I read 164 books this year, a new personal record. I don’t read for quantity. 2020 was the year I decided to stop forcing myself to care about the media other people like and to spend my time doing what I like doing: reading weird books. Here are a few paragraphs about the books I liked the most this year.
In college I was a bit of a genre snob. I like science fiction movies, but I rarely read any sci-fi beyond the classics like Stranger in a Strange Land and some Kurt Vonnegut. When I applied for my job at Savoy Bookshop, I failed an interview question about recommending genre fiction. So I decided that I would expand my horizons. (I’m going to be talking about horror novels from here on but I recommend The Martian by Andy Weir and The Themis Files series by Sylvain Neuvel for sci-fi fans.) I had read some of Stephen King’s early novels (Carrie being the best though I’ve stolen writing tricks from all of his novels) and had become obsessed with horror movies (I must have watched at least 150 horror movies since June 2019) that summer. My assistant manager Jess, whose debut novella can be purchased here and whose amazing short story “The Husker” can be found here, recommended the work of Caitlín R. Kiernan, a local Rhode Island horror writer. I started with The Red Tree. The novel follows an author trying to do some good ole writing when the area she’s living in seems to be haunting her or is it? *maniacal laugh* Beyond just the great prose and fog-like dread that pervades the book, stylistically it is like an epistolary novel written by a tormented collage maker. Manuscripts, journal entries, and even a short story are jumbled together.
After I finished The Red Tree I moved onto The Drowning Girl. The less you know about the story, the better. The novel mixes the self-conscious (or perhaps detached consciousness) psychological drama of Fleabag with a supernatural mystery. I really do think Phoebe Waller-Bridge should be the narrator of the audiobook. Overall, it’s a great book that I didn’t appreciate until months after reading it. I think about its “theory” of ghosts (which is an unnecessary section towards the end) on a regular basis.
For all that Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood lacks in screenplay writing advice, it makes up for in unbelievable stories about the creative industry that has defined America in the last century. Goldman is an entertaining narrator as he expounds on his central thesis “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.” (Most of capitalism’s crises could be prevented if people accepted this basic fact before allowing the business amoralists to tank society over a dumb greedy venture.) I went through a screenwriting/movie buff phase while living in Rhode Island and read a lot of books on moviemaking and besides Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind and Making Movies by Sidney Lumet (both of which you wanna know what happens off-screen) none of them could match the whip-smart style of Goldman’s book.
Smoke Signals by Martin A. Lee is a book I want to throw at every person in Congress who refuses to legalize marijuana. Lee lays out the history of weed in America and shows how people knew it was perfectly fine (or at least soooooo much healthier than alcohol and other drugs) for centuries. We are living through a period when weed consumption is at its highest and four states (AZ, MT, NJ–YEET!–SD) legalized it in November but still we are allowing dumbasses who hate objective science and personal freedom run the conversation. Anyway. Smoke Signals (and Lee’s previous book Acid Dreams) should be read by all, toker and abstainer alike. Weed the People by Bruce Barcott covers a lot of the same issues if you want an slimmer 250 page appetizer before the 500 page main course.
Eastern Philosophy Books That Will Make You Less of an Asshole: The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by The Dalai Lama, and The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton. (The Daodejing helped me deal with my anxiety better than a summer of therapy. Highly recommend the Charles Muller translation.)
I spent a lot of time reflecting in 2020, mainly because the outside world fucking sucked. The Only Story, which I couldn’t get beyond the first two pages the first time I tried reading it, stuck with me and helped guide some of my thoughts about my past decisions. It’s one of those books that seems to be about nothing beyond a love affair, but is really about how we define our lives around love. Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was a book which I didn’t love until the last twenty pages. But after I finished it I walked around Cambridge in a daze and told everyone about it for weeks.
I have put off reading most of the modern essay collections that every posts on Instagram.
I absolutely loved we are never meeting in real life by Samantha Irby and The Witches are Coming by Lindy West. Irby’s writing is a giant middle finger to the posh literary establishment and made me feel so much more confident about the weird writing I do. While I do think that Irby sometimes rewrites the same essay with a different title, I am always along for the ride. West’s essays give amazing arguments and have lots of nuance. The Goop Convention essay (“Do, Make, Be, Barf”) should be taught in schools. (Interesting crossover between Irby and West: In Irby’s newest collection wow, no thank you she includes an essay about her working on the TV adaptation of West’s first essay collection, Shrill. Also: Did you know that Lindy West is married to Ijeoma Oluo’s brother? Crazy, right?)
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming seems like a Mount Everest of novels. It’s 558 pages of run-on sentences and never-ending paragraphs. But it’s worth all the eyestrain. Krasznahorkai’s novels are all dense monsters but they pay off with their dark dark dark dark dark dark humor and insane characters. Krasznahorkai is a master at juggling characters and stories and not explaining fucking anything but keeping you interested. Satantango is also great but is a bit more challenging than Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming.
