I read more in 2020 than I ever have before. With all social commitments canceled for the foreseeable future, I turned to books. I read them in all ways. I read paper books, e-books, and audiobooks. I read whatever format I could get my hands on from Chicago Public Library. The pandemic kept going, and I kept reading. According to GoodReads, which I use to track my reading, I read 85 books. This was over double the number I read the previous year. To close out the year, I’m reflecting back on some of the favorites I read in 2020.
PSA: Please support your local bookstore or public library. For audiobooks, Libro.fm is a great option.
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.
Laymon’s writing is lyrical and poetic. I listened to it on audiobook, and the author narrates. Hearing him read his own words heightened my experience of this memoir; he’s an excellent spoken word performer. This excerpt is from the first chapter, which is written as a letter to his mother.
I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie. I did not want to write honestly about black lies, black thighs, black loves, black laughs, black foods, black addictions, black stretch marks, black dollars, black words, black abuses, black blues, black belly buttons, black wins, black beens, black bends, black consent, black parents, or black children. I did not want to write about us. I wanted to write an American memoir. I wanted to write a lie.
The repetition felt like music. It was a revelation to me that stories could be made this way. I listened to the whole first chapter multiple times then got the e-book so I could read his words again myself. Here’s the NPR Review by Martha Anne Toll.
Best historical fiction
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.
I learned about Pale Horse, Pale Rider in a writing class I was taking in early March 2020, before we knew the pandemic was even a pandemic and how bad it would get. Katherine Anne Porter had survived the 1918 flu and written a semi-autobiographical novella about it. It’s the story about a young woman who falls in love with a young soldier who is about to be shipped off. I won’t spoil what happens, though all the reviews and articles about it do, so be careful what you read ahead of time if you choose to pick up this book.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is actually a collection of three novellas, and the other two are not about the flu. All are worth reading. It’s an underground classic, as Alice McDermott presents in Why Libraries Should Stock ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’. ← That review has spoilers!
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.
This book was somewhat validating for me. I shop 80–90 percent at a local grocery store (and note that I can also afford to), and it reinforces my decision to shop as little as possible at Whole Foods and Big Grocery. I also realize that my decision to shop there and publicize it is more about what I hope to demonstrate about my taste and values to everyone else and less about what actually constitutes my own taste and values.
Best historical nonfiction
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.
She doesn’t use “racism” once. America has a caste system, plain and simple. Any potential disruptions to our system of human hierarchy, which threaten the stability and privilege of all higher castes, will be met with extreme resistance on every front. We Americans love to point fingers at those who did not stand up to the Nazi party. Did you know the Nazis used America’s slavery system as their starting guidebook, but even they found it too extreme? Yep.
I found her extended metaphor comparing caste in America to old houses illuminating. This except is from her New York Times piece America’s Enduring Caste System, which she adapted from the book:
America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.
We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.
And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.
Best book of essays
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.
While we were all struggling to make sense of what was happening, Smith put words to paper and explored those big, looming questions in a way that made sense to me. That’s not to say that she wraps things in a tidy bow and provides answers. However reading Intimations did make me feel like we were all going through this together. It also felt like a rallying cry. Are we OK with this? Will we watch our scotch-taped together systems fail and just shrug our shoulders, fingers crossed that life goes “back to normal” soon? Or will we finally realize that normal was never that good to begin with for many, many people?
2020 drastically pulled back the already-thin veil between the have and the have-nots. Intimations challenges us to move beyond discomfort and do something about it. Smith’s slice-of-life stories, observations, and provocations stayed with me, long after I finished this book of essays.
Best tech book
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.
From blockchain chicken to harvesting pearls to surveillance state, Wang takes readers on a journey that will make you view China in a completely different way. They ask provocative questions and weave in historical context along the way. Wang’s writing blends philosophy, autobiography, history, and journalism. They pull it off beautifully by telling slice-of-life stories about people living, surviving, and in many cases thriving in rural China as they creatively leverage technology.
I also loved how Wang challenges the good/bad binary around tech.
“Why are you here?” I am here because looking at technology in rural China, in places that produce the technology we use, places that show how globally entangled we are with one another, allows me to confront the scarier question that technology poses: What does it mean to live, to be human right now? Looking at tech in rural China forced me to examine the ideologies that drive engineers and companies to build everything from AI farming systems and blockchain food projects to shopping sites and payment platforms. These assumptions about humans and the way the world should work are more powerful than sheer technical curiosity in driving the creation of new technologies and platforms. Embedded in these tools are their makers’ and builders’ assumptions about what humans need, and how humans should interact. It is not enough to critique these assumptions, because in simply critiquing, we remain caught in the long list of binaries: Tech is dehumanizing, tech brings liberation. Tech dragged the world into the mess it’s in, tech frees it from this mess. Tech creates isolation, tech connects marginalized communities. The difficult work that we face is to live and thrive beyond binaries and assumptions, and to aid and enable others to do so.
Best design book
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.
