My Favorite Books of 2020

These are my favorite books I read in 2020, listed in roughly chronological order. Nearly all of them were read as ebooks, many as library books, as I (initially) read with a sleeping newborn on my lap and (later) read standing up, ready to run to pluck our adventurous baby off the stairs.

I rely on Library Extension to remind me what’s in my local card catalog and then, not infrequently, scribble down page numbers to transfer dog-ears to the copy of the book I’ve ordered to keep.

And, of course, I do recommend my own books: Arriving at Amen, the story of my conversion of intellect, which was followed by a conversion of the heart and habits. And Building the Benedict Option, my handbook for building thicker Christian community over the next two weeks to two months (no waiting for some future ideal!).

Finally, I’ve started a substack, Tiny Book Club, which functions as, well, a tiny book club. Every month, I host a discussion of an excellent article or essay, and we all get to sit with it for a sustained conversation. Plus, I invite in a guest I admire to join us.

Now, on to the books!

Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim by Rob Kapilow

A very delightful Christmas present, read a chapter at a time throughout the year. As I wrote in my review for Fare Forward:

Reading Kapilow took me one step further into appreciation. He has a gift for worked examples and teaches by rewriting the songs he’s showcasing. He changes just one small detail at a time to show how it supports the song. He might remove a bluesy swing, a shift up the octave, a chromatic note, to come up with a more pedestrian variant he calls the “Kapilow version.” None of his rewrites have a wrong note, but they lack inventiveness.

Playing his rewrites side by side with the originals, you can hear how the expected version might sound good enough, but the real version is sublime.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

I picked up this book for exactly the reason you expect, and read it as we watched the copper tape we’d put on our doorknobs slowly verdigrise—a preparation for the wrong kind of pandemic. Solnit’s stories of solidarity and compassion helped guide our family as we built a mutual aid listserv for our block (and joined the larger one for our whole town).

I relied on her examples when writing for Comment on “Locating Our Invisible Wounds” and how we can sustain the solidarity of emergencies in more ordinary times.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson

These were the two books I was most stymied in persuading other people to let me give them as gifts. Not even when I mentioned that Merlin Sheldrake (that name!) grew mushrooms on his own copy of his book and then ate them, or when I discussed how no one has actually seen the part of the ocean where eels mate (we just have a rough guess by mapping progressively smaller eels) did a certain member of my family agree to let me give her either for her birthday.

Both books were delightful and standouts in the genre that my husband has identified as my favorite: “biographies of things that aren’t people.”

Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World by Alexander Rose

Another entry in that genre, and a good reminder of how what is “inevitable” in retrospect is fairly unpredictable in the moment. When planes and airships were being developed, it was airships that had the obvious advantage and airplanes that seemed like a folly. It took leaps in engine technology for airplanes to become remotely plausible as a commercial endeavor. It makes you wonder what reversals are lurking a dozen years down the line for us.

It’s also a fascinating paired portrait of Count von Zeppelin and Juan Trippe, two men with an unshakable confidence in the world they could imagine and real logistical competence to bring to bear on their vision. In some ways, this was pandemic reading too—a sharp contrast with the US’s unambitious public health response.

Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion by Abigail Rine Favale

Favale’s memoir is sharply observed and thoughtful. She was one of the inspirations for the Other Feminisms substack community I started this year—focused on fostering a culture of interdependence, not autonomy. I became interested in Favale after reading her essays at Church Life Journal, so I’ll offer a link and a quote.

The traditional feminist solution to the “problem” of female biology is unfettered access to contraception and abortion: this reveals an ironically masculine bias. Rather than seeking to change social structures to accommodate the realities of female biology, the feminist movement, since its second wave, has continually and firmly fought instead for women to alter their biology, often through violence, so that it functions more like a man’s. Tellingly, the legal right for a woman to kill a child in her womb was won before the legal right for a woman not to be fired for being pregnant. The message is clear: women must become like men to be free.

The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown by Karen Olsson

A thoughtful meditation on both Weils, Simone and André, the latter part of the Bourbaki collective in mathematics. Olsson really lives out the ideal of wrestling with the thinkers of the past that you’ll hear more about in two more recommendations. Simone Weil is alive with moral urgency and desperately seeking some kind of martyrdom—she wants to be utterly consumed by doing right. André finds a safer and more acceptable way to be swallowed up by truth.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

A clear, thoroughly-cited explanation of how racial housing discrimination is part of our recent past and has serious consequences for the present. It is a persuasive case for reparations.

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz

Two books that both came out this year and seemed to be in dialogue. My husband reviewed Breaking Bread for Fare Forward:

For those of us already sold on dead authors, Jacobs has a different caution: not to idealize the past or reshape it in our own image, but allow ourselves to encounter it in its strangeness. […] Jacobs’s preferred metaphor is a wrestling match—specifically the biblical Jacob’s tussle with God and his subsequent demand that God bless him: “I will not let you go until you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). From this passage Jacobs concludes that struggle and demand are not incompatible with reverence. The classics, then, can be our sparring partners.

The image of wrestling with a text in order to receive a blessing has really stuck with me. Meanwhile, Hitz’s book is focused on praising the impracticality of the intellectual life. She rejects pitches for the humanities that turn on how much more employable it makes you. The best encounters are sought with no ulterior motive. (I don’t think I agree with this.) Both Hitz and Jacobs are notably good-faith interlocutors.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

There are books I read this year that left me short-tempered while reading. A too-aggressively paced thriller, a dystopia that seemed more the fault of the author’s spleen than a living world. I put them down and wanted to shake myself and shake them off like a dog does after a bath.

Piranesi was the opposite. It’s the book that I found most restful to read, even as I was in suspense about the plot, and the book where I most felt like I was gentler while reading it.

It’s as rich a world as Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but, as Joy Clarkson says in her review for Plough, “Where Jonathan Strange might be compared to an imperious baroque mansion, Piranesi is an intricately painted miniature.” Trust me on this one.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

This novel combines tight plotting, and fantastic worldbuilding. The premise is that travel to parallel worlds is possible, but only if you are already dead in the world you’re travelling to and your slot is open. That makes the most valuable people the ones who were treated as discardable and have died almost everywhere. Every choice made by Johnson is well considered, and she gives the peripheral characters enough life for you to believe they are always active, even when not in the narrative spotlight.

Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier

Lanier’s first child, Fiona, was born missing part of a chromosome, and Lanier’s memoir is a meditation on disability and dignity. It was tough reading for me, especially because so often doctors and social workers treat Lanier as a bad mom (prior to the diagnosis) and, once the underlying cause of Fiona’s issues is known, they shift to treating Fiona as discardable. “It’s either bad seed or bad soil,” one doctor tells Lanier while she’s still recovering from birth.

Lanier’s book is a rebuttal to both claims, and one that avoids defending her daughter by telling a story of triumph over disability and difference. Fiona overcomes some challenges but some things are truly out of reach for her. She doesn’t earn her worth as she expands what she can do—she is of infinite worth, just like Lanier, just like you, simply because she is. The doctors who dismiss her miss the chance to see her and know her as Fiona. The reader does not.

I would link to last year’s list, but it looks like I may not have compiled one since 2017, so here’s the link to all the way back then.