Because it’s that time of the year, where we do book roundups.
This year was the first full year where I kept a (manual) reading log. At the close of 2020, I can see exactly how many I’ve gone through. As a small exercise, I went through that index putting a little star next to the ones I really enjoyed, and suddenly - boom - a top ten for the year!
(As a quick side-note: I swapped out notebooks at the end of March. While I still have my old notebook, it’s at home, and I’m not right now, which makes investigating pre-March reading difficult. All the favourites below are from April onwards. One of the drawbacks of analogue technology!)
I try to alternate between contemporary and/or “light” reading, and reading stuff which is a bit old but well-regarded. While this list may look like it contains a bunch of classics and heavy reading, don’t be fooled - there was plenty of lighter stuff in between these big items.
Utilitarianism - John Stewart Mill. I’ve found that a number of philosophy’s seminal works are hard to read because they either assume a working knowledge of the literature, or require you to hold a complex philosophical argument in your head (neither of these being things I’m really good at). In contrast, Utilitarianism is a pretty straightforward text, although being from the late nineteenth century the language is just old enough to make your brain work. I think a lot of Mill’s ideas are so foundational that we just take them for granted these days. However, it’s given me enthusiasm (and hopefully a bit of skill?) to tackle other texts in the genre.
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson. I’ll do this thing where I read one book by a person, and then get obssessed and read their whole collection. I did this with Shirley Jackson this year, starting with this book. Hill House is perhaps the best example of that sort of creeping American gothic horror that I’ve read, exhibiting a great pacing and feeling of rising tension until almost the last page. Just writing about it makes me want to re-read it.
A Memory Called Empire - Arkady Martine. I feel like Ancillary Justice has sparked a little bit of a mini-renaissance for the science-fiction-as-sociological-exploration movement (or perhaps it’s just given me an in, being as I don’t read science fiction as solidly as I used to). This is a book about what it’s like to be slowly engulfed by an empire, to see your customs gently subsumed into something far bigger than you. Martine takes pains to show that those outside the empire can be fascinated by, even a little in love with, the culture that’s slowly destroying them, which to me feels far more realistic than just the blind hate which is so easy to ascribe to those being colonised.
Hangsaman - Shirley Jackson. Two bookends for Jackson, as this was one of the last of her novels I read. A young girl leaves home to go to an all-girl’s college, where she tries to remain apart from the drama but is slowly brought into various inter-personal squabbles, especially between her English teacher and his ex-student wife. This novel felt vaguely Lynchian in its surrealism and its mood: it has withstood one re-reading and I suspect will withstand a few more before I tire of it.
All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque. This book starts where so many war books and films end - the front is terrible, all respite is temporary, but your comrades can keep you afloat. And then it strips away that comradeship until you’re left with a stark image of what war in general, and the Great War in particular, meant for all its participants. Is this the strongest argument against war to see print? It definitely feels that way.
How to Read a Book - Mortimer J. Adler and Charle van Doren. This is a book I’ve made a couple of attempts against, but which I finally finished this year. I took all science subjects at university, so I’m a pretty dumb reader when it comes to anything more advanced than a textbook. I read this book to partially cure this issue, and it does a damn good job. Adler and van Doren go through the technique of analytical reading, identifying themes in writing, and addressing arguments. While there is some stuff I disagree with (partially, I imagine, due to the book’s being written in the 1940s), it’s still a great resource. Plus it gives you permission to write in the margins of all the books you own.
Utopia - Thomas Moore. I picked a copy of this up in Muir’s bookshop in Gisborne (the second mention Muir’s has gotten in my blog recently). While Moore’s actual text is interesting, it is very dated, being a commentary on the state of affairs in Moore’s England as much as it is a discussion of an actual Utopia. The true value for me lay in the mini-essays by Ursula Le Guin which got included in this edition - they build on Moore’s argument in a way that’s much more relevant for the 21st century.
Mortal Engines - Philip Reeve. I was recommended The Mortal Engines a while back, and decided I should look into it when the movie came out. It turns out that while the movie was a bomb, the book series is great. As with many young adult novels, it starts off pretty focussed (“what if cities could move around and just eat the landscape?”) and grows throughout the four-book series into something much larger. Reeve manages to keep it together in a way many authors do not - the ending of the final book sticks the landing in a way that almost not book series manages to. The three-book Fever Crumb series is also worth a read once you’ve finished the main series.
How to do Nothing - Jenny Odell. This is probably my favourite book of 2020. Odell argues for a more focussed life, disconnecting from social media and instead connecting to the people and places which make up our neighbourhoods. While that argument can sound luddite and reactionary, Odell’s approach is much more focussed on self-care and the individual. I read it alongside Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which makes much the same argument but from a very different angle. It’s interesting to see a professor of computer science and an artist discussing the same subject like this.
Mr Midshipman Hornblower - C.S. Forester. On a whim, I started reading the Hornblower series of novels this year. Much like with Shirley Jackson, once I’d read one I needed to read the whole series. Forester is able to combine a knowledge of sailing and naval combat, with a great ability to communicate it in writing even to someone like me who mainly thinks of boats as “things that can sink”. I never felt lectured to, or preached at, yet somehow Forester was able to communicate the vital importance of leeway in battle and a dozen other concepts in naval combat. It was also interesting to read a book about a character who was clearly struggling with anxiety and depression, in a time before such things were really conceptualised.
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