Books That Made 2020 Bearable: A Reading List for an Unusual Year

It became a common refrain over this past year: I can’t read. Attention spans disappeared as pandemic anxiety expanded into an abundance of sadness and anger over police brutality. All the while, we held our breath as the presidential campaign barreled onward. For many, Netflix was easier. Doomscrolling matched the numb, endless feeling of days bleeding one into the next. Time stopped making sense. 

As if by premonition, I read the poet May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude at the beginning of the year. I picked it up in a thrift store on the recommendation of one of my best friends while on vacation years ago—remember those?—and it sat in a stack in my Brooklyn apartment until Kate Zambreno referenced it in her new novel, Drifts. Once I curled up into Sarton’s journal entries, I couldn’t put it down. She writes, “Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit out. Let it all pass. Let it go.” Sarton’s entries, written in remote, rural New Hampshire, encouraged me to slow down and find another way to experience creation and aging. Rather than romanticize isolation, Sarton reveals how keen observation helps one find beauty in what is so often the challenge of stillness. 

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Still nursing a 2019 injury that slowed me down dramatically, 2020 began as a quiet year in what then felt like semi-isolation in Brooklyn. The books that hooked me at that time were populated with characters on the fringe of society. I read Jenny Offill’s Weather twice, happy to be in the company of another mother juggling domestic and professional life against the backdrop of climate doom. I thought about Weather in tandem with Molly Wizenberg’s The Fixed Stars, a memoir about a married mother who realizes her sexual orientation is shifting. The hard-fought grace Wizenberg finds in her search for selfhood is what we all hope to achieve as we shuffle through life’s unexpected curves. Novelists imagine worlds that serve as cautionary tales. Memoirists remind us that our lives don’t always adhere to a steady track. 

Weather by Jenny Offill. Knopf

Considering other novels enmeshed in unflinching truth telling, I returned to Garth Greenwell’s exquisite, aching novel What Belongs to You, a book that asked too much of me when I first tried to read it, heavily pregnant with my first child. Older and less vulnerable, I fell hard for his examination of deep intimacy, sex and redemption in that book as well as his next, Cleanness. Interviewing Greenwell on the phone (pre-Zoom) talking about life’s circuitous paths and the French writer Annie Ernaux, I was thrilled to connect with someone as obsessed with language and ideas as I was. Interviewing authors was always exhilarating. Writers do more than tell stories; they create possibility. Fictional experiences provoke us to see ourselves in a new light. They do the audacious labor of carrying consequence with joy. By doing so, they create an expansiveness that feels like opportunity and liberation. 

In February, I devoured Lidia Yuknavitch’s short stories of misfits on a long subway ride to the dentist and home again. Reading underground, once a simple pleasure, became a lost pastime too soon. That same month, assuming America was safe from COVID-19, I took a trip to Santa Fe with my husband and two small children. There truly are few pleasures as sweet as reading in transit. As my youngest daughter napped, I cackled with laughter, wept, and nodded with knowing at her domestic scenes while reading Laura Zigman’s Separation Anxiety on two crowded flights across the country. I read Emerson Whitney’s Heaven late into the night during our trip, wondering how we make space for our most authentic selves. On our way back home to LaGuardia airport, I inhaled Julia Alvarez’s Afterlife, tangled up in the novel’s depiction of sisterhood and fearful for the fate of undocumented immigrants. All the while I was unaware that was the last book I’d read on a flight for who knows how long.    

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman.
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman. HarperCollins Publishers

In March, I began Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half on a B train back to Brooklyn from SoHo. I’d picked up the book at a sparsely attended book party for the author. What should have been a loud, packed hotel bar was a quiet and serious affair. As the night wound down, I tightly hugged a friend goodbye despite the risk, decided that I wouldn’t stop at McNally Jackson Books, then called my mom on the way to the subway. Looking up from my book to stare at the Statue of Liberty beyond the Brooklyn Bridge as the subway rumbled over the Manhattan Bridge, crossing the East River, I wondered if this would be my final subway read of 2020. I made an Instagram story about this as a nervous joke. It turned out to be true. I haven’t been able to finish the novel.  

When the lockdown loomed, my family and I visited bookstores like we were afraid we’d never step inside one again. We had recently started reading Tove Jansson’s Moomin chapter books so my husband went ahead and bought as many of the books as were available at Community Bookstore. When I walked over to Unnameable Books to pick up the books that weren’t in stock at Community, I found a shuttered metal door. I went home and settled in for what we hoped was two weeks out of school and office life. You know how this story ends. 

