Let me start off by acknowledging that for many, 2020 has not been an optimal time for reading books. Friends of mine have found themselves at times unable to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. If this applies to you, I send you solidarity! I hope 2021 brings you more headspace.
For me, though, one of the main ways I’ve gotten through this hellscape year–aside from, you know, organising to change the conditions that created it–has been reading books–and often long books, at that. For one thing, burying myself in a lengthy tome has, on many an occasion, stopped me from doomscrolling the Guardian live blog. As a spiralling few days in early March can attest, doomscrolling is definitely what I’d otherwise be doing. For another, it’s helped cover the gaping holes left in my evenings when activities used to happen (e.g. orchestra rehearsals, band practice, dinners with friends, dance class, talks, etc). (Also useful in this latter regard has been my discovery of gardening, actually practising the violin (what a concept, I know) and recently acquiring a wonderful Spanish tutor.)
(EDIT 4/01/21) Since writing this post, I’ve realised that in addition, to some extent, reading functioned as a means of procrastination–albeit productive procrastination (my favourite). While I was reading, I could put off working on the things that seemed too unwieldy, difficult or intimidating. Like my book manuscript! I published very little in 2020, and while this was partly a product of publication cycles (some things are in the editorial pipeline for 2021) it was also down to experiencing some paralysis about writing and submitting. This paralysis-feeling became less of an issue in the final quarter of the year, and I’ve made some mindset shifts that (I hope) will enable me to write as much as I want in 2021. But it was definitely one factor in why I read in 2020.
Maybe the largest benefit, however, has been that some of what I’ve read has helped me understand a little more of how the world has arrived at this juncture, and what may usefully be done. To take notes and make some sense of what I read, rather than, as so often in the past, plowing through pages upon pages only to forget what I gleaned within weeks, I used Roam.* Despite learning a lot this year, I still have a long way to go, especially in terms of reading political theory, economics, and global history. Thanks to the bibliographies of my 2020 books, however, there are now upwards of 500 books on my list of things to read, so at least I won’t be bored any time soon. Making this list also made me realise I didn’t read any books on science or music–two of my great loves–so that’s something to remedy in 2021.
Of course, not everything that I read–not even close!–has been directly educational or even all that serious. One consequence of finishing my PhD in 2019, after nearly a year in which I felt compelled to read little other than texts directly related to my field of study, was a hankering for a wide range of literature. If nothing else, these books reflect that. This is also a reason why, with one exception, I made it through no international law books this year! Oops. Well, onwards.
I’m not going to directly state the exact number of books that I read in 2020. One reason is that I didn’t set out with any sort of goal in mind–the reading just kind of happened. But more importantly, for me, to identify a number would be to create a kind of standard, which in subsequent years I would feel bound to meet or even out-do. This year granted me so much time for reading that to apply this standard to 2021 would (I hope) be unrealistic. In future I’ll probably read at about half this rate. Plus, as I’m the kind of person who tends to automatically compare myself negatively to people I don’t know on the internet, I don’t want to set off anyone else’s internal critic either.
I also had several advantages in my favour. Materially speaking, access to these books was facilitated by the Cambridge University Library, the CSER library, Verso sales, friends’ bookshelves, the neighbourhood bookshare, and the Amnesty bookshop on Mill Road. My partner reads a lot as well and I borrowed many books from him. Some I read for a reading group on Race and Technology, for which PDFs were provided. But I did buy a lot of books too–I have the disposable income to do so. (EDIT 04/01/21) It should also be noted that I was able to do a lot of this reading during work hours; one thing that can be said in favour of the postdoc life is that it’s remarkably generous in terms of being able to self-direct your time. Many of these books were and are key to my ongoing intellectual development, and I feel really lucky to have a job that supports this journey. Of course, all novels and the like, and non-fiction that I couldn’t justify as being remotely related to work, were read in evenings and weekends.
Below you can find the titles of books I’ve read cover-to-cover this year. I’m not counting books I’ve dipped in and out of for research, as that would be cheating! Nor am I counting the (far too many) books I started and haven’t (yet) finished. And obviously this doesn’t include journal articles, online essays, etc. For my own amusement only, I’ve given a 1-2 sentence take for each. This is obviously all very, very subjective and necessarily shallow. I will die on none of these hills. Out of interest, I audited the diversity of these books. 58% of these books were (co-)authored by women, and 37% by BIPOC authors. In 2021 I’d like to read more authors from the Global South, outside the North Atlantic sphere. Although I don’t believe that diversifying one’s reading lists, by itself, will lead to the structural changes we all need, it’s certainly no bad thing.
*I absolutely love Roam, find it invaluable for my work, and would recommend it to anyone–bidirectional linking has changed the game completely. That said, my membership is free thanks to joining the beta back in November 2019…so take my word with a large pinch of salt.
