10 Books That Made 2020 Bearable
From Beloved to A Theory of Justice — and everything in between.
This year sucked. So I read — to forget the mess we are in, the mess we made while trying to get out, and the mess that is surely yet to come. Some of the 58 books I read in 2020 also sucked. Candide by Voltaire was ridiculous, and not in the positive sense of the word. The most fun I had while reading the widely-acclaimed classical parody was when it finally ended. Startide Rising by David Brin has the dubious honour of being the only book I have ever thrown away. I developed a six-pack from all the cringing, and the juvenile fantasies of masturbating dolphins will remain forever etched into my brain.
But I also read books that changed my mind, broke my heart, and, most importantly, induced temporary amnesia — I wouldn’t have survived 2020 otherwise. Here are my ten¹ favourites.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Dark, supernatural, unforgiving and unforgivable. The horror of slavery expressed so eloquently, every sentence hurting like I’ve never hurt before. Slavery is unknowable except to those who were enslaved. But Beloved gave me a glimpse, and that glimpse will haunt me forever.
Beautifully written, freely flowing, poetic… and gut-wrenching.
She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
What a story. Yes, it’s about a boy who’d like to kiss a girl… Any girl. But it’s also about being a nerd and an aspiring writer and a horny adolescent. It’s about being disastrously overweight and pathologically shy and yet unquestionably Dominican. And it’s about being cursed. Cursed like your sister, your mother, your mother’s mother. Cursed like the Dominican Republic, crumbling under the weight of Rafael Trujillo, a savage, cruel dictator.
A tragic family history, the legend of fukú, atrocities committed by Trujillo, Dungeons & Dragons, an attempted suicide, cussing as an art form — these are the pieces that make the short, calamitous, wondrous life story of Oscar Wao.
- Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.
- But your yourself sucks!
- It is, lamentably, all I have.
But the real magic is in the words. Arranged so beautifully I’d stop reading just to repeat a sentence out loud, to hear it, to memorise² it.
She was the kind of girlfriend God gives you young, so you’ll know loss the rest of your life.
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Why are some nations rich, while others remain poor? There is more than one way to answer that question, but few as fascinating as the theory of guns, germs and steel. In short, the key is geography.
The story begins 13,000 years ago as the latest ice age recedes and climate warms. Humans start domesticating wild animals and plants, but only in regions that are suitably endowed. Hunter-gatherers in the “lucky” locations settle, develop agriculture, writing, religion, and government. Technological improvements lead to more and better guns, and faster transport. Exposure to domesticated animals provides immunity to a wide range of pathogens.
In one of the many struggles between unequal civilisations, it took Hernán Cortés and his 500 men less than two years to conquer the Aztec empire. The Spaniards had ships, cannons, and horses. But the most important weapon Cortés (unknowingly) wielded was germs. Cortés killed Moctezuma, smallpox decimated the rest of the indigenous population. Diamond explains how this — and other — annihilations came about.
The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Powerful and terrifying. The “greater good” justifies all horrors in a society built on institutionalised mistrust, state-sanctioned racism, forced labour-cum-death penalty, and systemic rape. Beautiful prose, breathtaking story.
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
Sometimes I catch glimpses of Gilead when I look around.
The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.
Sometimes I catch glimpses of Gilead when I look inside myself.
I feel like the word shatter.
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman
“A broken man walks on stage and makes jokes for 194 pages”, rather accurately summarises The New York Times. Bizarre, tragic, weird, infuriating, Jewish, heart-breaking. Sometimes funny. Often baffling. The Israeli society, seen through the lens of the last act.
- I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterward tell me.
- Tell you what?
- What you saw.
I didn’t exactly love the book. I have a nagging feeling I didn’t understand 99% of the allusions, 95% of the references, and some 90% of the jokes. My only context is that I’ve been to Israel once. And yet the book tore my heart to tiny pieces. A year later, I still find myself thinking about it.
Man plans, God fucks him.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lyrical and rhythmical, words so achingly beautiful you want to taste them, feel them on your tongue, roll them in your mouth.
The story so terrifying every page hurts. I long to read it again, and yet the very thought of reading it again makes me sick.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Imagine this… the prayer to Lolita… read by Jeremy Irons, his deep, quiet voice reverberating throughout your body. It’s wonderful and terrible and I hate it, and love it, and hate it. And love it.
Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Some people are die-hard fans of Taylor Swift. The person I’d die to meet (and then be too flustered to introduce myself to) is Esther Duflo. A French-American economist, Duflo is only the second woman and the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. She is, of course, extraordinarily intelligent. But she is also passionate, candid, and humble. And she is a remarkable writer — Poor Economics is a captivating book.
