My 2020 Reading List is Short and Complicated

A difficult year made my reading goals impossible so I asked a different question.

This is the season to post your 2020 reading list. If there’s one habit that was made for COVID-life, it’s reading. Socially distant by design and no mask required. Like so much else, reading was harder for me this last year too. I read, but not a lot, so I thought I would hang back and watch as everyone else celebrated crossing the finish line with impressive numbers of books read. 

These long reading lists usually function as a sort of final answer to the question, “What did you read this year?” With fewer titles to share, I looked at my list with a more open mindset. I wondered what else it could tell me about the year we are all eager to put behind us. 

So, let’s start with the fact that I read 26 books. That’s half the number I read in 2019. My reading habit became so disrupted and sporadic that I also stopped tracking the titles of books I finished. When these posts started showing up on social media, I didn’t have a list of titles or a grand total.

A Short List Leads to  a New Question

Working like a detective on a cold case, I reconstructed my reading list for the year. I looked at piles of books in my office, near the couch, and tucked away in the bedroom. I logged into my account at the public library. As I considered what books I would recommend and on what terms, the way I thought about my list changed too.

My list starts with When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele. I read the book in January, and it shaped everything I understood about the months ahead—George Floyd’s murder, the protests, and the calls to defund the police. The issues are not new to me, but it made a difference to have access to Khan-Cullors’ perspective as police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement became the story everyone followed. This book didn’t just change how I understood the problem; It changed what I expect to see in the solutions we take seriously.

“Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer them.”

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

What Did I Read that Changed the Way I See the World Today?

As I looked at the rest of my list, I started to look for other titles that left an indelible mark on my thinking about the work that lies ahead in 2021. I know I’m carrying them with me like the “Book People” in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

In that famous title where all books are banned, the Book People hide outside the boundaries of the city and preserve books by memorizing them. Without these memories, the knowledge of these books would disappear forever. There are passages from When They Call You a Terrorist that I will always remember.

This passage, for example, reflects what the book helped me see as real.

“We agree there is something that happens inside of a person, a people, a community when you think you will not live, that the people around you will not live. We talk about how you develop an attitue one that dismisses hope, that discards dreams.”

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

What I mean by “real” is that this understanding is fundamental to solving any problem in this space. I know this book is why I can no longer tolerate the mention of a few bad apples in law enforcement or the personal responsibility of those detained. My mind shifted from being queasy over slogans like “defund the police” to forcefully defending the position whenever someone challenges it.

Now, thinking about the books that managed to live on in my mind despite a difficult year, another book stood out immediately.

I waited too long to read Tara Westover’s book, Educated: A Memoir, published in 2018. As a result of this book, I could see the purpose, resolve, and identity embedded in each decision to stand by bad information.

The part of this book I will remember comes from Westover’s experience of a single moment in a single college course. Through a presentation of the images and history of the Civil Rights Movement, Westover realized that she knew those names and events as part of a completely different story. Her family did not celebrate the gains in social, political, and economic power presented in her college course. They saw these same events as threats to order and stability.

At that moment, Westover saw worlds collide. She could see the constraints of an ideology that had shaped and limited everything she thought she knew. I marveled at how she articulated the dissonance, even when describing what she decided to study as a result:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement—since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected—a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world.”

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Westover helped me see just how big the ask is when asking someone confront one of these world-shifting misconceptions. This realization changed my idea about how to respond to an election cycle full of disinformation. I did not waste time wrangling over facts that were knowable to those who wanted to know them.

When possible, I tried to understand the commitment to bad information as an expression of identity. Sometimes this approach prompted a more empathetic exchange with the potential to bridge the gap eventually. Sometimes it helped me opt-out of the frustration that came with wholly incomprehensible political debates on social media.

I needed that kind of “Get Out of Jail Free” card to protect my political willpower through this year’s presidential election.

What Did I Read that Changed the Way I See the World Today?

These two insights about how my reading list helped me stand my ground this year also align with the one book I have recommended over and over again. With a new question shaping my review, I knew that Why Are We So Polarized? by Ezra Klein was the most important book I read in 2020.

If the extreme partisanship of our politics leaves you with your own case of vertigo, make time to read this book. Klein presents an inquiry of his own that will help you understand that our present difficulties mark more than a single moment. The solution we need, the solution we have needed for decades, will not magically materialize for us once we put a single year behind us, or even a single presidency.

The question Klein uses to introduce his inquiry appeared in our February newsletter focused on managing despair. He asked, “What if, in 2016, nothing unusual happened at all?”

Thinking that we have never experienced politics like this before prevents us from seeing what’s required to resolve the issues dividing us. Like asking someone to see the misconceptions they hold close, addressing our polarization is a rocky and challenging proposition:

“We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.”

Why Are We So Polarized? by Ezra Klein

It’s a strange kind of optimism that comes with this insight into our political life.

Klein’s book is an empowering read. When every headline carries the threat of normalizing unprecedented behavior, I struggled to figure out what I could do. I wrestled with feeling powerless as events unfolded.

Why Are We So Polarized? provided the context I needed to consider the whole trajectory of democracy in the U.S. These problems have been with us all along. Life in a democracy has never been easy, and we have never fully realized the principles we celebrate. We have vital work to do in the days ahead, but the ground has not shifted beneath our feet.

My 2020 reading list, as short as it was, helped me see that better questions light the way forward. They require us to insist on better answers than we have accepted in the years past.

You don’t have to wait until the end of the year to learn more about the books that will be on this list. Titles like these show up in our newsletter throughout the year.

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