The best (and worst) books I read in 2020

Just over a decade ago I started keeping track of most of the books that I read for fun. Though I’ve always been an avid reader, I’m also a relatively slow reader. A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a list of the books he read in 2020 – numbering somewhere in the area of one hundred volumes. In the past year, I read a comparatively paltry 33 books (excluding the reams of specialized academic stuff I read for my “day job” as a PhD student).

This is, however, by far the largest number I’ve logged in any one year over the past decade. Usually I only manage to squeeze one or two dozen books into the year. Granted, I have a proclivity towards epics (one year I read Paradise Lost, East of Eden and Dr. Zhivago). Still, my method of reading is conscientiously not that of the speed reader. I always read with pencil in hand. This goes as much for fiction and poetry as for information-based non-fiction.

One of my resolutions in the upcoming year, in fact, is to slow down my reading further, so that I can really digest (and remember!) what I’ve read. One thing I’d like to do is to write up a brief review of each book I read after finishing it, distilling the most essential points, and my judgments as to its quality. Perhaps we’ll start a “book review” section here on Utopian Idiots. We’ll see.

Anyway, my 2020 list is below. Feel free to post your own list (and your thoughts about the books) in the comments section below! First, however, some general thoughts and reflections on this year’s list:

1) It’s amazing how much great fiction you can read just by reading to your kids every night

I have six children, ranging in age from eleven and a half down to three. Reading out loud to them before bed is something of a sacred tradition in our family. In the past ten years or so, I have rarely missed a night of reading to my kids. Of course, sometimes life gets in the way. But as a general rule, it’s a seven-day-a-week, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year business. The result is that in the past ten years, we’ve covered an enormous amount of fantastic literature. This year alone, we read the entire Lord of the Rings series (again), and two volumes of Arthur Ransome’s brilliant Swallows and Amazons series. Right now, we’re in the thick of the Best of James Herriot.

I just can’t overstate the importance of reading to your kids. If you have kids, and you’re not reading to them on a regular basis, you’re simply missing out on one of the best parts of being a parent. Although occasionally I am so worn out from the day that starting reading can take a little effort, it is always something I enjoy. Personally, I plan to continue reading to my kids on a nightly basis as long as they live at home, and even beyond, when they return from college and the like. I foresee us reading many of the great poetic and literary masterpieces, from Milton to Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky and beyond. Sure, when your kids are really young, it can be a bit tough finding stuff to read that you also enjoy. But as soon as they can understand Winnie the Pooh (which is, let us be frank, first-rate literature), the world is your oyster. Find lists of the great classics, divided by recommended ages, and dive in the deep end.

2) The standout book from the past year

I’m generally pretty choosy with the books I read. If I’m going to devote days of my time to reading something, I want to be sure that it’s not going to be a waste of time. As long as there are still great classic works of genius that I have not read, why would I waste time on the usually nihilistic and thematically and stylistically puerile output of our contemporary scribblers? However, just as I occasionally do read a dud, sometimes I stumble on something that far exceeds my expectations. Probably the stand-out book from this year is A Severe Mercy, which I am currently reading aloud with my wife, after having first read it to myself.

Various remarks dropped by people over the years had led me to believe that the book was basically in the genre of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. However, other than the fact that the book does involve death and grief, and that C.S. Lewis himself plays a significant part in the narrative, the similarities between the books are relatively slight. A Grief Observed is basically the journal of a grieving man. It is raw. Very raw. A Severe Mercy, however, is literature. It is a gorgeous, rich, multi-layered, poetic reflection on – first and foremost – romantic love, but also death, culture, sailing, religion, friendship, and so much else. There is just so much in there. Yes, it is a religious conversion story, but Vanauken’s approach to religion is not simplistic. He gives no pat answers, and he struggles profoundly with the mysteries and the dark sides of life in this vale of tears. It’s an emotionally taxing read. But I couldn’t recommend it more.

What are some books that you read in the past year that exceeded your expectations or changed your life in some important way? Mention them in the comment section below.

3) The duds

It would be stupid to suggest that reading anything written by Dostoyevsky is ever a waste of time. The man was, hands-down, one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. A paragraph by him is often worth more than volumes by lesser authors. But of anything that I have read by Dostoyevsky, The Idiot is the only work that made me feel – just the teensiest little bit – like I had (maybe) wasted my time. I’m hardly alone in this opinion. Sure, you can find plenty of people who will defend The Idiot to the death. But it is arguably the least-loved of the big Russian D’s novels. Despite being primed to dislike the book, the final few chapters frustrated me beyond endurance. Nothing that the main characters did made any psychological sense to me. And whatever points I might have thought Dostoyevsky was making throughout the novel, any sense of a cohesive or insightful theme collapsed under the weight of the bathos, incomprehensibility and unbelievability of the conclusion.

Also, let’s talk about The Grapes of Wrath. It’s been a decade and a half or so since I first read the book. I remembered it as being one of the most brilliant works of fiction I ever read. My past judgment wasn’t exactly wrong. The first third of the book is a masterclass in virile, vivid, muscular, musical prose. There are whole chapters that are basically first-rate prose poems. There are individual paragraphs that, should I ever write something of comparable quality, would leave me feeling that I had accomplished my purpose as a writer. But I guess my tastes have matured (or, at least, changed) in some ways in the intervening years. This time around I felt that after first third, the book gradually descends into self-indulgent, and ultimately intolerable, bathos. Even worse, the latter third of the book is almost indistinguishable from political propaganda. The characters are no longer people, but rather the scaffolding on which Steinbeck builds his (highly questionable) political argument. In the end, the propaganda sucks the life out of the story, and leaves the reader feeling manipulated and emotionally detached from the progressively more pathetic sufferings of the main characters. That’s unfortunate. It’s almost a great novel. But I confess I had to will myself across the finishing line.

Anyway, without further ado, the list:

  1. Beat the Bank – Larry  Bates
  2. Searching for and Maintaining Peace – Jacques Philippe
  3. The Wealthy Barber Returns – Dave Chilton
  4. Scribes and Scholars – N.G. Wilson
  5. You Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins
  6. The Idiot – Dostoyevsky
  7. This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. Atomic Habits – James Clear
  9. Textual Criticism – Maas
  10.  Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique – M.L. West
  11.  The Fellowship of the Ring – Tolkien
  12.  J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography – Humphrey Carpenter
  13.  The Closing of the American Mind – Allan Bloom
  14.  The Miracle of Father Kapaun
  15.  Indistractable – Nir Eyal
  16.  Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement – Jonathon van Maren
  17.  A Boy’s Will – Robert Frost
  18.  North of Boston – Robert Frost
  19.  The Two Towers – Tolkien
  20.  The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  21.  King Lear – Shakespeare
  22.  The Return of the King – Tolkien
  23.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  24.  The Restaurant at the End of the Universe – Douglas Adams
  25.  How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
  26.  We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea – Arthur Ransome
  27.  Mountain Interval – Robert Frost
  28.  Peter Duck – Arthur Ransome
  29.  A Severe Mercy – Sheldon Vanauken
  30.  Life, The Universe, And Everything – Douglas Adams
  31.  So Long and Thanks for all the Fish – Douglas adams
  32.  The Wim Hof Method – Wim Hof
  33.  On Writing – Stephen King
  34.  The Wealthy Barber – Dave Chilton
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