and enjoyed the hell out of.
The 2020 Commission Report
Or, to give you the full title, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel. Written by Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear proliferation researcher whose Arms Control Wonk podcast I listen to regularly, and published back in 2018, the book charts a chaotic and self-serving set of policies and responses by Donald Trump in the midst of a nuclear crisis. Some felt the books representation of Trump was implausibly and ludicrously overblown at the time. And then, of course, 2020 came and the administration actually faced a real test and failed tragically. Even now Trump is trying to undermine the electoral process to support his ego, even as his own appointees in the administration and judiciary oppose him. In hindsight, the book was probably too kind to him.
The Battle of Arnhem
Back to Anthony Beevor, who writes military history that is both incredible in its depth and its accessibility. He has tackled topics where I felt I have read it all before and make them feel fresh, as he transitions very well between overall objectives and the stories of individuals in the fight. As with his books around the battles at Stalingrad, Berlin, and Normandy, you may have read about them before, seen the movies, and watched the documentaries, yet you will find something fresh and new in his recounting. The only exception is his book on the Spanish Civil war, but that was an early work of his and covers a tedious and depressing topic. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is really all I need on that front.
The Cold War: A New History
One of the tenets of writing history is that it can’t really be done until those whose names an reputations are tied up with events have passed away. We are just starting to get there when it comes to the Cold War, or at least the start of it, set in the post-war era as it was. This book feels like a fresh telling of that era and the policies, goals, and ambitions that drove it. I very much went into my reading daring it to tell me something I didn’t already know and found that the author was able to assemble things I did know into a more unified narrative that I would have considered.
The Fellowship of the Ring
Chicken soup for the soul here. I used to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings every three or four years starting in the early 80s. That stopped somewhere in the late 90s and I think perhaps I have been getting my fill of Tolkien via movies and Lord of the Rings Online since then. But here, in the dark days at the end of 2020, with the pandemic surging out of control and Trump trying to destroy democracy to assuage his bruised ego, aided by many willing enablers, going back into Tolkien’s words was like sitting down in a favorite armchair on a comfortable Sunday afternoon and relishing the luxury and ease of the day. My main concern is that I burned through this book so fast, leaving the only the remaining two… and the third book is so short, padded by the vast appendices. I suppose I shall just have to dig through those once more, or pick up The Silmarillion, though that have never been half as satisfying. I may have to write a follow up post once I am done.
And so it went in 2020, where the list of titles I read wavered between current events and dystopian themes and old standbys that I could hide in away from the world for a bit.
A People’s History of the United States
What to say about this book? It is something of a contrarian look at US history, which I can see a reason for, since the teaching of US history through high school… you get US history every other year in some form… can be lacking. Also, every other year you have to unlearn something you were previously taught because the earlier teacher was dumbing something down to your grade level. This book is the dark side of US history and actually had some things I did not know or only knew about very superficially.
The issue is that the author, like many who feel they are revealing truth to deceived, drives forward with a sense of superiority and a need to throw mud at everything at times. This only became irksome for me when he spent half a chapter going after Lincoln because his priority list had “preserve the union” one spot above “abolish slavery.” I mean, if the union fell apart he couldn’t really end slavery in the slave states that left, now could he? And, in the end, he did end slavery, so he got there, though the road was neither easy nor straight. But somebody is salty that his motives were not pure enough.
Still, it is a very American book.