Friday, January 6, 2023

2020 in (the) books

Hitting "publish" on a few older posts that have been sitting, mostly complete, in my drafts. Originally wrote this at the end of 2020.

Ever since I finished graduate school in May 2019, I've been on a reading bender. I turned in my final paper and was thrilled to have evening and weekend hours back. In between looking for jobs, I read by the pool in Cambridge, savoring the long summer days with no homework. After we moved, I read on the couch in Cleveland, savoring the quiet that came from living in a city where I knew almost no one instead of in the action-packed fish bowl of graduate school.

And then I moved across the world from my friends and family. Among the expats in Monrovia, it's practically a requirement for your residency permit that you go to the beach on Sunday. When you have friends, you go with your friends. But for the first few weeks I was there, I did not have friends, so I went with my Kindle. I'd get a couple beers and cycle through a few books between dips in the ocean.

Then Covid hit and I went into lockdown in a church apartment. Turns out that being across the ocean from everyone you know during a global pandemic will do wonders for your reading time. For three months I was alone almost all the time. I read in bed on slow weekend mornings. I read on the back porch with a Club beer and a selection of different flavors of Pringles (which I would refer to as a charcuterie board) as the sun set.

I emerged from quarantine and made friends and, to my absolute joy, discovered that one of their main leisure activities was going to the beach or pool, playing a few rounds of Quirkle or Rummikub, and then settling in with books and beers. So I maintained my reading pace and finished the year having read 36 books - well above my original goal of 20 and even my updated goal of 30 books.


Falling back in love with reading has been nothing short of magic. Finishing grad school had a lot to do with it. But I had that "school's out forever!" experience when I finished undergrad, too, and I didn't tear through books at the rate I did in 2020 - between college and grad school, I read just about 12 books a year.

I am not totally sure why my reading "base pace" has increased so much. Other than just having more time, there have been a few other game-changers. For my 30th birthday, I bought myself a Kindle Paperwhite and find it very enjoyable to use. Even better, I used Overdrive to hook it up to the library. The library system was good in Cambridge, but fantastic in Cleveland- I can get most Kindle books in a matter of days rather than weeks. My favorite game is to check out a bunch of ebooks, load them onto my Kindle, and turn it on airplane mode so they don't get deleted off my Kindle but someone else can still take them out from the library. 

Social media has been a big factor too. Goodreads has become by far my favorite social media platform- I've added so much to my list based on what my friends and Roxane Gay are reading. I joined a reading group on Facebook, run by a small scale influencer I follow on Instagram. I feel like I see more books on my Instagram feed than I did a few years ago. All together, I feel like I'm more conscious of both buzzy new releases and older books I've been meaning to catch up on, which has increased my motivation to keep reading. 

I read a lot of great books in 2020, but a few stand out as favorites.

The Glass Hotel. Station Eleven is one of my all-time favorites so I was excited for this. I think I just love St. John Mandel's storytelling. The plot in this is sort of random, but she can sure spin a yarn. 

Trick Mirror. I loved this one. Interesting insights on barre, weddings, social media and more. I found myself referencing this in conversations for months afterwards. I did feel like Tolentino didn't always totally conclude an argument before moving onto the next one, but maybe I'm too dumb.

The Dutch House. I heard a podcaster say "whenever I pick up an Ann Patchett book, I know I'm in good hands as a reader" and that's exactly how I felt about this. This is one of those wonderful books that doesn't have a lot of "plot" but still feels so rich. The phrase that came to mind when I finished this was "rich world-building" which is usually something you'd say about an epic fantasy novel- but here it's the world of two siblings that feels fully fleshed out and inhabited.

Little Fires Everywhere. As a newly-minted resident of the Land, I adored the Cleveland references but think I would have loved this one regardless. Nuanced and interesting story about motherhood and the allure of other people's lives and families.

Heating and Cooling. 52 micro-memoirs that literally had me crying on one page and laughing on the next. Now that I'm back in the US, I bought a hard copy of this and plan to re-read it once a year.

Stories of Your Life. I read this because I loved the movie Arrival, and the story it's based on was just as amazing. I liked some stories more than others, but am blown away by Chiang's ability to create a totally different world inside of each one.

Homegoing. This was the perfect combination of literary and page-turning- I curled up in bed every night excited for it. I loved how the chapters stood on their own - almost like short stories - but with threads and themes woven through the generations. (Fun fact, I usually glance at the jacket/synopsis when I add something to my TBR pile, but never re-read it when I actually pick up the book... so I was blown away in the second chapter when I realized the characters were related... which is literally the whole premise of the novel.)

She Would Be King. I loved this for the dive into the founding of Liberia and for some great writing. I read this early in my time in Liberia and got a kick out of the fact that I recognized some of the geographic and cultural references.