2020: My Year in Books

A grid view of the covers of the 60 books I read this year

It’s time for year-end “best of” lists, and so here again is my annual rundown of books (see also the  2017, 2018, and 2019 versions).

2020 was strange and hard, but that did not keep it from bringing me some very good books. As I look back, i am struck by the excellent quality of this year’s reads. I would recommend nearly all of the 60 books I read and it’s not easy to choose my favorites, but I’ve pulled out some top picks below.

Let me know what you thought of these books in the comments, or which books were your favorites this year!. I’m always looking for new recommendations!

 

Top Picks

Fiction

The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

The world of this phenomenal fantasy trilogy builds upon medieval Islamic mythology from the Indian Ocean Rim. The story centers around Nahiri, a young orphan turned con artist in French-occupied Cairo. In the course of a hustle she accidentally summons the ancient jinn Darayavahoush (Dara for short), who recognizes her as part jinn herself. Together they journey to Daevabad, the jinn capital city, where she becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the city’s volatile politics. The magical world is lush and nuanced, the characters are deep and engaging, and the writing is simply wonderful. These books will not disappoint.

 

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

This lovely YA read deals frankly and sensitively with topics of mixed heritage, teenage identity formation, and mental illness. Sixteen-year-old Darius Kellner lives with chronic depression, which complicates his efforts to negotiate his identity as a “fractional Persian.” He constantly feels too Persian for his white family, too white for his Persian family, and too awkward and nerdy for both. When his family travels to visit his grandparents in Iran, he struggles to find where and how he fits in the family, The saving grace of the trip is Sohrab, a neighbor with whom he develops a strong and meaningful friendship. Khorram does not trivialize or catastrophize depression, but writes a complicated main character who must live with it as one enduring feature of his life. 

 

A special shout-out goes to author Tamora Pierce. for getting me through election season. Even though she started writing her Alanna books in the early 1980s, I hadn’t heard of them until this October (thanks to M Tong and Matthew Chalmers). They were fun, quick reads that provided distraction in the days surrounding Nov. 4, and on top of it all they have aged really well over the past three decades—strong heroines, engaging characters, and imaginative world-building, combine with grand adventure to create delightful escapist rides.

 

Nonfiction 

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

I read this book as March gave way to April. The Coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam and government and society were weighing options for potential responses. The process was a real-time illustration of Disaster Capitalism, Klein’s term for an economic strategy pioneered and propagated by economists at the University of Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century—most notably Milton Friedman and his students. These were the vanguard of the economic philosophy that has come to be known as neoliberalism—hardline support for privatization and market deregulation, general distrust of public goods and government interventions, and the elevation of competition over collaboration as an ordering economic and social principle. 

Friedman understood the value of disaster. In 1982 he wrote “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (cited on p. 140). He made it a point, therefore, to spread his students and his ideas to as many places as possible, where they would implement the same crisis playbook again and again until his brand of ultra-capitalism moved from fringe to mainstream and then to orthodoxy. This much happened, certainly, but neoliberalism did not bring with it the widespread prosperity and happiness that the Chicago Boys predicted. Klein uses in-depth case studies from Chile, South Africa, post-Soviet Russia, Argentina. and mid-2000s Iraq to show the pattern that unfolded in place after place: “an urban bubble of frenetic speculation and dubious accounting fueling superprofits and frantic consumerism, ringed by the ghostly factories and rotting infrastructure of a development past; roughly half the population excluded from the economy altogether; out-of-control corruption and cronyism; decimation of nationally owned small and medium-sized businesses; a huge transfer of wealth from public to private hands, followed by a huge transfer of private debts into public hands” (p. 86). In short, a pattern in which the wealthy leverage disasters to further enrich themselves at the expense of those most vulnerable to the crisis itself.

Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism has held up depressingly well since the publication of this book in 2009. The recent Rand Report on income inequality shows that fifty years of trickle-down economic policies have siphoned $50 trillion upward from the bottom 90% of the U.S. wealth distribution to the top 1%. The financial crisis of 2008–2009 created another massive wealth redistribution upward, and in 2020 America’s 644 billionaires have used the Coronavirus pandemic to increase their collective net worth by $1 trillion while pushing 8 million people from the middle class into poverty.

 Economic orthodoxy needs revision—or revolution. Privatization and competition will not save us. The problems we face now require collaboration and collective action for the public good.

 

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall

Economic markets do not just happen. There is no such thing as a “free market,” proceeding in its natural state without government intervention or regulation. Governments do not only intervene in natural market processes; they set the parameters for market operation and participation from the ground up. All markets operate under sets of rules, and those rules can vary on every factor. What can be owned, and by whom? What can be bought and sold, and on what terms? Who can participate in the market and who is excluded? What obligations do the various parties in economic transactions have to each other and to society? None of these answers is fixed in stone or mandated by natural law. They are changing and changeable, as Alex Marshall demonstrates with this torrent of studies and examples from U.S. history. Investigating common law, intellectual property, the nature of the corporation, private/public partnership, and the enforcement of property rights and norms, he demonstrates the contingent nature of market behavior and the dramatic differences that changes in market governance can make. 