Poor Economics (co-written by another rockstar economist Abhijit V. Banerjee) advocates using evidence-based interventions to address poverty. Development should not be about upending deeply rooted institutions; nor should it be about letting markets “do their thing”. Instead, development should be about understanding the lives of the people who are poor, and about finding solutions that work in their particular contexts.
This book is, in a sense, just an invitation to look more closely. If we resist the kind of lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of general principles; if we listen to poor people themselves and force ourselves to understand the logic of their choices; if we accept the possibility of error and subject every idea, including the most apparently commonsensical ones, to rigorous empirical testing, then we will be able not only to construct a toolbox of effective policies but also to better understand why the poor live the way they do. Armed with this patient understanding, we can identify the poverty traps where they really are and know which tools we need to give the poor to help them get out of them.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
I’ve read a fair few books about the Holocaust. I’ve visited museums and exhibitions. I’ve walked around Nazi concentration camps in Germany. The memory of the genocide fills me with shame. I know I wasn’t there. But my forefathers were. In Lithuania, 95% of the Jews were massacred, many murdered with the help of the locals. Today, we remember our pain under the brutal Soviet regime. And yet we feign ignorance when the conversation turns to the Holocaust.
Germany, on the other hand, has been grappling with its terrible past for years. Thomas Mann once said:
For anyone who was born a German does have something in common with German destiny and German guilt.
The Reader is not a usual book about the Holocaust. It’s not a story of a survivor. Instead, it’s a story of a perpetrator, of collective guilt, of… love. It complicates things. It’s easy to blame the soulless SS guards in The Tattooist of Auschwitz³. In The Reader, it’s easy to see how you could become one yourself.
I… I mean… so what would you have done?
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Nothing really happens in The Remains of the Day. An elderly butler takes time off — for the first time in his life-long career — to visit an old friend. The people he meets are kind, the English scenery beautiful, the weather lovely.
And yet during these five days on the road, Mr Stevens reconsiders his entire life. His former employer, Lord Darlington, was an aristocrat who supported the Nazis. His father, also a butler, was a “professional” even when alone with his son. The housekeeper, Miss Kenton, left after Mr Stevens refused to admit his feelings for her. With every such memory, the protagonist — who is also the narrator — engages in the most elaborate self-deceptions; anything to avoid feeling.
And then in one sentence, Ishiguro delivers the conclusion. Characteristically, that conclusion is in the words not uttered. The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece.
Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński
Binyavanga Wainaina told us how to write about Africa: use words such as “shadow” or “sun” in your title; treat Africa as if it were a country; always include The Starving African.
He must have read The Shadow of the Sun.
And yet to me, The Shadow of the Sun is not one of those stereotypical books about “the dark continent”.
The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, we can say “Africa”. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.
Rather, it’s a diary of a Polish journalist who had little cash and an irresistible desire to travel. A Polish journalist who was adventurous, cunning, and incredibly gifted. I have only been to one country in Africa, yet through his stories, I’ve wandered the streets of Accra, witnessed a coup d’état in Nigeria, and even got lost in Serengeti on my way to celebrate Uganda’s independence.
It’s all improbable, incredible. As if one were witnessing the birth of the world, that precise moment when the earth and sky already exist, as do water, plants, and wild animals, but not yet Adam and Eve.
A Theory of Justice by John Rawls
It was a difficult read. In a way, words are the basic elements of philosophy. Misunderstand one, and the whole theory goes. But Rawls is worth the effort of reading slowly, attentively, and repeatedly. If you do, it might just change your life. Let me explain.
A few years ago I embarked on a soul-searching journey. I was looking for a language to help me express what I knew was right and wrong. I started from Adam and Eve, so to speak: Aristotle. Then came John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Peter Singer. Utilitarianism (“the greatest amount of good for the greatest number”) appealed to me, but I soon realised that the theory had some gaping holes (most importantly, inequality being morally acceptable). Kant offered something much closer to my understanding of good and bad (“act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”). Then Rawls blew my mind.
I can’t do justice to Rawls in a few sentences, but consider the following thought experiment where…
…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.
Behind this veil of ignorance, principles of justice are chosen. Mind. Blown.
10 Books That Swept Me Off My Feet in 2019
From Atlas Shrugged to Speaker for the Dead — and everything in between.
² Among my favourites is grab a muchacha, y metéselo. I know I made my Spanish-speaking sister proud.
³ Book very much not recommended.