Top Books of 2020

In no particular order:

1. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
This is probably the best short story collection I’ve ever read, and perhaps one of my all-time favorite books. If you’ve ever driven out west, specifically the southwest, then you know what this book is about—those small towns situated in the middle of a vast and empty desert. You can drive through them in five minutes and then the desert will swallow you once more. But some people never leave those towns. It is them and the desert and the oil derricks and the faraway lights of Vegas. There is one specific town outside of Death Valley that I think about more than any other and Battleborn brought me back there. This a book for all those people in all those dust-choked homes.

2. Erosion: Essays of Undoing, Terry Tempest Williams
I’ve seen Terry Tempest Williams’ work in various book stores and national park gift shops over the years, but this is the first one of hers I’ve read (she is extremely prolific. Get it, lady.). This collection of essays is both personal and distant. It is about her and the land and the connection between the two. I think I loved this book because I saw myself in the author, or at least who I want to be. There are several essays I adored, but the one that surfaces the most in my mind is her interview with Tim DeChristopher (which you can read in its entirety by clicking here). Kind of like Yuval (see #5), some of what Tim said also ruptured my mind and blew open certainties I took for granted (this is the year for that kind of thinking, ya know?). One of the quotes on the jacket flap is: And how do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts? Which, already, wow. The whole book is embedded with nuggets like that.

3. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara is one of my all-time favorite writers, and every day I am sad that she’s only written two novels. Also, I am obsessed with her as a person. She can do no wrong. Plot-wise, this book isn’t unique—remote island, white people ruining things, you know the story—but damn, she writes so beautifully.

4. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Let’s be real: this is the OG Call Me By Your Name. This is the one that started it all. There’s a reason it’s a classic.

5. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari
This book messed me up. In a good way and maybe not a good way? Who’s to say. This book is palatable because it chunks everything up nicely—each chapter is a new idea and those ideas are neatly organized by section. So it’s ideal for reading, freaking out, questioning your place in the world, what even *is* the world, and then going back to TikTok to try and forget the existential horror you just uncovered. I’d like to give a huge shoutout to everyone this year who’s suffered through my monologue of there’s no proof that anything in life is actually real; we could be living in a video game, which makes the only *real* things feelings, which transcend any physical limitation. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? (Also, I read his book Sapiens this year, and this quote haunts my waking hours: “There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.” Stop it.)

6. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
Ugh. Ocean. This book is exquisite. Ocean is an extraordinary writer and I am always horrified when I remember that he’s not that much older than I am. His writing is clean and profound and succinct. Just look at the title. The whole book is like that. Also, like Hanya Yanagihara, I am obsessed with Ocean as a person. He must be protected at all costs and I would launch myself into the sun if he asked me to. Three of us in California read this book, and a memory I absolutely adore is all of us having dinner and talking about it. Honestly, my dream.

7. Hot Milk, Deborah Levy
This is a strange book and I read it when I was feeling strange about my own life, and maybe that’s why I loved it. It’s one of those books that defies summary. It’s about being in your 20s and feeling lost and making weird choices and love and not love and jellyfish and how sometimes you do things just to feel something break. Spoiler: there is no hot milk in the entire book.

8. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, James Nestor
I love reading into my own life and turning everything into a metaphor and blowing things wildly out of proportion. Anyway, I became really interested in the ocean this past year after living in California, and when I found this book sitting on a shelf at the camp I was working at, it was obviously a sign from the entire Pacific Ocean that I should read it. And the ocean was not wrong! Adventure and science and the profound absence of knowledge we have about so much of our tangible world. This is an excellent science read. Accessible, interesting, and just so so cool.

9. What I Loved, Siri Hustevdt
I was reading this while I was in California and at breakfast one day, my coworker asked me what it was about. …Art? I said. This book is about art in the same way Space Jam is about baseball—it’s really not. This book is a page-turner at the end, and I don’t want to give too much away because it’s excellent, but yeah, it’s about art and people and, I don’t know, murder.

10. Eager: The Surprising Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb
I’ve seen a beaver in the wild only once. I was on a two-week backpacking trip with my dad in the Adirondacks. We’d just finished dinner and the sun was setting and the sky was threatening rain, and we saw this brown little nugget swimming across the lake, right near our tent, and we watched him go go go and then disappear onto the bank. Anyway, this book is one of those awesome animal books that shows you how much you don’t know. How much history and science and even culture affect the animal kingdom. This book did a good job lowkey hyping up Nebraska because I would love to see giant corkscrews made by enormous, ancient beavers (that, and the sand hill crane migration. That’s really all Nebraska has to offer). Also, this book taught me the word fluviologist (look it up yourself).

11. Behold the Many, Lois-Ann Yamanaka
I bought this book in Hawaii a couple years ago and finally got around to reading it. It’s a meandering book that, like many on this list, defies easy summation. It’s about tuberculosis and the way families splintered under its weight. But it’s also about dead people and loss and Christianity and moral obligation. This is my favorite line from the book: No one sings to the cows and bees here. No one laughs at my silly jokes. I miss you, dear Anna.

12. Bluets, Maggie Nelson
I asked for this book for my birthday, and wow, I have impeccable taste in literature. A lot of people simp HARD for Maggie Nelson, including Ocean Vuong, which really tells you all you need to know. There’s a reason she’s a MacArthur winner. She’s an incredible writer and person. But she’s also difficult to read because she’s unconventional. Her book The Argonauts is one of my all-time favorites and no one I’ve ever recommended it to has successfully finished it, despite the fact that it’s only 160 pages. In literature and publishing, there are two distinct circles—books that win awards and books that sell well. There is very little overlap (fun fact: one book that exists in both spheres is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which is SO GOOD. On the last book list I wrote, that was the book most people chose to read of all the ones I recommended. My heart hurts just thinking about that book. JUDE.). Maggie Nelson writes books that will change your life, but she gives zero fucks about mass market appeal. And that is why we—me and Ocean—love her.

If you’re buying books (which you should be), use a site like Indie Bound to find local booksellers that stock the book you want! Amazon is garbage; if you have the opportunity to choose otherwise, please do. Also, sometimes people reach out to me for individual book recommendations and I’m always happy to do so (honestly, so flattered that people trust my judgment. Thank you, kind folks.). Happy reading, friends.

(In full transparency, I haven’t even finished Bluets yet, but you usually know love when you feel it.)

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