TOP READS OF 2020

The Best Books I Read in 2020

The fiction and non-fiction that moved me during an unprecedented year.

Betsy Mikel
Jan 15 · 16 min read
PSA: Please support your local bookstore or public library. For audiobooks, Libro.fm is a great option. 

Best memoir

Cover for Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Cover for Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

Heavy shook me. Like really, really shook me because it was so good and complex and beautifully written. Heavy is about a mother-son relationship, but is about so much more.

Best historical fiction

Book cover for Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter.
Book cover for Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

Until this pandemic happened, I did not realize America had already experienced a similar pandemic 100 years ago. I must have missed that part of social studies (or, more likely, I was never taught it). Just as World War I was ending, the deadly 1918 Flu Pandemic whipped through the United States in an eerily similar fashion as it is now.

Best nonfiction

Cover for The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr
Cover for The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr
The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I picked up this book somewhat begrudgingly. It was a non-fiction book on an Important Topic, and I felt I should read it given the subject matter and that I patronize grocery stores more than any other business. It was much more of an enjoyable read than I anticipated. Lorr’s writing is funny, personal, and informative. He weaves in the research and data into people’s personal stories, which I enjoyed. Normally, I find footnotes annoying and tedious. But even his footnotes I looked forward to reading. That isn’t to say it was fun to read and learn about the dark side behind the grocery store supply chain. You will learn sad, depressing things about how the race to the lowest prices on the shelves impacts the livelihoods and health of our fellow humans working hard to bring you that food.

Best historical nonfiction

Book cover for Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Book cover for Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste was one of the top bestsellers of 2020, and for good reason. If the year’s murders of innocent Black people and the recent Capitol mob riots by domestic terrorists have left you wondering How did America get here???, Wilkerson’s engaging and honest writing will serve as helpful context.

Best book of essays

Book cover for Intimations by Zadie Smith
Book cover for Intimations by Zadie Smith
Intimations by Zadie Smith

Intimations by Zadie Smith

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly fell upon us, Zadie Smith immediately began writing about it. I’m so impressed that just a few months later, this book went to press. The volume is slim, but poignant.

Best tech book

Cover for Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang
Cover for Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang
Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang

Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang

I would not have known this book even existed if not for UX Book Club of Chicago. Thanks to the organizers’ excellent and thoughtful curation each month, I end up reading books that expand my perspective and challenge my assumptions about technology. All I knew going into Blockchain Chicken Farm was that it was about technology in rural China.

Best design book

Cover for Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock
Cover for Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock
Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock

Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock

UX Book Club of Chicago introduced me to yet another worthwhile read about how those of us who are design practitioners can approach our work. I learned more about participatory design thanks to Design Justice. Costanza-Chock offers a framework we can use to co-create design with the communities we intend to help.

Best user experience book

Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by by Andy Welfle and Michael J. Metts
Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by by Andy Welfle and Michael J. Metts
Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by by Andy Welfle and Michael J. Metts

Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by by Andy Welfle and Michael J. Metts

Where does writing fit in to tech products and user experience? Everywhere! This book will help you understand how.

Best novel

Cover The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Cover The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Though many were introduced to Elena Ferrante through the “My Brilliant Friend” series, The Lying Life of Adults is the first novel I’ve read from the pseudonymous Italian novelist. It’s a coming of age story about an Italian girl named Giovanna growing into adulthood.

Best writing book

Book cover for The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Book cover for The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Marr Karr wrote about her childhood in The Liars’ Club, which is often heralded as a memoir that pushed the genre forward. Karr went on to become a memoir writing teacher, then wrote The Art of Memoir to share her insight about the memoir writing process more broadly.

Best audiobook

Audiobook cover for The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Audiobook cover for The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, performed by Tom Hanks

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, performed by Tom Hanks

The Dutch House kept me company during a long solo road trip I took to visit family over the summer. Like all Ann Patchett books, it’s about a family. The story focuses mainly on a brother, a sister, their dad, an out-of-the-picture mom, and an evil stepmom. There’s lots of family drama, hurt feelings and grievances, and some resolution. The siblings’ childhood house, a 1922 mansion built by a wealthy Dutch couple in suburban Philadelphia, is a central location for it all to unfold.

Best re-read

Book cover for Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Book cover for Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I do not re-read books often enough because I’m so eager to read new books. There is only so much time, and so many books in the world I have yet to read. However, to quote Kiese Laymon from Heavy, “I learned you haven’t read anything if you’ve only read something once or twice.”

Best hybrid of genres

Image for post
Image for post

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I don’t know what genre to place The Undocumented Americans. It is a memoir? Journalism? Fictionalized non-fiction? It doesn’t really doesn’t matter either way. It’s good.

What about you? What were the best books you read this year?

MY TOP READS OF 2020Best memoir
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Best historical fiction
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
Best nonfiction
The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr
Best historical nonfiction
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Best book of essays
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Best tech book
Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei Wang
Best design book
Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Choc
Best user experience book
Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by by Andy Welfle and Michael J. Metts
Best novel
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Best writing book
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Best audiobook
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, performed by Tom Hanks
Best re-read
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Best hybrid of genres
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

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Betsy Mikel

Written by

Senior Content Designer at Mozilla. I help people make the most of Firefox.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Betsy Mikel

Written by

Senior Content Designer at Mozilla. I help people make the most of Firefox.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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