Best Books I Read in 2020

There’s a quote by Alice Walker that I love:

“When I was a child, I read books for entertainment and information; I now think of books as lifeboats.”

2020 was a year when I reached for the lifeboats more often than usual, and they didn’t fail me. Sometimes I went searching for context on pressing issues like pandemics, racial oppression and climate change. Other times I was just looking for a good story that would transport me into someone else’s life for a while and let me walk around and take it all in.

Overall, I ended up reading 70 books this year. Here are the highlights:

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

2020 was a year when I went from travelling full time to staying put in Serbia, waiting for the Covid-19 pandemic to end. One upside of my newfound stability was that I was able to get some of my favourite books out of storage, and rereading this wonderful collection after 11 years was a real treat. One day, I’ll even complete the Borges marathon I started back in 2009…

Borges Collected Fictions

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna is one of those writers who just seems to produce great books every time. I loved Happiness and The Hired Man, but this is my favourite of all. Set in Sierra Leone, it explores PTSD and the aftermath of conflict—a theme Forna returns to often in her fiction. But that makes it sound dry, which it’s not—it’s a wonderful, rich story that wears its themes lightly.

memory of love

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

OK, technically this book doesn’t belong here—I’m listening to it as an audiobook, and I just need one more good long car ride to finish it off. But I already know it’s one of my favourite books of the year, and I don’t want to wait 12 months to write about it. Wilkerson tells the story of America’s Great Migration in incredibly rich detail, drawing on thousands of interviews to make this huge and relatively neglected story really come alive.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

When I hear so many recommendations before reading a book, it usually ends up being a disappointment. Not in this case. Revolutionary Road was a beautifully chilling story of a dissatisfied suburban couple longing for more but not daring to reach for it. I have rarely read a book in which I felt so immersed, and it’s a good reminder that characters don’t have to be likeable to be utterly compelling.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become the Scapegoats by Maya Goodfellow

My relationship with the country of my birth is about as strained these days as that of Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. Brexit? Xenophobia? The Windrush scandal? Boris Johnson? The UK is becoming like one of those embarrassing Facebook friends who keeps polluting your timeline with hateful fake news. Maya Goodfellow does a great job of tracing the links of Britain’s scapegoating of immigrants back through time, and also of showing how the poison seeps so deeply into the rest of the country’s political landscape.

Hostile Environment

My 2020 Reading Habits

And now, back by popular demand, here are those charts again! Like last year, I’ve looked at my reading in 2020 by country, gender, genre and more. Honestly, this shit is more for my own interest than anyone else’s, but feel free to take a look if you’re curious. Otherwise, just skip to the bottom and leave a comment letting me know your favourite book of 2020!

Gender

I’d like an even split between male and female authors, but it’s not something I really plan out, so I’ve ended up with a slight male bias this year. The “mixed” part of the chart refers to books with multiple authors.

Genre

This is very strange—I didn’t plan it, but I ended up with an exact 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction, the same as in 2019. Most of the fiction books were novels (mostly literary fiction), and most of the non-fiction stuff was politics and history.

Format

I hate ebooks, but I read a lot of them. Last year it was because I was travelling; this year it’s because Covid-19 has put paid to my dreams of visiting all of Belgrade’s beautiful bookshops and scooping up lots of beautiful hardbacks.

Country

I was disappointed last year to find that most of my reading was from the UK and US, and it’s been the same this year too. On the plus side, I did read books from 18 different countries, but for most countries that was just one or two books.

Publication Year

I generally don’t keep up very well with the latest releases, but this year I read quite a few books published in 2020. The 2010s were the dominant decade.

What Was Your Best Book of 2020?

I always like getting book recommendations, even if I never have time to read all of them. Leave a comment and let me know your reading highlights of 2020!

And if you haven’t already had enough of reading about my reading, you can check out my posts about reading or see all of my book reviews.

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There are 18 comments

  1. What a great reading year you had! That’s an awesome accident that you managed a perfect split between fiction and nonfiction! I think you need more poetry in 2021 though 😉 Happy New Year! I hope 2021 is off to a good start!

    1. Yes! I think the world needs more poetry in 2021, and a lot less of some other stuff I won’t mention so as not to spoil the mood. Happy New Year to you too, Stefanie!!

  2. I hope you’ll have a great reading year in 2021 too.

    I’ve done my “best of 2020” billet but if I have to choose two books among them, I pick Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm.

  3. You might need to restart your Borges Marathon; you’re probably a different reader, in many ways, than you were in 2009! (FWIW, I found that assigning dates to specific pieces, and leaving ample time between, has been the key to completing my chronological read-throughs of Munro and Gallant. I’d love to join in with Borges but I had to part with my copy a couple of years ago.)

    Maybe we’ve chatted about it before, that Wilkerson book is one of my all-time faves. Astonishingly good. I really must reread to peer more closely at the craft and construction because I was almost entirely swept away by the narrative itself and could barely stop to see what she was “up to”. The Forna is another that I admire greatly; and I agree that summarizing it doesn’t do it justice, not even the publisher’s blurbs capture the expanse of her story/characters.