What I Read
So, here’s the list. I’ve loosely grouped them by genre and subject (very arbitrary of course!), but otherwise they’re listed roughly in the order I read them. I’m happy to talk more about any of these, or give specific recommendations.
Novels & Short Stories
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. In between seeing the Greta Gerwig adaptation in theatres twice (!!), I read both the original book and Gerwig’s script. Jo forever!
- Breath by Tim Winton. I have never remotely felt the impulse to go surfing, until I read this book.
- Milkman by Anna Burns. With very little dialogue, so much of my experience as a reader took place inside the main character’s head–a fascinating and unusual read. Thanks to Hilary for lending it.
- Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. Basically a retelling of Blue (Da Ba Dee) except in red. (I’m kidding. It’s a great book.)
- Vox by Christina Dalder. If you liked The Power by Naomi Alderman you might like this.
- I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. Apart from some questionable descriptions of Wellington, I loved this! Specifically I loved the obsessiveness, the form, the style.
- The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion. Very funny and a good treatment of disability politics.
- The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller. Greek myth + smut = a good book.
- Weather by Jenny Offill. I wanted to like this, but I hated it. Authors have responsibilities in relation to the climate crisis (as do we all), and no matter how beautiful the prose is it doesn’t excuse the terrible politics.
- Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. I read this all in one day and on finishing promptly restarted it.
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This is good if you want a light, distracting read.
- Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Hated the characters, (but) enjoyed the book. I expect the AI ethicists I know might have a different opinion, however. Thanks Mum for lending it to me.
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Devastatingly good.
- The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. By now I had worked out that Tim Winton has a small problem with writing women. Gripes aside, this is a gripping read.
- The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. To say “it reminded me of high school” might reveal a lot about my high school experience, but I’ll say it anyway.
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I think I’ll keep reading this book forever.
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Another one for the pool room. It’s interesting to ponder how its ultimately optimistic thesis stands up in current times.
- N-W by Zadie Smith. A strange novel–it feels twisted and contorted. I’d like to re-read this.
- Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith. Like all Ali Smith books, this has deceptively large font and all feels very light going, until it’s not.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I think if I had read this in 2013 I would have loved it and learned quite a lot. As it is, while it holds up as a piece of writing, it feels politically behind the times now. Thanks to Laura for handing it down to me.
- Invisible Power by Phillip Allott. I picked this off the shelf in the law library during my frantic book-borrowing spree 4 hours before libraries closed in March. Technically a novel but really a thinly-veiled lecture–the voluminous footnotes might give it away, perhaps.
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Holy…. crap. This book is a work of genius.
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. This made me want to study English at an East Coast liberal arts college circa 1982.
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. It should have been the sole Booker winner.
- The Accidental by Ali Smith. Amber has such a nerve!! (If you know, you know). I loved the voicing of the different characters.
- The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. The most underrated Donna Tartt book, and Harriett Cleves an overlooked literary heroine.
- Autumn by Ali Smith
- Winter by Ali Smith
- Spring by Ali Smith
- Summer by Ali Smith. I (re-)read these four all in one go, after Summer‘s release. This fourth book is a glorious culmination. Highly recommend all four.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Because I hadn’t had enough of pandemics in real life. Maybe the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read.
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I had a long debate with myself about whether I liked White Teeth or On Beauty more until I figured that’s dumb and I can love them both.
- Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin. I didn’t think I’d be into it because church has never been my jam, but I loved it anyway. Thanks Ellen for lending it.
- The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. Aboriginal futurism, deeply pluralist, very confusing, lots of swans. I read it to challenge myself, and I sure was challenged–in a great way.
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor. While I can’t relate to being a black man in the white spaces of academia, I sure can relate to doing a PhD. And on that point, this book is way too relatable.
- Serpentine by Philip Pullman. Lyra 4 lyfe.
- Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace Dillon. Two words: Space Waka.
- The Invisible Child and the Fir Tree by Tove Jansson. One can never have too many Moomins. Thanks to Lily for this sweet book.
- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Another one that I feel I may have appreciated more if I’d read it in 2010 or so. Thanks to the neighbourhood book-swap.
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Strangely apt for 2020–a nostalgic look back at a time of youth and excess. Another Laura hand-me-down, cheers Laura.
- Slade House by David Mitchell. Deeply creepy. I didn’t think paranormal stories were my thing but I really enjoyed this. Thanks Lily for the book, and to Susannah for getting me onto him.
- How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young. So darn good.
- Mezzanine by Zoe Hitzig. Spiky and odd and vital.
- Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nina Powles. This book made me hungry.
- Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble. Definitely not like any poetry I’d read before.
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Hits you hard.
Journals, Memoirs, Essays, Art
- Journals and Letters of Katherine Mansfield (C.K. Stead ed). A hangover, ironically, from reading as much C.K. Stead as I could get my hands on last Christmas, this book is going straight to the pool room.
