Jeremy Felt

Open source student.

The books I read in 2020

Previously in this series: the books I read in 2019 and 2018. See also: previous years in review.

A good chunk of the first half of this review was written in December of 2020. I then lost track of it and another year passed. I’m now finishing it off in December of 2021. Some details may be blurry and I might just go short. We’ll see!

I started last year’s recap with “What a year!”. How do I follow that level of excitement after the year that was 2020? Let’s just fade in from black…

My goal for this year was 52 books, an average of one per week. I had completed 53 in 2019 and was in the middle of a nice groove, so I kind of assumed a stretch goal of 60 was within reach. Oh, how wrong.

The time I think I would have normally spent reading was split in a few different directions:

  • I rediscovered my love of pool at the beginning of the year. There was a few week period where we spent a lot of time at the pool hall, including during hours of the weekend where I may have tried to focus on reading instead.
  • I spent quite a bit of time on crosswords. The total amount of time has started to reduce now that I’ve gotten better, but those hours throughout the year add up.
  • The global pandemic messed with my brain, I think. I can’t remember being able to focus on anything from March through say September. Any “reading” time was often spent refreshing headlines and numbers.

I do think I started to hit a groove again toward the end of the year, and I still enjoyed plenty of good stuff, it was just a bit less than expected.

The year closed at an even 40 books. 18 were non-fiction, 20 were fiction, and 2 were collections of poetry.

Favorites

It still seems silly to call out favorites, but I’m still going to do it. Maybe this will be a way to confuse or judge myself later down the road.

The Fly Trap, by Fredrik Sjöberg, is a memoir written by a Swedish entomologist who focuses on collecting very specific hoverflies. I’m not sure if I can describe why I enjoyed it, but there was something very peaceful and relaxing about reading this as summer was starting to fade away. I also learned quite a bit about hoverflies and methods for their capture.

The lie of voter fraud has embedded itself into the American imagination and has proved resistant to facts, studies, court cases, and reports proving otherwise.

– One Person, No Vote, Carol Anderson

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, by Carol Anderson, was an excellent overview of the history of voter suppression in America and it lit a fire of anger and frustration for me during this year’s election. Having read this before this year’s presidential election made it even more astounding that Georgia went Democrat. There are so many absurd hurdles to overcome just to place a simple vote.

‘I’ve got an FFF inside.’ ‘What’s that, sir?’ ‘A fucking funny feeling.’

– Swimming Home, Deborah Levy

I like the idea of a book of thought crimes like this.

– The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

Swimming Home and The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy were both very interesting and engaging reads. I’m not entirely sure why I’m listing them as favorites, but I do remember really enjoying the time I spent reading them both, so there you go.

I had several false starts with Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds before finally cruising through it in one go. It’s always fun when a book makes you laugh out loud. A bunch of fun wordplay. A great revisit of Buile Suibhne. More than once I found myself thinking of Terry Pratchett. Such a good time!

Pool

As mentioned, I fell back into love with pool in early 2020. This meant a flurry of reading to try and remember how to to be good at it.

Pleasures of Small Motions: Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards, by Bob Fancher, is a book that anyone with an interest in pool should read. It probably works for anyone interested in the mental game of anything.

The 99 Critical Shots in Pool: Everything You Need to Know to Learn and Master the Game, by Ray Martin and Rosser Reeves was pretty much what it claims to be. I’m not sure about “master the game”, but it’s a good reference to situations you’ll run into over and over again. A more comprehensive reference is David G. Alciatore’s The Illustrated Principles of Pool and Billiards, which provides a lot of information. His billiards website at Colorado State also has a fascinating amount of information.

Banking with the Beard, by Freddy ‘the Beard’ Bentivegnat, is uhh… interesting? It’s full of these crazy stories of hustling people in pool halls that I assume are half true. It also has some genuinely useful techniques for approaching some bank shots.

Poetry

I very much enjoyed Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the US. David Bowie does make an appearance and the always fantastic song is now in my head again.

I also enjoyed Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the right way to read Back on Times Square, Dreaming of Times Square because I enjoyed it so much.

Book club

Another year of book club and another collection of great reads. I’m going to plan on this section going quick, but we’ll see.

The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish was a funny memoir.

Pavlov’s Trout: The Incompleat Psychology of Everyday Fishing, by Paul G. Quinnett, ties sport fishing to psychology. I enjoyed the read and learned quite a bit about fishing.

How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, was very eye opening. As I said in September, I very much enjoyed Kendi’s narration of his work through things he thought he knew and things he learned along the way

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, by Ross Douthat, was frustrating because it was a good read, even if I didn’t agree with it all. But! It also seemed like every other word was “sclerosis”, which may be fun for a linguaphile, but also is kind of like—you can use another word, man.

The funniest/best side effect of reading the book is that I now read almost every one of his NYT columns for what I find to be measured Catholic conservative—non-Trumpian—takes that help provide some perspective for my generally agnostic progressive brain. And here we are with two paragraphs about him in my annual review. Words!

The need for an empty space, a pause, is something we have all felt in our bones; it’s the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape.

The Art of Stillness: The Adventures in Going Nowhere, by Pico Iyer, was interesting and can probably be summed up by the TED talk. I chose this pick as a way to maybe try to appreciate our pandemic stillness at the time.