    I’ve got quite a lot of reading lined up for this year about immigration/emigration; do you think the Maya Goodfellow would be best appreciated by readers with a specific interest in the UK? Or does she reveal universal truths that would apply/interest readers overseas?

    Of course I enjoyed your stat’s. We had the same decade in common. And also share a disappointment in the emphasis on the same predictable countries (mine being Canada, US, and UK). LOL

    1. Yes, I definitely plan to restart that Borges Marathon! Whether I finish it is another matter… Thanks for the advice – I admire your ability to sustain those long-standing read-throughs, so I will give that a try.

      Ah, I don’t think we have chatted about the Wilkerson book before, but yes, it is a wonderful book! For me, she succeeds in telling really compelling stories of the three main characters, and then bringing in so much wider context that it also feels like a comprehensive story of the Great Migration. I think that’s quite a tricky balance to get right, especially for such a huge subject, and I find that a lot of non-fiction books go too far in one direction or the other: all story and no substance, or too much dry fact and not enough story. She gets it just right.

      I’d love to recommend the Goodfellow book, but to be honest it is very UK-focused. Of course, many of the techniques for whipping up anti-migrant sentiment are used in different countries too, so I’m sure you’d see some international parallels, but the book is pretty squarely focused on UK politics and policies. One migration book I read a couple of years ago that has a more international flavour is Violent Borders by Reece Jones. I reviewed it on here a few years ago—or really, now that I check, I just kind of mentioned it as part of a larger rant… https://andrewblackman.net/2017/05/on-the-violence-of-borders/

  4. sounds like a great reading year! I enjoy the stats – I started making a conscious effort to diversify my reading list a couple of years ago (focusing on reading more writers of color, and non-western authors). My 2020 reading list reflects this – but looking back am still surprised at the percentages.

    happy new year to you

    1. Hi Jenny,

      It’s great to hear from you! You (and Kim) are one of the few things I miss about Instagram. How are your travels going? Have you been able to continue in these pandemic times, or are you waiting it out? Genie and I have stopped in Serbia for now, but are hoping to start travelling again later this year if things improve.

      Diversifying the reading list is important. Race is also something I keep track of, but I didn’t include the number in this post because I’m not very confident about my methods—often I don’t know how an author self-identifies, so it’s just a guess really, and I don’t feel comfortable categorising people like that unless I’m sure about it. Maybe I’ll find a better way to do it in future years. Anyway, the point is that I still need to diversify more. I’d love to see your 2020 reading list—do you post it anywhere public?

  5. Wonderful post, Andrew! Glad you got to read the complete Borges collection again! Hope you can get back to your Borges project one day and write an essay on each of the Borges stories ? I want to read The Warmth of Other Suns. Thanks for sharing your favourites! Hope you have a wonderful reading year in 2021!

    1. Thanks, Vishy! I’d love to return to the Borges project—watch this space! Hope you enjoy The Warmth of Other Suns if you do read it this year, and of course I wish you a happy and fulfilling reading year, whatever else you read. I look forward to reading your reviews as always! We’ve both been at this a while now 🙂

  6. Here is a link to my 2020 reads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3127164537

    I like the way you provide pie-charts breaking down what you’ve read in different ways. I wasn’t able to use such sophisticated methods on Goodreads, but I indicated the books which I’ve reviewed and which ones were by Goodreads friends.

    It’s hard to pick just one favourite, or even a handful, to recommend. I very much enjoyed the books by my Scottish friends which, besides being humorous, are thought-provoking reads. Most of the titles in my science fiction section were also good. Aberjhani’s book was a curious blend of memoir and literary criticism.

  7. Hi Andrew,
    I just finished reading Nikola Tesla’s autobiography titled “My Inventions”. It’s quite short, but an interesting read. In it, he describes his creative process from the inception of an idea to its physical creation. I can’t say that it was my absolute favorite of 2020, but it most definitely was a fascinating read – for this Tesla fan, anyway.

    All the best,
    Erin

    1. Hi Erin,
      Thanks for the recommendation. That does sound interesting. I wouldn’t call myself a Tesla fan exactly, but he is a fascinating figure and I’d like to learn more about him. I just found a cheap ebook copy, so I downloaded it and will give it a try!

  8. Thanks for sharing your list … and the pie charts (very interesting). Favourite books from 2020 – Americanah (Adichie), The Riddle in the Sands (Childers) and My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. Also enjoyed dipping into my favourite poetry books and, of course, Dickens – David Copperfield. Happy reading and hope you’re able to keep motivating yourself … small steps… keep healthy and safe

      1. Hi Maria, Thanks for sharing your favourites. I particularly like the sound of the Gloria Steinem memoir: I’ve read a lot of books about travel and a lot of books about activism, but never one that explores the links between the two. I think I’ll try it out this year. Thanks for the recommendation!

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