One frustration I have with many design industry books is that they are quick to highlight problematic case studies of design gone wrong, but don’t often offer practical actions you can take as someone who “does” design for work and would like to avoid those pitfalls. Design Justice does offer much practical direction. I walked away with a better understanding of how I can begin to evolve my own design practice to be not only more inclusive and participatory, but also to challenge structural inequalities. Design Justice felt like a call to action for designers to dismantle white supremacist systems from inside out.
Costanza-Chock challenges us to see ourselves as facilitators rather than experts.
Instead, design justice compels us to begin by listening to community organizers, learning what they are working on, and asking what the most useful focus of design efforts would be. In this way, design processes can be community-led, rather than designer-or funder-led. Another way to put this might be: “Don’t start by building a new table; start by coming to the table.”
Best user experience book
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.
You need not be a writerly person to benefit from reading Writing is Designing. I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the role that words play in product development. When content designers collaborate early with product managers, researchers, and designers, the end result is a more holistic product experience that’s clear and usable. If you’re a content strategist, content designer, or UX writer, Writing Is Designing will help you frame your practice to your peers and be more impactful at work.
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.
For me, coming of age stories never get old. It is the period of life when you begin to realize the adults around you are imperfect. I was particularly hooked by the evolution of Giovanna’s relationship with her father. You could say that they’re both complicated characters, but isn’t every human? The Lying Life of Adults reminded me of why I so enjoy reading fiction. It helps me make sense of people. Which is nonsensical, because people don’t often make sense.
What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to utterly worthless animals, worse than reptiles?
Best writing book
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.
As I wrestled through my own memoir writing journey, this book felt like a practical guidebook for how to approach what is a completely baffling process. How does one write about one’s life? Karr walks readers through how she did it and includes plenty of references to other memoir writers along the way.
One of the biggest takeaways of this book was about how emotionally taxing this work can be. Here’s one passage that I keep returning to over and over.
In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right. Sure, there’s the pleasure of doing work guaranteed to engage you emotionally — who’s indifferent to their own history? The form always has profound psychological consequence on its author. It can’t not. What project can match for that? Plus you get to hang out with folks no longer on this side of the grass. Places and times you may have for decades ached after wind up erecting themselves around you as you work.
But nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved. When I’m trying to edit or coach somebody through one, I usually wind up feeling like the mean sergeant played by Tom Berenger in Platoon. He’s leaning over a screaming soldier whose guts are extruding, and in a husky whisper, Berenger says through gritted teeth, “Take the pain,” till the guy shuts up and mechanically starts stuffing his guts back in.
No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self — your neat analyses and excuses. One not-really-a-joke saying in my family is, “The trouble started when you hit me back.” Your small pieties and impenetrable, mostly unconscious poses invariably trip you up.
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.
Tom Hanks as the narrator was just a real treat. It made the miles fly by. I tried to find other books performed by Tom Hanks, but it’s not a regular gig for him. Which made this one all that more special.
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.”
One of the few books I re-read this year was Lord of the Flies, which always holds up no matter what age I am or what’s going on in the world. The book is rife with metaphor. While we all sit stranded in this on this island (the pandemic), will we come together to prevail together as a collective group (team Ralph), or will we put our faith in the power of the hunter ruling class (team Jack)? “Maybe there is a beast… Maybe it’s only us.”
I’m sure Golding would recoil at this over-simplification of his novel. I can’t help but make these parallels though given the ongoing months of disastrous response to the pandemic in the United States.
Best hybrid of genres
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.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was one of the first DACA recipients to be accepted at Harvard. When she wrote a New York Times op-ed in the wake of the 2016 election, she received multiple book offers. She turned them all down until she was ready to write the book she wanted to write. Villavicencio didn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of the model DREAMer. Instead she wanted to write the stories of the lives of the undocumented — everyday people who are just trying to make it in this world and make good lives for themselves and their families. Here’s how she explains The Undocumented Americans in her own words.
Maybe you won’t like it. I didn’t write it for you to like it. And I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMERers. There are commendable young people, and I truly owe them my life. But they occupy outsize attention in our politics. I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, house keepers, construction workers, dog walkers, delivery men, people who don’t inspire hashtags or t-shirts. But I wanted to learn about them as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs. This book is for everybody who wants to step away from the buzzwords in immigration, the talking heads, the kids in graduation caps and gowns, and read about the people underground. Not heroes. Randoms. People. Characters.
For The Undocumented Americans, Villavicencio interviewed undocumented people but changed their names and made modifications to their stories to maintain their anonymity. She also writes about her own story throughout the book. I expected the book to be focused only on others’ stories, and was surprised and impressed by how Villavicencio weaved in her own experiences as an undocumented American.
What about you? What were the best books you read this year?
MY TOP READS OF 2020Best memoir
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese LaymonBest historical fiction
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne PorterBest nonfiction
The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin LorrBest historical nonfiction
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel WilkersonBest book of essays
Intimations by Zadie SmithBest tech book
Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside by Xiaowei WangBest design book
Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-ChocBest user experience book
Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by by Andy Welfle and Michael J. MettsBest novel
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena FerranteBest writing book
The Art of Memoir by Mary KarrBest audiobook
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, performed by Tom HanksBest re-read
Lord of the Flies by William GoldingBest hybrid of genres
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio