Best Reads of 2020

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So 2020 as a year, it goes without saying, has been abysmal on too many levels to count.  But one area that it hasn't (at least for me) is in the realm of reading.  We know that I love to read (if you don't know that and you've been reading this blog, then you clearly haven't been reading this blog!).  

A screenshot of about 30 book covers from my Goodreads bookshelf for 2020.

The last few years I skipped on my best reads of the year but managed to get to it in time this year.  
Of course, the challenge here is that there are so many great books to choose from.  I gave myself a goal of reading 250 books and I met my goal (you can see the full list here)--and even passed it to land on 270 books for 2020.  So I promised myself that I would not go for more than 30 for my list, which was hard but still managed it.  You'll find I broke them into three distinct areas, which made sense once I went through the list.  

Rather than give you paragraph reviews (many of them are reviewed on the website), I went instead with just 1-2 sentence descriptions on what they're about and what I appreciated about them. 

Nonfiction

Democracy in Danger: How Hackers and Activists Exposed Fatal Flaws in the Election System by Jake Braun
Braun takes readers through the election system process in the US, highlighting the various frailties throughout it.  Braun's book is important in understanding how election structures can be easily manipulated and the absence of addressing this can further undermine democratic institutions.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi's classic work explores the research about attaining and maintaining a state of "flow" in a variety of circumstances.  What I like about this work is that it helps put words to a state of experience that folks may feel in a variety of places such as when playing a sports game to writing to work and many other settings as well as provides guidance on how to create a framework to achieve flow.  

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg
Fogg frames habit change as a process of recipes that you slowly build together, mixing and matching until you find something that sticks and then adding to it.  Such a practice allows us to understand both the specific thing we are looking to change but also the web of action and structure that are interwoven into that action.

Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass by Mary Gray
Gray's work is a fascinating look into the complexity of the gig-economy with a particular focus on small-task programs like Mechanical Turk from Amazon.  Her book highlights how such work is both an opportunity and a trap, especially given the degree to which much of the work is being used to train artificial programs that will replace human work.  

Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change by Eitan Hersh
For those that look at politics and discuss them like sports, this book is for you.  Hersh helps readers to understand that one is not really "political" in any useful way if one is simply staying informed and talking about the latest headline.  

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David Kyle Johnson
This Great Courses selection is a great primer for how various science-fiction films and novels serve up some of the best philosophical questions. It serves as both a great introduction to philosophy and science fiction.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc
Leduc weaves together her own history of navigating her disability in an exclusive world with a fascinating analysis of how our cultural fairy tales frame disability in negative ways--which in turn plays a role in why society is not more inclusive of people with disabilities.  

Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers by Jessamyn Neuhaus
While the subtitle is a bit misleading, the content is great for anyone looking to start teaching.  Neahaus's insights to how to meaningfully engage students, connect topics to students' lives, and think more asset-based than deficit is what so many of our educators need to be thinking about.  

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading by Leah Price
Price exploration of reading is fascinating as it reinforces one concern I have when I hear about folks who always fear about reading and that is that it's largely always been an area of contention (the amount of reading, what people reading, the formats they read, etc).  It's definitely worth reading if you have any interest in thinking about the state of reading in the past, present or future.

McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald Purser
Purser critically considers the ways in which mindfulness has been turned into an industry in the US through some of its leaders and used as a means of making people passive to their situations rather than being empowered by it. Though one can still find mindfulness useful after reading, it will be hard not to raise a questioning eyebrow to organizations deploying mindfulness as a tool for employees.

Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman
Schulman walks a very nuanced line that can empower many of us but is also an argument that takes time to unpack. At its core, she calls upon us to recognize that tension and conflict are important part of human interaction and that typically, when they become framed as harmful, it usually ends up not benefitting those geniunely harmed but reinforcing power differentials among people.  

How a Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers Afraid of Poetry by Adam Sol
Sol makes poetry accessible by drawing upon a wide mix of poetry and highlighting what are the things at play within the poem and why it makes them enjoyable. Readers walk away with a better understanding of how to engage with poetry much better than their high school literature class.

Hate Inc.: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another by Matt Taibbi 
Taibbi calls out the problems of the entire media landscape and though he leans more left, he still has plenty to question and challenge.  The result leaves readers thinking more critically about their news sources and also considering what more they can do than just be "informed".  

