Notes on My Favorite Books from 2020

At the start of 2020, a goal that I set out for myself was to read one book every two weeks on average. One intense political campaign (and global pandemic) later, after a few intense months where I’d fallen woefully behind and some downtime after the election to make up for lost ground, I just missed reaching my goal – finishing with 25 books in all. In the past few years I’d mostly stuck to nonfiction, so this year I also experimented with reading a work of fiction, then nonfiction, in alternating fashion. Here is a sample of the books that made a lasting impression on me over the past year, and some assorted thoughts on each one.

Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler

During quarantine, I spent a good amount of time reminiscing about some of my travels from the past few years. Hessler captures the feeling of being a visitor in a faraway land better than anyone else I’ve encountered, and his portrait of an old alleyway in Beijing perfectly captures the feeling of that city. Oracle Bones is the most well-known of Hessler’s trilogy of books on China (the first is River Town, which recounts his first few years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sichuan, and the third is Country Driving, about his adventures road-tripping across the country). I loved his observation on the similarities between teachers and writers: both play the role of “outsiders who sifted information between worlds.”

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

This engrossing novel was hard to put down – I ended up plowing through it over a single weekend. One of Ng’s narrative decisions that really intrigued me was how she never explicitly described Mia and Pearl’s race, so the reader is left to make their own assumption, whereas the Hulu adaptation obviously makes it explicit. Her poignant depictions of the intersection of suburban white privilege with portraits of cringy cultural intersections were so on point.

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

It has taken me a while to get around to reading Sapiens, but Harari’s brief history of mankind was truly eye-opening. In many way the theories he presents on how homo sapiens have made their mark on the world serves as something like a glue, binding together ideas from other disparate things I’ve read, offering one big idea after another on what sets humans apart. The notion of our ability to create myths (or “imagined realities”) and use them to marshall cooperation between large numbers of humans – be them religions or political organizations – is an idea that has really stuck with me.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

I was intrigued by how Powers structured this novel, given how he was able to tie the narratives of the dozen or so characters together so seamlessly. That seems to parallel one of the larger themes of the book: interconnectedness, how if we go back far enough we can all trace our roots to a common source.

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer

An indispensible history of money in politics and how right-wing donors have weaponized philanthropy to advance their political agenda. Mayer’s observation that philanthropy is largely a tax-reduction strategy has changed the way I see things. It was especially impactful to read this book while working at a SuperPAC during a presidential campaign.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have read this during quarantine. With so much pain in the world, Yanagihara’s heartbreaking book was a lot to handle. Yet it is undoubtedly a deeply moving and beautiful portrait of friendship, and of living in New York City during a particular time in your life. And despite the fact that it was 700-some odd pages or so, reading it seemed to fly by. I felt like she didn’t have a single paragraph that was superfluous in the entire book, which was really impressive.

Our Man, by George Packer

I’ve been obsessed with Packer’s writing since The Unwinding, as he brings such a unique voice to his subject matters. In Our Man, he takes up the story of Richard Holbrooke, a legendary figure in US foreign policy circles for the past half century. His portrayal of Holbrooke’s imperfections as a diplomat and human being somehow embody his country’s shortcomings during his life and times. Packer has also introduced a groundbreaking new framework for a biography: drawing on Holbrooke’s personal papers from the historical archive, Packer narrates the story from the perspective of an anonymous aide, who is always at a remove from Holbrooke but who all at once has unique insights from always being in the room with him.

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

It’s pretty stunning how revealing and intimate a look at her own life Justice Sotomayor offers in her memoir, especially with how soon after she was elevated to the Supreme Court it was published. Her story is remarkable, growing up in poverty to become a trailblazing Latina in the legal world. I particularly loved her passages and musing on clerking and mentorship.

Bad Blood, by John Carryrou

An engrossing investigative odyssey. It’s still crazy to me how long Holmes was able to keep up her fraud, and how politically connected her board was. It really speaks volumes that it took a super privileged individual like Tyler Shultz to finally speak up and begin to unravel the fraud. I can’t wait until this book gets adapted into a movie or miniseries.

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Franzen’s more recent work Freedom, but I still admire it for its depiction of the life of an American family at a particular moment in time. There’s an interesting parallel at work of children being the “corrections” of their parents, as market “corrections” also seek to set the broader economy on a different course. But both don’t work out as intended. Similar to Freedom, there is a throughline that runs through the narrative that critiques the corrosive influence of Corporate America in a subtle but damning way.