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December 18, 2020

Reading Through the Plague Year


In her essay collection MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY, the poet Mary Ruefle entitled one entry “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.” That optimistic title came to mind as I scanned the list of a dozen favorite books I compiled this year, as I do each December, from the 70 or so I reviewed as a freelance reviewer in 2020, the year that order in the world took a sabbatical.

Dominated by a pandemic that’s brought too much illness, death and economic misery, and a surreal presidential election that defies an ending, this year has been unforgettable in all the worst ways. Unlike many people who complained that these multiple crises shattered their concentration and pulled them away from the page, for me books were a refuge and a light that illuminated the darkened world. But as I studied the list, I also began to see how --- out of the individual selections, each chosen with no overarching theme in mind --- there emerged a narrative that gives meaning to the experience of this awful year.

My wife and I were forced to scrap two long-anticipated trips, but with Eric Weiner in THE SOCRATES EXPRESS: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers, I boarded a series of comfortable trains in places like Switzerland and Japan as he playfully explored the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, Henry David Thoreau and other great thinkers who helped shaped his view of the world. My literary travels this year weren’t only broad in their geographic reach. I also covered huge swaths of history. Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET took me to 16th-century England and to the home of a young playwright named William Shakespeare, as he and his wife struggled to come to terms with an unspeakable loss in the time of another plague. Four centuries later, in David Mitchell’s UTOPIA AVENUE, I happily relived some of my experience of the 1960s in the company of a fictional British rock band.

The five other novels that made my list unearthed other aspects of our world. I gained new perspective on the Middle East conflict from Colum McCann’s APEIROGON, which introduced me to two fathers --- one Palestinian, the other Israeli --- each of whom lost an adolescent daughter to violence from the other side and then bonded to pursue peace. Ayad Akhtar’s HOMELAND ELEGIES helped me understand how it feels to be a Muslim in post-9/11 America. In THE SUN COLLECTIVE, Charles Baxter captured some of the free-floating anxiety of this year, imagining a group of anti-capitalist activists in contemporary Minneapolis. As the year neared its end, and the COVID-19 death toll rose by thousands daily, Sigrid Nunez’s WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH--- a portrait of a woman dying of cancer and the friend she asks to accompany her in her final days --- reminded me that each of those deaths is a tragedy, not a statistic. And my favorite novel of the year, Christopher Beha’s THE INDEX OF SELF-DESTRUCTIVE ACTS--- a skillfully plotted tale about celebrity, ambition, our data-driven lives and even baseball --- reflected those aspects of the world, and others, back to me with mirror-like clarity.

As painful as it was to miss holidays, birthdays and simple, ordinary moments with family, there was consolation in Wright Thompson’s PAPPYLAND: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last, the saga of a Kentucky bourbon maker and his quest to revive a lost vintage blend, hinting at how precious those times will be when life returns to what we’ll once again call normal. Kerri Arsenault’s MILL TOWN: Reckoning with What Remains transported me to her tiny hometown in Maine for a meditation on personal roots, and how they both ground and ensnare us.

Though politics was never far from my mind, two books helped me pull back a bit from the daily brawls. Katherine Stewart’s THE POWER WORSHIPPERS: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism provided insight into some of the powerful interest groups seeking dominance in American life. In Thomas E. Ricks’ FIRST PRINCIPLES: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, I discovered how ancient wisdom molded the thought of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, and wondered how an infusion of some of it might deepen our shallow political dialogue.

“The greatest gift is a passion for reading,” the critic Elizabeth Hardwick wrote. “It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.” The books that stood out in my 2020 reading were all of those things for me. And so much more.