There is no getting around the fact that 2020 was a hard year — for all of us. That includes the obvious pains and griefs associated with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, but it also includes the pains and griefs that went unnoticed. The ones that our disconnected, virtual environments did not allow us to share with the people we otherwise would have.
As I share my yearly recap of the books I read, I’d like to say that reading was an oasis for me in the hard times that came in 2020. Sometimes, it was. But there were also large swaths of the year where I didn’t read. Where I wasn’t productive. Where sometimes it was all I could do to just get out of bed in the morning.
Posts like these can often take on a “look at what I achieved” feel. There are people who read far more than I did this year, and there are those that read less. After finally reaching my goal of 20 books last year, I set out to read 24 books in 2020. I achieved that. But as I look back on the experience, the number itself and even achieving the goal aren’t the highlights.
What I’d rather like to do with this post is tell you that my year ran the gamut, as I’m assuming yours did too. I want to say that’s okay. And I want to encourage you, as much as it may feel contrary now that we are finally in 2021, to take stock of the journey you went on this year. Appreciate those that helped you on your journey. And refresh yourself as we go into a new year.
For me, when it comes to reading, the big impact of 2020 was that I joined a book club with some of my friends from college. It was one of the most encouraging and sustaining experiences I had throughout this difficult year. Over the summer, I joined a second book club that was a 10-week discussion group that opened me up to a new group of friends and become one of the most formative experiences for my thinking and the way in which I engage with the community around me.
So while I achieved the goal I set out for at the beginning of 2020 — to read 24 books — there were many ups and downs along the way. I finished my 24th book at about 9:00 p.m. on December 31, and for much of the final month of the year I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.
And even more than the number, it’s the ways in which my reading helped mold and form me in a year that was so trying that will be my lasting takeaway from this experience. So, without further ado, here are the 24 books I read in 2020…
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans will always be one of my favorite writers. Her death in 2019 came on the heels of the death of my grandmother. It was a time of deep mourning for two women who had spoken into my life in profound ways. I met Rachel one time when she spoke at Notre Dame. She was so kind and generous, and it will be an interaction I’ll always cherish.
This book came to me at a specific time, as it almost feels every book does. This, however, was somehow different. Her story of finding new ways to love and engage with the church helped me process my own story.
I grew up in a similarly fundamental, Christian setting. However, my parents always instilled in me the idea that we shouldn’t just take the things we’re taught at face value. Those teachings should be tested and considered. So, as I grew up, I began to shed many of the fundamental teachings I had been given. In my adult life, I have found my faith in God to be much deeper and far-reaching than the kind of faith that was clutched tightly by the teachers of my youth.
Yet, in that same moment, I can bring myself to a major pitfall. If I’m not careful, I can begin to loathe the people who taught me. I can begin to see them as something other than the brothers and sisters in Christ that they are. This notion of continuing to love the people that still hold views that I have grown out of would become a defining trend for me in 2020.
Rachel’s love for the church that, at times, caused her pain is so moving. This book has many treasures, and I’m glad that I finally got around to reading it.
This notion of continuing to love the people that still hold views that I have grown out of would become a defining trend for me in 2020.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
This book was loaned to me by my boss, Jeannine. I finished it on my last day at that particular job — one full of a whirlwind of emotions. Seasons change, and so do seasons of life. I was entering a new one at that time, while processing the fullness of my gratitude for the season I was about to leave.
I really enjoyed this book, particularly for the relationship between its two main characters — Captain Kidd and Johanna. Captain Kidd reminded me a little bit of Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, which is high praise. This is another in the long line of great western stories. The western provides this expansive space for anything to happen, and so much does in this book.
But it was that central relationship that enthralled me, between a gritty captain and a young Indian orphan. Their relationship jumps off the page and fills the book (especially the ending) with a great deal of emotion.
As I said, I had my own flurry of emotions going on as I finished this book. But it really was helpful in processing all that I was feeling and helping me set out on my new journey.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Philip Roth was a genius. I knew that much after I read American Pastoral. When I finished that book, I knew I wanted to read more from this great author. Portnoy’s Complaint was another work of his about which I had heard some discussion. I heard enough to know that it might not be the easiest read. I was a little nervous to try it out. But one day, I found it at a local independent bookstore and decided to purchase it.
I was nervous because — from what I had heard — I thought its sexual elements might be too graphic. American Pastoral had just enough of this type of content in it to make me a little reticent to read another book from Roth for which that type of writing was what made it famous.