Books On How Not To Be A Political Moron: On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy D. Snyder, Night by Elie Wiesel (I didn’t like A Man’s Search for Meaning), How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessan, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan, Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, and Has the Gay Movement Failed? By Martin Duberman. (Note: If you are a human being, you should be very worried about contemporary politics regardless of Biden’s victory. Also: You should subscribe to the BBC’s Global News Podcast. American news outlets barely cover shit outside our country’s borders.)
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin was hilarious and so soapy and Nevada by Imogen Binnie (New Jersey, Represent!) was so anarchically funny.
Horror Books: Big Machine and The Changeling and The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (haven’t seen the show yet, heard it was meh) and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (probably the most experimental memoir I’ve ever read).
The Psychopath Test is one of those books that everyone should read before they rant about psychopaths (or even use the term “psychopath.”) We all believe a lot of bullshit because of science-ignorant crime writers, Ronson sets the record straight in a really entertaining way that is part memoir and part investigation.
I haven’t rewatched any of Carrie Fisher’s movies in a long time. I don’t know if she was a good actor. That said, she was one of the funniest fucking writers I’ve ever read. Wishful Drinking and The Princess Diarist and Shockaholic are all comedic gems. Highly recommend the audiobooks for them. Also: Check if your local library offers Libby, Kanopy, or OverDrive. You’ll thank me later.
I think there isn’t a lot of good sex writing out there because no matter how many centuries distance us from our Puritan and Calvinist ancestors, most of us are still prudes. Here are some books that will remind you that casual sex wasn’t invented in the sixties: The Pure and the Impure by Colette, Full Service by Scotty Bowers and Lionel Friedberg (the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is pretty good but leaves out most of the craziest stories of Hollywood’s most infamous pimp), Rebel by Beverly Jenkins (romance novels are great, quit being a snob), and Philosophy in the Bedroom by The Marquis de Sade. (Side Note: I read somewhere that Seth Rogen is developing Scotty Bower’s life into a movie. Can’t wait to see it. I hope it’s a streaming movie so they can make it unrated instead of having to give in for an R rating.)
So I finished the final three volumes of In Search of Lost Time this summer. I need to reread the whole novel before I feel comfortable writing about it at length but what I’ll say for now is that Proust understood socializing deeper than any novelist I’ve ever read. Also: I think if you’ve finished In Search of Lost Time you should get a medal. Just saying.
I didn’t like The Prophet. Kahlil Gibran’s other books are so much better. The Broken Wings is a poetic novel in which every line is a mystical experience (Opening Line: “I was eighteen years of age when love opened my eyes with its magic rays and touched my spirit for the first time with its fiery fingers, and Selma Karamy was the first woman who awakened my spirit with her beauty and led me into the garden of high affection, where days pass like dreams and nights like weddings.” WOW!) His Prose Poems are also great.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty is the funniest novel ever. Fuck you if you think differntly. (Beatty was also the professor who emailed me to tell me I got into Columbia so booyah!) How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti is also funny as fuck and has some of the best chapter headings: “White Guys Go to Africa” and “Interlude for Fucking.”
I have trouble saying the word “vagina.” I also don’t like saying the word “penis.” The Vagina Monologues was an excellent book for me because it showed me that my uncomfortability wasn’t natural but was taught. Everybody should read this, not just men.
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut is where that semicolon joke comes from (though if most people read the whole book instead of blindly reposting the quote they’d realize that Vonnegut kinda takes back his joke at the end) and it’s also an amazing reflection about American life and politics. Vonnegut gives up on Americans at the end of the book but before he does he gives a very funny blueprint for how we could un-fuck ourselves. It made me proud to be a humanist.
The History of Philosophy by A.C. Grayling is the only history of philosophy that I’ve enjoyed cover to cover. Super easy to read and what it lacks in content it makes up for in interesting anecdotes (Did you know Heidegger was probably in an open marriage? Crazy to think about, right?) That said, the Analytical Philosophy section is almost unreadable if you don’t already know a lot about analytical philosophy, which I didn’t.
Peter Handke is a Bosnian Genocide apologist and the winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. His asshole-ry had been well-documented before 2019. The Swedish Academy are so out of touch that it hurts. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a good book he wrote before referring to a genocide as a “revenge massacre.” To quote French novelist Jonathan Littell, “[Handke] might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy—he’s an asshole.” Here are some good articles about the mess surrounding his win. (Side Note: The Balkans: A Short History by Mark Mazower is a good introduction to the Balkans, an area I knew nothing about until recently.)
If you’re going to buy any of these books, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE buy them from your local independent bookstore. If you don’t have one, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE consider buying them from Savoy Bookshop/Bank Square Book’s website. They gave me a job when I really needed it and are the nicest people. Fuck Amazon and Amazon apologists.