This year, I read 42 books give or take, including 13 fiction novels and short story collections as well as 29 non-fiction books. I’m currently reading Albert Camus’ The Rebel, along with the original Korean edition of The Plotters (설계자들), whose English translation I put on my top three book list last year.
One pattern I noticed this year is that I did start and quit reading more books than I have in the past. Growth by Vaclav Smil, for instance, is extremely ambitious and elucidating, but my god, I don’t have the patience for that kind of turgid academic writing no matter how many accolades the book has garnered.
I also filtered much more aggressively this year than in the past — heading toward enduring classics and award winners, where I used to want to be more on the edge. Maybe given the sheer amount of news coverage I had to read for work — there was something enticing about having the ability to just return to works of trans-generational quality.
That makes choosing “ the best books of the year” a bit of an obnoxious exercise. At least twenty of the books I read this year were amazing and deserve all the accolades and status they have received. Others were fine, although by no means bad. I do believe in forcing choice and filtering though, so here are three ranked books plus honorable mentions on what I thought were the best from the bookshelf this year.
First Place: Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
This is undoubtedly a major classic of American history, a powerful narrative and synthesis to comprehend America’s peculiar intellectual politics. I expected it to be much more polemical, and was instead deeply enamored with the way that America’s particular development created the country we see today.
We complain about fake news, low standards in media, lack of literacy among Americans, and poor schools quite frequently today. But those complaints have literally been made since the dawn of the republic, with some of the first complaints on this front coming from the 1600s. There is an incredible quote (I believe from the 1820s) that complained about how Andrew Jackson was undermining public schools and underinvesting in education. The entire paragraph quote could be published in a newspaper today, and no one would question its fundamental premise.
It may not have been its intended purpose, but the book really shows just how infinitely enduring culture is once it is instantiated, and also just how embedded certain notions of intellectualism and education (and the lack of them) are in American culture. When you see how the roots of scholasticism were laid down in Boston in the 1600s, and realize that the city quite literally remains the top bastion of education in the country four centuries later — how exactly do you hope to change something so fundamental and foundational?
Part of my lesson from the work is simply the importance of the serenity prayer — you can only affect so much, and issues like education are constructed so deeply in culture that no one — and I do mean no one — is going to change them. That may sound gloomy, but in some ways, it’s actually liberating: it’s possible to just ignore fundamental issues that have no pathways to improvement. Knowing that is strength itself.
Second Place: The Plague by Albert Camus
This book was almost de rigueur reading this year given the coronavirus. Nonetheless, if you read The Stranger back in high school and thought “what the hell?,” this is the book that really caught on with me and led me to binge almost all of Camus’ works this year.
In short, The Plague is a psychological and sociological profile of a town (Oran, Algeria) that gets hit by … the plague. That’s the frame, but what the novel does so well is capture the diversity of responses to the absurdity and listlessness of the situation. The plague can’t be stopped. It cannot be fought in any sort of traditional way. It just is, and one has to handle the ensuing events as they come.
Some people party like the world is ending. Others stay in their rooms and try to hold out. Others have religious conversions, while those with deep spirituality come under pressure to relent given the sheer misery and arbitrariness around them. Others fight through guile, or physically with each other. Some just drink themselves into a stupor. (Any of this sound familiar?)
What’s powerful here is realizing that the plague is just a symbol for life itself. Events happen, events that we don’t control, can’t stop, and really can’t undo. That can be paralyzing in and of itself, but it’s also a setup for us to respond to them. How we respond is the meaning of life, and these tests are really ways of finding our purpose.
I wouldn’t call the book optimistic, but it also isn’t pessimistic. It’s realistic — and in many ways, that’s precisely what we needed in 2020.
Third Place: Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism 1866-1945 by Carter Eckert
This is a specialist book, although eminently readable. Eckert has spent quite literally decades investigating a young man who would one day become the military dictator of South Korea over the course of more than a decade, setting the country on its present economic trajectory from the abject horrors of the Korean War.
But who exactly is he? What did he learn early on in life? Where did his thinking arise from? What were his influences?
Eckert lays all of that out and more in one of the most well-researched and thoughtful histories I have read in years. His balance between the micro (where did Park place his letters while attending military academy) and the macro (what was happening in China, Japan, and Korea in the 1920s and 1930s) is absolutely exceptional for how the details flow up and down. And, for such a dense book, the words and sentences are so brilliantly crafted and mellifluous, a surprise for what could have been a deeply dry book.
This is not a biography, but it’s a synthetic and panoramic history that centers itself on one individual to tell the story of a region and really the entire world. At least for folks with some background on the period and place, this book deserves a deep read.
I read so many great books this year, and here are some other favorites:
- The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell
- The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
- The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha (my review here)
- The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz
- The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
- Know My Name by Chanel Miller
- Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Cover photo by Michael D Beckwith via Flickr in the Public Domain.