- Island Home by Tim Winton. Tim Winton’s writing is grounded in place to an extent unlike any other writer I know. This book (like the three volumes of fiction above) made me want to visit Western Australia.
- On Coming Home by Paula Morris. The question any antipodean abroad encounters with regularity, especially this year: So (when) do you think you’re going home? It’s a tough one to answer, but made a bit less difficult by Paula Morris’ little gem.
- The Bike and Beyond: Life on Two Wheels in Aotearoa New Zealand by Laura Williamson. I love bikes and I loved this book.
- No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. Honestly, if you haven’t read this book yet, what are you even doing? I’d call Boochani the Elie Wiesel of our day, except such compraisons inevitably fall short.
- Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales. Begun in February quite by chance, this foreshadowed the sharp turn life was about to take. Thanks Hillary for the lend.
- How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. Another chance February read, this was the perfect companion to the early days of deep lockdown. Possessing a scope much wider than the title suggests, this book is also about art, birds, ecoregionalism, and architecture.
- The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. In a way, Shepherd and Odell are saying the same thing: know your local area. Shepherd’s is the Cairngorms, and this book is entrancing.
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. While ostensibly written for writers of fiction, many of the lessons equally apply to academic writing.
- London’s Overthrow by China Mieville. On my street, lockdown gave rise to the delightful practice of leaving unwanted books on the brick wall outside the terraces for the neighbours to raid. This short essay, evocative of the austerity and protests of the early 2010s, was one such treasure find.
- Chroma by Derek Jarman
- At Your Own Risk by Derek Jarman
- Modern Nature by Derek Jarman
- Smiling in Slow Motion by Derek Jarman. I inhaled the four Jarmans after a chance trip to Dungeness where we stumbled across Prospect Cottage. What is there even to say? A rare life glimpsed in these tomes.
- Intimations by Zadie Smith. Who else can not only write but release a piece of art during a global pandemic? (Other than Tay-Tay.) Small but perfectly formed.
- Good Reasons for Bad Feelings by Randolph Nesse. I normally take evolutionary biology with a large handful of salt, but this is the most convincing and helpful such account I’ve read. Nesse acknowledges the limits and complementary nature of his approach while making a strong case for its use.
- Azadi: Freedom, Fascism, Fiction by Arundhati Roy.
- Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young. Two words: Big Red.
- Funny Weather by Olivia Laing. I’m not as optimistic as Laing about the power of art to change the world. (There’s no substitute for organising.) But these essays helped me see the world a little differently, and I appreciate that.
- Phosphorescence by Julia Baird. What does it mean to live life well? To some extent that’s a question I’ve been asking across a lot of this reading. This book addresses it more directly than most.
- Nala’s World by Dean Nicholson. This is a wholesome and heartfelt true story about a man and his cat. If you like cats then this book is for you.
- Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. I laughed out loud all the way through this. Cuttingly witty and at times deeply insightful.
- Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb. This book made me want to call my grandmothers. One for all the immigrants, descendants of immigrants, and strong-willed women. With thanks to Moira.
- Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey. Before reading this I had seen precisely one M. McConaughey film, and now I have seen two. An insight into a very interesting mind–perfect for the interregnum between Christmas and the New Year.
- Living Better by Alastair Campbell. I made a jam jar after reading this book (if u know u know).
- Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography of Vita Sackville-West by Jane Brown. An op-shop treasure find. Leaving aside the English fascination with nobility and titles and wealthy landowners, this book inspired me to plant flowers.
Race studies, feminism, critical theory, disability studies
- Old Asian, New Asian by K Emma Ng. Part of the responsibility of being tangata tiriti in Aotearoa New Zealand is to understand anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination.
- New Myths and Old Politics: The Waitangi Tribunal and the Challenge of Tradition by Tipene O’Regan. The man, the legend. This book made me want to learn more about Māori politics.
- “I will not be erased”: Our stories about growing up as people of colour edited by gal-dem. If I had any teenagers in my life I’d want to gift this to them.
- Stammering Pride and Prejudice: Difference not Defect edited by Patrick Campbell et al. Chances are you know someone who stammers–whether you know it or not. Do them a solid by reading this book. Thanks Kaitlin for the loan.
- Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis. Powerful–required reading.
- Mask Off by JJ Bola. Are you a man? Read this book. Are you someone who knows a man? Read this book.
- Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. Still necessary.
- Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks. This too.
- Feminist Theory (2nd ed) by bell hooks. Highly recommend.
- The Geography of Identity by Patricia Yaeger (ed). This was another random panic-borrow, and and thus a fairly random glimpse into the discipline of geography c. 1996, but I ended up really enjoying it.
- Talking Back, Talking Black by bell hooks. More personal than the two titles above, this weaves memoir and critique.
- Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi. Reading this shortly after hooks, Davis, and Lorde was a good move–the threads, continuities, conversations, and legacies are clearly apparent. But reading them the other way around would work well too, if you’re after an accessible introduction to feminism today.
- Decolonising the University edited by Bhambra et al. Quite academic and tough-going in places, but well worth it.
- A Fly Girl’s Guide to University by Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira, and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. One for all students.
- Social Reproduction Theory edited by Tithi Bhattacharya. My first proper taste of social reproduction theory certainly left me wanting more.
- Racism: A Very Short Introduction by Ali Rattansi. As good as a Very Short Introduction can be.
- Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. I learned new things about Britain and slavery in this book.
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. I still got something new out of it upon a re-read.
- A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None by Kathryn Yusoff. So good! So dense! I finished it and then immediately read it again (and hopefully understood more on the second go). I strongly believe that writing accessibly is a political choice, but I almost don’t mind when the writing is as good as this.
Politics, economics, organizing, environment
- The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication by Ruben Pater. I nearly studied graphic design and this book reminded me why.
- A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos. A short and compelling case for a Green New Deal.
- The Case for the Green New Deal by Ann Pettifor. If you’ve ever wondered “how do we pay for climate policy” this book may assist you.
- Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek. This helped me understand the world better.
- We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer. Terrible politics, factually incorrect in places, would not recommend.
- Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. This is a really accessible critique of philanthropy and management consulting, which I’d recommend to anyone wanting to dip their toes into economic/social critique.
- Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. This book talks a big game but do its prescribed solutions live up to its ambitions?
- After Geoengineering by Holly Jean Buck. One of the best books I read this year and certainly one of the most cogent takes on carbon removal and geoengineering on the left.
- Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty. The man sure had a good dataset.
- Our History is the Future by Nick Estes. I’ve seen this recommended widely, and I can only echo the sentiment.
- Politics is for Power by Eitan Hersh. This one can be filed squarely in the “fancy university man discovers what people at the grassroots have always known” category. Nevertheless, it was a timely reminder of what’s important. If you consider yourself “political” and cried when Boris was elected but have never even been canvassing in your life, this is the one for you.
- The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus. I think this book should be way more well-known and widely-read.
- Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu. Who better to critique Silicon Valley than one of its own? Liu’s personal story, which she interweaves with sharp critique in this book, is fascinating and inspiring.
- Economics for the Many by John McDonnell. Quite readable stuff.
- Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Coulthard. One of my favourites of the year, Coulthard is challenging and rigorous.
- No Shortcuts by Jane McAlevey. Jane McAlevey is an absolute queen and this may have been the best thing I read all year. In 2020 I got to go to her organizing school, through UCU, and it was the. best.
- Four Futures by Peter Frase. I found myself with many more questions at the end of the book than when I began it.
- Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici. This book made me consider some things in a new light. I’m now reading more Federici and also diving into the criticism and debate especially regarding the book’s approach to historiography.
- Fake Law by The Secret Barrister. If I were much younger and hadn’t already become a lawyer, this book would inspire me to study law.
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Weaving science and indigenous knowledge into a vital whole, I can already tell I’ll be returning to this book over and over.
- The Right To Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier. SWC is bad-ass. If you want to understand climate change, you have to understand Arctic perspectives.
- Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. Mind-bogglingly great. Along with Swan Talk, maybe the most epistemologically diverse thing I read this year.
- Public Knowledge edited by Emma Johnson. I do love Freerange Press and will always read their books. I found the essays in this volume varied wildly in quality, but overall I’d recommend it.
- emergent strategy by adrienne maree brown. Another one I’ll be re-reading.
- International Status in the Shadow of Empire: Nauru and the Histories of International Law by Cait Storr. Yep, the only international law book I read all the way through was this one. In the process I learned way more about hanseatic trading firms than I ever thought I wanted to know! Anyone interested in the political economy of Nauru should read it.
- Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can by Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti (eds). If you’re going to read only one climate book, make it this one.
- The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry. On re-reading this at the end of the year, I found unexpected resonances with Kimmerer, Odell, and Yunkaporta. What does it mean to know a place, to relate to the land, to live well?
- A Choice of Catastrophes by Isaac Asimov. The OG concerned-scientist summary of all the ways the world could end.
- Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark.
- Our Final Century by Martin Rees. An oldie but a goodie.
- The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell. Nuclear weapons are scary, y’all.
- The Abolition by Jonathan Schell. As above.
- Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing by Phil Torres. A good primer.
- The Precipice by Toby Ord. Also a good primer. It looks a much lengthier read than it is, since half of the book consists of endnotes.
- Global Catastrophic Risk by Bostrom and Circovic (eds). Reading this older volume after the much newer introductions certainly made some parts stand out as outdated.
- The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway. As slim as it is scary. Thanks Ellen for the loan