I deal with this sometimes when I watch movies. I’m a big movie buff, and there are some films and some directors that play faster and looser with sexual content than others. I try to be very careful with this, because I believe that sex is something very intimate. It’s a God-given aspect of life that is not meant to be shared wantonly.
Yet, it is an aspect of life. As such, art should be allowed to engage with it and inspect it. I just prefer art that is careful in how it does this rather than just displaying sex — either on the screen or on the page — for the sheer graphic titillation of it.
Roth, as an artist, is clearly interested in plumbing the depths of his own internal thoughts about sex. Portnoy’s Complaint puts those internal thoughts out there for all to see.
As such, I wouldn’t recommend it freely. However, I will say that my experience reading it left me with the confirmation that, despite some of its more graphic descriptions, the book is not interested in mere sexual display. Its interest is rather in looking inward at what drives these urges. Its focus is not the sex but the human nature beneath it. Again, that type of book may not be for everyone. But I came to the book resigned to the fact that I might have to stop reading it if it was only a debasing influence.
I finished reading the entire thing because I found it to be an insightful influence instead.
The Art of Client Service by Robert Solomon
I started a new job this year. It’s still in the marketing/advertising field, just at a different agency. When I started, I was giving the assignment of reading this book and taking notes to be given to my supervisor for review. This was the first time since college that I had read for an assignment. At first, I thought that might be constricting, but it ended up being a great experience.
This book really outlined the key aspects of working as account person in the advertising/marketing space in a powerful way. Solomon brings his wealth of experience to bear by walking through the basics and the differentiating factors of what makes a great account person.
For me, what it did was unlock aspects of the business that I can hold onto. I like connecting people, and this is a great job for that. You connect the agency and the client. You connect the creative team with the client’s strategy. You connect internal and external teams. You as the account person are the connecting factor in each situation.
I really enjoyed this book, and I even enjoyed the experience of taking notes while reading. It slowed me down a bit, but it helped me capture what stood out to me. That helped me as I went back and reviewed the experience.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
This year, I also joined a book club that some of my friends had started the year before. The first book discussion I joined in on was for American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
The fantasy genre is what first started my love for reading. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings series were some of the first books I remember loving.
Gaiman has a great grasp of the fantasy genre, and he uses it to strong purposes here. I do have to admit, though, that the experience as a whole for me was lukewarm. I struggled with the main character, and large stretches of the book felt like the story didn’t have a strong foundation to it.
But then there are scenes that Gaiman writes that snap you right back into the story. So I had this sort of up and down journey with it.
What helped more than anything was having a group of friends to discuss the book with. I really enjoyed the book club experience, even if this first book wasn’t one of my absolute favorites.
1776 by David McCullough
Here was another one that I read for book club. I may not have gravitated to this one had I not been a part of the book club, which is one of the joys of that practice. You get to experience new books with your friends!
It’s not that I don’t find the topic interesting. In fact, history is one of the most fascinating topics to me, particularly the American Revolution. It’s just that this book hadn’t been on my radar. I’m glad that I ended up reading it, because it had some fascinating insights into this key time for America.
For one thing, I had never thought of the American Revolution from the perspective of the British, which is where the book begins. It’s fascinating to consider the polarized reactions across the pond as the beginnings of the revolution came to pass.
The book tends to focus on the daily choices and happenings that shaped the year 1776. Some of this can get monotonous, but for the most part I appreciated this aspect of the book. It really showed how small, daily actions had major importance. When you consider that the entirety of American history came down to the choices of a few people in this year, it becomes even more fascinating.
Lent for Non-Lent People by Jon Swanson
This is a book that I read every year, and it always has new joys for me. It has become a rhythm in my life every year to practice Lent. By that I mean, taking the 40 days prior to Easter to prepare myself by giving up something that will help me place a greater focus on my relationship with God and reflect more fully on the meaning of Easter.
This year, I decided to give up worry. This was a very difficult thing for me to try. Who am I kidding? It’s difficult for everybody. We all worry! But then, 2020 has given us all a little bit more to worry about on top of that.
It’s for that exact reason that I’m so glad I went through this process for Lent.
Jon’s writing helped refocus and re-center me. He has such a fantastic gift for clarity. It helped me give myself small reminders to give God my worry. Was I perfect? Of course not! But amid all the chaos that COVID-19 brought, it was so helpful to take pauses throughout the day to pray and release my worry to my heavenly Father.
If it wasn’t clear by now, let me spell it out — I’ll be reading Lent for Non-Lent People every year at this time.