Racial & Intersectional Inequality

The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America by Nicholas Buccola
A fascinating look at both 20th-century thinkers that takes readers from their beginnings to their debate and the aftermath. It helped me to understand how Baldwin engaged the world of white conservative racism of the mid-20th century directly and as a public figure. 

Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
hooks' provides a history and analysis of how Black women have both been at the forefront of feminism while so very often excluded or dismissed for their contributions. 
 
White Identity Politics by Ashley Jardina
Drawing upon a variety of research, Jardina paints a rich tapestry of the development and deployment of white identity politics in the US, particularly in the early 21st century and the election of Donald Trump.  Her argument can be a bit challenging to consider if one is not well versed in racial identity and structure, but it's still an important text for understanding just how it is that Trump (and the Republicans for that matter) draw strongly on white-identity (and racism) to garner votes.

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Laksh Piepzna-Samarasinha
This book will completely flip your frame for understanding what is meant and understood by making the world a more just place.  Laksh Piepzna-Samarasinha uses personal experiences, sound argument, and research to illustrate the importance, value, and unrealized potential (as well as the unrealize obstacles) of people with disabilities, particularly those where are also part of other marginalized communities.

Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the Afronet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton D. McIlwain
McIllwain explores both the birth of the Internet and some of the key figures who created spaces for Black people along with the role the Internet has played in shaping Black activism in the last twenty years.  It's a powerful book that addresses the erasure of Black work at the forefront of the Internet.

Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer C. Nash
Nash argues that Black feminism needs to be wary of how intersectionality is increasingly being co-opted within the larger culture and how that might undermine or limit the movements' works.  She draws out both the limitations of intersectionality as it is currently conceived and highlights what new directions might be imagined.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson draws the parallels between the Indian caste system and the ways that race and Black identity is constructed in the US culture, arguing that whether we admit it or not, a caste system is alive and well in the US.  She draws upon research, cultural comparisons, and her own first-hand experiences of continually being treated as a second-class citizen based upon her skin color.  

Fiction

Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
Inspired by the death of Emmett Till, Baldwin's play explores how can justice be achieved in a society where self-described good men are willing to not do what is just.  
 
The Absolute at Large by Karel Čapek 
A fascinating satire from the early 20th century from the writer who gave us the word "robot."  When a machine can create massive energy but also generates extreme religious fealty to whoever might fill the role, this novel opens up great questions about science and religion that we still consider today.  

Little Brother (Little Brother, #1) by Cory Doctorow
Doctorow's Little Brother series highlights so many great challenges and considerations about technology, governments, and resisting power. His characters don't always feel authentic but the storylines and questions about how technology opens up many questions about our freedoms is worth the experience.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García-Márquez
García-Márquez's story reminds me of Rashomon in that it tells the story of the murder of a man from several different vantage points.  It's a short novel but one that asks the question of complicity of the community in the brutal murder of one of its members.

Supernova Era by Cixin Liu
Liu continues to make me wonder about the future in interesting ways and Supernova only reinforces that wonder.  This novel explores what happens in a future where adults are largely killed off and youth are left to run the world--such a thought is likely to evoke Lord of the Flies or other such novels, but Liu's approach is much more complex and epic.  

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
I need to re-read this one. I enjoyed it as I do with all of Morrison's books but the power comes with the rereading.  Still, this tale of manhood, black inequality, and family tragedy is still sitting with me months after reading it.  

Who Fears Death by Nnnedi Okorafor
Okorafor's Afrofuturist tale of Onyesonwu, a woman shunned for being born of rape and yet becomes a sorceress with the power to save the very society that shuns her.  

Meridian by Alice Walker
Most folks have read, watched, or heard of Walker's most famous work, The Color Purple.  Meridian is an interesting novel to pair with The Color Purple because it is not as clear cut in terms of its discuss of race and identity but it is worth reading and thinking about as she sets up an interesting love triangle among the protagonist, Meridian, her one-time lover, and a white woman who had advocated for equality.  

So there are some of the highlights of 2020 reads.  What about you?  What are some of the books that have left an impression on you or you find yourself recommending to others?


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