I’ve had a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad on the shelf for about 10 years now. If I remember right, it was a Christmas gift from my dad. Somehow it has survived downsizing and moving and was never actually read. It’s nice when a book is picked for book club and you have a copy. It was fun and it had power point slides.

I left a complicated review for Malcom Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. On one hand, it’s readable. On the other, I’m suspicious of Gladwell. I did note that its biggest impact on me was how decisions and judgements are often made within the criminal justice system.

“Well,—-me,” he said. “A—-ing wizard. I hate—-ing wizards!” “You shouldn’t—-them, then,” muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.

Mort was fun; Terry Pratchett usually is. I always enjoy the quirky bits of language. I had a pretty good time with Death. 

Time passed, which, basically, is its job.

As a bonus, I read Equal Rites before Mort so that I could keep my Discworld books in order.

Revisiting

In the spirit of revisiting some youth, inspired by Andrew Spittle’s “The calm of rereading” post, I dove into the world of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, books I remember reading and enjoying around 30 years ago.

The first two books were great, just as I remember. The perspective of adulthood may have made them funnier. Things kind of petered out in the third, and I don’t think I had read that before anyway, so I stopped there. 

I also snuck in a quick re-read of one of my favorite books, Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book. It’s still one of my favorite books.

Andrew also mentioned Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, which brought back a flood of memories, so I have it on hold for 2021.

Other fiction

In 2019, I read two Natalia Ginzburg novels. I added Happiness, as Such in 2020. It was also very nice.

In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except “Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it”? Money has become the grand test of virtue.

At some point I was pretty sure I hadn’t read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, so I read it—I think again. I enjoyed it, maybe more so this time around.

I finally, finally got to Beloved, by Toni Morrison. It took me a bit to find the rhythm, but it was there. Poignant.

Finally, I would thank, had I not lost his name and address, a gentleman in America, who has generously and gratuitously corrected the punctuation, the botany, the entomology, the geography, and the chronology of previous works of mine and will, I hope, not spare his services on the present occasion.

– Orlando, Virginia Woolf

I’m not sure I really ever understood what was going on in Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, but it was interesting and I enjoyed it more and more as it unfolded.

Homer’s The Odyssey was very entertaining. I’m not sure why I waited so long to read it. It is also possible I read it in high school and forgot.

_(ツ)_/¯ I spent much of a the book confused at what any other part of the book had to do with the others. After finishing, I finally looked to see that it’s 10 short stories rather than a novel. Now the whole thing makes a lot more sense! I might revisit it later in a more piecemeal way.

Some strange stream of consciousness mixed with portions of beautiful prose and a handful of interesting and still relatable perspectives 80 years later. Megalopolitan Maniac is a great closer.

The stuff they wrote in the 30s!

– My Goodreads review for Black Spring

I read Henry Miller’s Black Spring because I still can’t figure out Henry Miller, so for some reason I keep trying. Maybe that’s the last one. I do always come away like “hey, that was okay”, but then later I can’t remember why.

Bloodchild and Other Stories was a nice collection of stories by Octavia E. Butler. The alien focused stories, Bloodchild and Amnesty, were good and creepy. My favorite may have been the timely Speech Sounds, in which a pandemic limits humankind’s ability to communicate. Gasp!

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, was very readable. Quick and smart commentary showing—among other things—how our perspective is shaped by privilege, race, and social media in the very modern world.

I still don’t entirely understand the draw of graphic novels, but I read the first from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, Preludes & Noctures. It was interesting, but the graphics were very dark (literally, not figuratively), and I think I just read through it too quickly. I’ll still try once in a while though.

And I was privileged to read a not-yet published novel from Tara Roberts that I very much enjoyed but then I was absolutely horrible and never passed on feedback. Time to open that email and reply.

Other non-fiction

Equating copying with industrial activity made sense when copying was hard.

Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet Age is a very smart and readable take on creativity and copyright.

But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact.

I took almost the entire year to work through All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays, by George Orwell. Some good stuff, some boring. I mentioned a couple favorites in an April note and a September note.

A History of the Swedish People: From Prehistory to the Renaissance, by Vilhelm Moberg, was kind of a slog, but pretty interesting overall. The next book is sitting on the shelf. Exciting!

Bob Woodward’s Rage fits in the category of political candy and it of course was a bunch of fist waving arghhh, but also how tiring. I’ll probably read the next one too.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale, was an interesting exploration of the history of policing, the large variety of things police are now responsible for, and alternative approaches to each.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, the first in a trilogy by Rick Atkinson, was surprisingly readable and an engaging look at the first war years of the American Revolution.

Heyo, that’s it! This post took me a year to write, but it’s done and I can now work on the books I read in 2021.

As always: if you read, and are comfortable giving your reading data to Amazon, you should add me as a friend on Goodreads. If you want to share or discuss reading in some other way, I’m open for that too. I’m fairly certain 2021 will be the year I wire up the right way to share what I’m reading on this site rather than or in addition to Goodreads.

Happy uh, end of 2020 almost. 📚

Responses and reactions

Mentions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The only requirement for your mention to be recognized is a link to this post in your post's content. You can update or delete your post and then re-submit the URL in the form to update or remove your response from this page.

Learn more about Webmentions.