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Our next book club book was the beginning of this trilogy by the great author, C.S. Lewis. One thing I love about his writing is that many of his stories begin with the ordinary and move to the fantastic — as if the dream worlds are right next to us when we do our laundry.
C.S. Lewis may not be the first writer that comes to mind for sci-fi, but it’s amazing that he wrote this in the 30’s before many of the sci-fi stories that we now take for granted. It’s also fascinating to consider what people thought about outer space and the other planets in our solar system prior to the growth of space exploration later in the 20th century.
This book has many theological details — something to be expected from Lewis. It also has the author’s trademark writing style where he brings heady subjects and reframes them using beautiful writing.
As I read this book, I couldn’t help but think about one of my favorite movies — Contact, starring Jodie Foster. There, too, you have someone who goes on an interstellar voyage only to come back and struggle with how to explain it.
I had read this book when I was much younger, but it was fascinating to revisit. And I never finished the trilogy before, so it led me into two more books by Lewis.
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
The next of those books was Perelandra. As I said before, one thing I love about C.S. Lewis is his ability to make clever analogies that completely re-contextualize a complex subject for you.
This was another book club book, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss it with my friends. It doubles down on the sci-fi elements of the first book, but it also contains more philosophical content. Some of that goes overboard, especially in sections where the two main characters have one-on-one arguments. But then, it rises to an incredible finish.
The climax of this book is some of Lewis’ most beautiful writing, in my opinion. It reminded me of the biblical book of Job, where the book ends with God expanding Job’s perspective by explaining to him the formations of the universe.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
This novel was loaned to me by a coworker because I mentioned that I love Cormac McCarthy’s novels and he thought I’d also enjoy this. He was absolutely right!
One of my favorite ways to engage with art is to find a favorite artist and then to go and explore the art that informed or inspired them. Here, I did that in a bit of a roundabout way. Since Cormac McCarthy doesn’t do many interviews, I don’t know for certain that Graham Greene was an influence on his writing. However, countless people have drawn the comparisons, and there are clear similarities in their writing styles.
I really appreciated the setting and the infusion of religious elements in this book. Those are two of the main reasons I love McCarthy, so it’s no surprise I liked them here too.
This was my first interaction with one of Greene’s novels, but I was already a fan of his writing due to his screenplay for the classic film The Third Man. After reading this, I’m excited to engage more with his works in whatever form I can find them.
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
This was the final book in the trilogy, and it was also one we discussed in book club. It took me a while to get started, but then I flew through it in a weekend.
This book doesn’t contain as much sci-fi as the first two, as it takes place completely on earth. However, it still has many profound things to say — particularly about marriage.
The book also seems to have been written with the impacts of World War II and the rise of Nazism completely in view. There is an evil organization in the book that helps the reader consider how such a group can grow amid “normal” human beings.
Lewis was an absolute genius, and even in the sections of this book that falter somewhat, there are nuggets of truth. He will always be one of my favorite writers.
Better by Atul Gawande
This was such a fascinating read. Written by a man who is both an incredible surgeon and and incredible writer, this book impressed upon me the importance of simple changes.
In a field like medicine, you often think that large-scale technological advancements are what drive medical practice into a greater future. But, looking back at the history of medicine, it has often been people focusing on simple changes that has made the greatest impact.
Finding ways to get surgeons to more carefully wash their hands is one example from the book, but there are many. In this way, it is a book for people in an any profession — not just surgeons. All of us can learn from taking a renewed focus on the aspects of our job that seem small or simple. Doing those things well time and time again can help us grow and improve.
But, looking back at the history of medicine, it has often been people focusing on simple changes that has made the greatest impact.
Put another way — they help us get better.
Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland
This was one of my favorite experiences in a long time. A friend of mine put a discussion group together around this book. We came from all walks of life. We had varying beliefs and experiences. But we came together for 10 weeks to read this book and discuss it.
First — about the book. It’s incredibly insightful, and Cleveland brings a unique social science perspective on the differences we find between different denominations and faith groups.
The discussion group impacted me in countless ways, and I’m still realizing ways in which this group helped shape me. One key takeaway was — when dealing with fellow people of faith — I must always keep that shared identity in the forefront of my mind. Even if we disagree on certain issues, it doesn’t change the unity we share on a higher level.
That’s not meant to cover over differences, mind you. But it’s to create a safe place to work through them. I am still growing in my capacity for acting this way.
That’s not meant to cover over differences, mind you. But it’s to create a safe place to work through them.
This was a continuation of the trend that began with my very first read of 2020 — to love those who think differently than I do.
How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Wow. Talk about impacting my thinking. This book rocked me. It flowed with a lot of the thinking and personal growth I’ve been experiencing over the last couple years, but it took things to a new level.
I read this group for book club, and it was great to discuss it with friends. I loved how Kendi always brought things back to definitions. Each chapter begins with a definition so we have a shared starting point. Especially when it comes to race issues, that’s an extremely helpful practice.
I found Kendi to be quite even-handed. It reminded me of how Spike Lee — one of my favorite directors — often gets described as a firebrand of sorts. Yet, when you watch his films, he often allows all characters to say their piece. Kendi comes at race issues from all sides here and helps us find the path forward.
Another defining aspect of this book for me was how it transitions from thinking of “racist” as a pejorative and moves to seeing that word as descriptive. Any of us can be racist in a given moment, either out of ignorance or hate. But that’s not an end point. We can choose to grow and learn and become anti-racist in the next moment.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
The next book club book was this best-selling fantasy novel. I have since come to realize that it is a beloved work in the genre, but I was completely unaware of it prior to it getting chosen as our book club book. That was one of the unique joys of being in a book club — I read some books that I otherwise would never have even known.
This was the longest book I read all year. I flew through the early sections in a weekend, but then I stagnated. The world that Lynch builds truly is immersive, but — I must say — I felt the writing often got sidetracked and pulled me away from some of the more interesting characters and stories.
Fantasy is the genre that began my love for reading, but since my childhood I honestly haven’t read much in the genre outside of re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While I struggled getting through this one a bit, it really was fun to dive back into this genre. I’d like to do it again soon.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek is one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to business and leadership. I’ve always enjoyed his Start with Why Ted Talk. As a millennial, this book impacted me in unique ways.
First and foremost, I appreciate the focus on service when it comes to leadership. Too often we see it as a power game. A dog eat dog world. True leadership has humility too. It involves caring about people not just about the bottom line. That was my big takeaway from this book. And, as I move forward in my career and begin to take on more responsibility and leadership, I hope to keep that focus on people.
As a millennial, I must say, I didn’t care as much for the sections of this book devoted to generational distinctions. So much of the book is well-supported — especially the sections on the bodily chemicals that help form our decisions — but the generalizations on boomers and millennials alike felt a bit stale and worn out.
But overall, this was a fascinating read that really made me think about how I engage with the working world.
True leadership has humility too.
Saint John of the Mall by Jon Swanson
Here is the 2nd book by Jon Swanson that has become and annual read for me. With everything going on in my life, I actually forgot to start reading this on December 1 as normal. So later in the month, I did a bit of binge read to catch up before Christmas.
Because of this, I read through much of the Book of John in the Bible right before Christmas. Each day’s reading has an excerpt from John to go along with it. It was fascinating to read these stories in straight succession and see things pop out of the biblical story that I hadn’t quite caught before.
For instance, in John 6, Jesus goes from one of his most visible miracles (feeding the 5000) all the way to seeing many of His followers leave him after hearing difficult teachings from Him. In between, He walks on water. It’s fascinating to read these stories in straight succession and to read the accompanying story of Saint John of the Mall.
Jon Swanson is a fantastic writer, and his words have made a massive impact on my life. As 2020 came to a close, this book helped me refocus on the teachings of Christ and their application to my life.
Youth; Heart of Darkness; Amy Foster; and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
I read these four works by Joseph Conrad mainly to engage with the source material for one of my favorite films — Apocalypse Now. But what I ended up finding was a writer with a keen awareness of human nature. The darkness of it, yes, but also just the way we make choices and hide things.
Of the four stories, Youth was my least favorite. I must admit, part of that was probably my anticipation of getting to Heart of Darkness. I will say though that, Youth, has some very interesting parallels to Conrad’s own life.
Then I got to Heart of Darkness, and it did not disappoint. The story of going ever deeper into the jungle certainly had a profound impact on Apocalypse Now — one of the great works of art of the 21st Century. However, it was not a particularly direct adaptation. Still seeing how the character of Kurtz was originally portrayed is fascinating. This book has a unique perspective of the darkness of the human psyche and the lengths to which we will go.
The final two short stories gave me two of my most pleasant reading surprises of the year. Amy Foster is a short story with fascinating characterization. Again, Conrad’s understanding of human nature helps him create striking characters that really stick with you.