So we read. I read poetry and children’s books aloud to the girls between my work and their Zoom and Facebook Live classes, but what we loved most were the Moomins. Between 1945 and 1970, the late Finnish author and illustrator wrote about a tightly knit community of imaginary creatures whose misadventures wrench them far from home while always shining a light on the importance of loyalty, humor, adaptability, and inherent kindness. While my daughters reveled in the gleeful detail of whimsical quests, I was glad to step into a world devoid of humans. The Moomins’ playful discoveries and easy compassion in a faraway, imaginary landscape reassured me. Without imagination, we might as well give into doom. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Riverhead Books.

After the kids were in bed and I couldn’t sleep, my mind unspooling from the day’s unbelievable news and its impact, I would read on my phone or iPad. Sigrid Nunez’s new novel What Are You Going Through kept me company during my insomnia as did countless essays. Rather than give into fear, I fell into my bedside stack: Dorothy Gallagher’s Stories I Forgot to Tell You as well as Audre Lorde’s selected prose and The Cancer Journals, reissues of Vivian Gornick’s Approaching Eye Level and The End of the Novel of Love, Grace Paley’s Just as I Thought and Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather, which I dragged out for months, incapable of letting it go. 

Over the summer I joined a Zoom based reading group focused on loneliness and isolation though my college’s Literatures of English department. Together, we collected online weekly to discuss Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Ha Jin’s Waiting and more. It was refreshing to be surrounded by fellow women’s college alumni who simply took pleasure in reading. No one was curious about trends or which authors published where. It had been a long time since I had been surrounded by people who made time to just talk about books for the sheer love of words. I felt buoyed by my Bryn Mawr College friends far and wide, exhilarated by the reminder that literary communities do in fact thrive outside New York City.

During that time, a month spent reading Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet gave me the courage to imagine packing up my apartment, uprooting my family, and moving into a house several states away—which we’d never set foot in. If I was a mother who couldn’t risk putting her body in the street during a pandemic to protest against injustice, I could put my body in a state where my vote mattered more. Smith’s characters carried a momentum that gave me the confidence to imagine new solutions to the inertia of our current medical and political climate. 

The Power of Adrienne Rich. Nan A. Talese

While reading Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, I house hunted for the first time in my life, considering what it meant to enjoy that privilege. I wondered what leaving apartment life would be like after so many years in my community, working through the awkwardness of gentrification as a white woman in what was once a largely Black neighborhood in Brooklyn. When we unexpectedly lost two friends and neighbors in tragic fashion at the end of the summer, I read Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage side by side with Sarah Smarsh’s short biography of Dolly Parton, She Come by It Natural. Through the lens of intersectional feminism, I thought about the ways in which communities of color and poor white communities are pitted against one another despite all the challenges they share in common. 

I wanted to honor my friends’ lives by committing to hard conversations. More tangibly, I didn’t want to lose touch with the people with whom we shared a stoop and a home. Reading always helped me find community within its pages, but this year reminded me repeatedly that no matter how isolated we may feel, we’re never truly alone. What are we if we lose sight of our commitment to others? 

In my new house, I stayed up late into the night reading closely about the life of one of my favorite poets and activists, Adrienne Rich. Having moved from one place to another, the familiar cadence of her poetry grounded me. Slowly we are creating a new sense of home, one that’s in close proximity to my parents whom I haven’t lived near in almost twenty years. I’m grateful and lucky. 

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton. Open Road Media

Determined, dogged gratitude is another common refrain this year. As is the sentiment that parents are somehow never alone, yet perpetually gripped in a sense of entrenched isolation. Everyone is surprised by the fact that they still feel strapped for time. Up late, as always, I have been reading the late sculptor Anne Truitt’s Daybook, a compilation of journal entries—and returning to Sarton. Unlike Sarton, Truitt was a divorced mother for whom solitude is a limited commodity. Yet she makes the time for reflection. It’s aspirational, but not out of reach. This year has reminded me too that loneliness in many ways a state of mind. Books, careful attention to our neighbors and sense of space, and a rich inner world are lifelines. Those of us with good health, as well as justice on our side, are at liberty to ask metaphysical questions.

Sarton writes, “I asked myself the question, ‘What do you want of your life?’ and I realized with a start of recognition and terror, ‘Exactly what I have—but to be commensurate, to handle it all better.’” Listening to the misfit writers I’ve adored over the past year, what I return to is a need for grace. Sarton goes on to say, “What is destructive is impatience, haste, expecting too much too fast.”  Reading forces us to slow down. It’s the practice as much as the content that matters. Closing the year with hope for a brighter 2021, may we push past our frazzled attention spans and make time for more books. Read aloud, find a book group, keep trying different books until you find the one that sticks. Create for yourself the gift of words and time. Be sure to share that with others around you.  Books That Made 2020 Bearable: A Reading List for an Unusual Year