The analysis in some examples could be questioned, but Marshall makes his overarching point with strength and clarity. There is no neutral, unregulated form of a capitalist market economy, only different types of regulation that favor different parties in the system to greater or lesser extents. “In reality, deregulation means abdicating public governance in favor of corporate self-regulation, which tends to devalue workers and shirk responsibility for externalities. Luckily, we can choose different rules for our markets—rules that empower workers, ensure responsible production and consumption, and promote the public good.

 

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson

Caricatures of American history often focus too heavily on either its high ideals of freedom and equality or its cruel patterns of exploitation and extraction. These two tendencies—one toward the concentration of wealth and power and the other toward equal participation and empowerment of all people—have coexisted in tension from the United States’s founding, and in this book Heather Cox Richardson uses the battle line itself as a through line in American history. Beginning with the Constitution, which propounds inalienable human rights and equal treatment at a time when both were denied to the majority of the population, she traces the tension forward to its crescendo in the Civil War and beyond to western expansion, Jim Crow, and our current battles over race, gender, religion, and economics. 

In their mythical self-representation, Southern slaveowners portrayed themselves as rugged individualists—strong and self-sufficient men who asked nothing from the government except to be left alone. In reality, their wealth and position (not to mention the entire slaveholding system) were propped up by government support and intervention at every level. The three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution gave white men in slaveholding states outsized influence in national policy, and local law enforcement kept enslaved Southerners in check while protecting their enslavers from harm and insurrection.

Emancipation and abolition were important steps toward freedom, but they did not usher in full inclusion or equal rights. , Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southern ideology did not die out but spread westward into new territories and states. Western pioneers, like the Southern slaveowners before them, cultivated an image of rugged self-sufficiency that was actually propped up by a substantial government apparatus. Laws limited  the immigration and citizenship of Native American, Mexican, and Chinese populations. Courts prioritized the property rights of white settlers, and military and law enforcement tolerated and perpetrated acts of terrorist violence against all of these groups to the advantage of the white pioneers. In the 20th century the expansion of voting rights to women and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s both represented significant gains toward democratic and egalitarian ideals, but we are still far from embodying the highest values of a free, just, and equal society. Those striving to reduce entrenched disparities in power and status face ongoing opposition from those who would see them limited to a chosen few. Though Richardson’s framework may seem simplistic,  it helps to clarify the goals and stakes in the brutal tug-of-war of American politics. 

Heather Cox Richardson also writes an amazing daily newsletter that digests the day’s news and places it in historical context. It is an excellent way to get the news without all the frenzy, and you can find it on her Substack or her facebook page. I read it every day and you might like it too!

 

Jesus an John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Riffing on the title of a 2008 song by the Gaither Vocal Band, Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the nature of masculinity and male role models in white American Evangelicalism across the past 75 years. She argues that Christian leaders and cultural icons have championed a rough and rugged male ideal defined by competition and domination. This masculinity affects all areas of life, from rigid gender roles and unquestioned male authority in the family to religious supremacy in society and militant imperialism abroad. Evangelicals have remade Jesus in the image of John Wayne, and the results have been disastrous.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the current state of evangelicalism in the United States. It does for gender what Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise has done for race—shows how unhealthy hierarchies and the pursuit of dominance are not alien intrusions upon American Christianity, but are central to its identity and functioning. 

 

The Full List

In chronological order from January to December

  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  • There will be no Miracles Here: A Memoir by Casey Gerald
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong and the Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
  • The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
  • From Dissertation to Book by William P. Germano
  • Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie griffith
  • The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole your Vote and how to get it Back by Tom Hartmann
  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
  • From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century by William A. Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Dwayne
  • TheWind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred E. Taylor
  • The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall
  • The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Rise of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton
  • The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins
  • Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics by Katrine Marcal
  • TheFearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
  • The Formation of the Book of Psalms: Reconsidering the Transmission and Canonization of Psalmody in Light of Material Culture and the Poetics of Anthologies by David Willgren
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Whiteness in Higher Education: The Invisible Missing Link in Diversity and Racial Analyses by Nolan L. Cabrera
  • Critical Race Theory in Higher Education: Twenty Years of Theoretical and Research Innovations by Dorian L. McCoy, et al.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
  • An Afican-American and LatinX History of the United states by Paul Ortiz
  • The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  • Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold)
  • Evil: the Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs
  • Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education, Vol. 1: Seeing Through the Cracks by Dorothy Bottrell and Catherine Manathunga (eds.)
  • Industrial Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change by Barbara Freese
  • How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X and Alex Haley
  • Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth S. Anderson
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne
  • Song of the Lioness Series by Tamora Pierce (Alanna: The First Adventure, n the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant)
  • White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
  • Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce (Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
  • Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
  • Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.
  • Ableism in Academia: Theorizing Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh (eds.)
  • Teaching to Transgress: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks

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