But my favorite story of the bunch, even more than Heart of Darkness, was The Secret Sharer. Using the claustrophobic quality of a ship out at sea, Conrad builds this captivating tale of a man who swims up to a ship out of the blue and causes worry and doubt for the ship’s captain.
Culture Making by Andy Crouch
This book became an instant favorite. I resonated with it on so many levels. I’ve often felt, growing up in a conservative, Christian environment, that the evangelical relationship to culture at large is out of whack. This book resets that discussion. In that way, it is a literary connector with H. Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work Christ and Culture. In my mind, however, Crouch goes beyond Niebuhr’s work by making the assertion that engaging with culture is not as important as actively making cultural artifacts.
This was such a refreshing look at culture from a Christian writer. Will there be some aspects of culture from which Christians will feel they must abstain? Absolutely. But this notion that we must try to completely pull away from culture is such a destructive idea. In fact, Crouch makes the claim that you can’t even do it if you try. Culture is immersive. We engage with it whether we want to or not. So, the path forward is to actively create culture.
Oh, by the way, this doesn’t mean that we just copy culture and make it a “Christian” version. I’ve written before about my disdain for the “preaching to the choir” vibe of movies like God’s Not Dead. No, we need Christians that will thoughtfully engage with culture and create new culture artifacts that speak to the wonder of God’s creation.
So, the path forward is to actively create culture.
One of the foremost teachings in Christianity is that we are made in God’s image. He is the Creator God. We are then imbued with creativity.
We should use it, not run from it.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I finally got my chance to pick the book for book club, and I went with this classic from my favorite author. This was my second time reading the novel, and it impacted me even more this time.
We actually haven’t had our book club discussion on this one yet, but I couldn’t help reading it all the way through. I was also running against the clock to hit my reading goal, but even if I hadn’t been — this is a hard novel to put down.
At the same time, it’s a hard read. For me, that’s the paradox of this book. It is grotesquely violent at times, and yet the writing is so spectacular that you can’t stop reading. McCarthy is my favorite writer. He’s one of the greatest writers to ever live. His prose is lyrical, and that’s the thing for me. People talk about his novels as “bleak” but the writing brings out the spiritual and the ethereal. The bleakness is the surface level, and that’s true to life, to me. Especially in 2020, it’s easy to see the difficulties of life.
But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the horror is only on the surface. There’s another plane where the beauty resides. Sometimes the horror is all we can see, and this book is quite horrific at times. It depicts the logical endpoint of the violence in the Western genre and forces us to consider the very nature of violence. And yet, McCarthy’s writing goes beyond all that. As I said, it’s very spiritual. I see more than just violence when I read this book.
But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the horror is only on the surface.
In that way, this was a powerful book to read as the year came to a close. I’m very much looking forward to discussing this one with the group in the new year!
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
I finished Blood Meridian about 10 minutes before finishing this one. In fact, I spent most of December 31 reading these two books. What a way to finish the year — reading my two favorite authors. This is the third in Marilynne Robinson’s acclaimed Gilead series, and it confirmed for me that she is one of the great writers.
All her writing is spiritual, but this one had another emotional component to it. It tells the story of the marriage between John Ames and Lila — something that had been on the edges of the previous books in the series. It also gives us Lila’s complete backstory.
While my marathon reading session on the last day of the year may not have allowed me to savor these two stories like I normally would, I valued so much reading this in companion with Blood Meridian. They are two vastly different novels, but they balanced each other out very well for me. In both, I see powerful writing that touches on the spiritual and the ethereal. Both understand human nature. One comes at it with darkness and violence while the other comes at it through a small Iowa town and the story of a woman who marries a preacher.
I finished this book at about 9:00 p.m. on December 31. It was my 24th read of the year, thus completing my reading goal for 2020. I can think of few better ways to close out the year than by reading a Marilynne Robinson novel. Her writing comforts and challenges me. So as I closed the book and finished my reading for the year, I was overcome with the ups and downs of the previous 365 days. Through it all, my reading challenged, encouraged, and uplifted me. I needed all of it.
It was quite the year, and much of it was difficult. Paring it down to some pithy comments pulled from the experience of reading books would be too easy and convenient. But I’m thankful that reading helped me get through this year. I’m thankful for friends, both new and old, that read with me. And I’m thankful for culture makers. For people who write and build something from the raw materials their life has given them. I’m thankful for creativity. For the people who take what life throws at them and try to make something of it.
It’s an encouragement for me to try to do the same.