Ah, 2020. I suspect that if we included my online reading in this year’s discussion of what I read and how I liked it, we’d find that I spent far more time reading the news than I’d comfortably admit.
And so, well, we won’t.
Let us consider, instead, one of the many ways in which books surpass digital media: you’ll find no clickbait in a physical book, nowhere for you to go that doesn’t require some effort on your part; no third party is compensated for every page you turn. It’s just you and the book and (one hopes) a blanket, cat, and cup of tea.
So, apart from the news, what did I read in 2020? Comfortable books. Beautiful books. Books that gave me pause, that made me laugh, that reminded me that people have lived through difficult things before, and that there always comes, at some point, a denouement—a wrapping up of things left undone, an answering of the last few questions.
I reread several favorites this year, from Sherlock Holmes to P. G. Wodehouse, and refreshed myself with L. M. Montgomery’s short stories and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. A friend of mine called this kind of reading “escape reading,” which is apt, but it felt to me less like leaving than like settling in—like the literary equivalent of tea, hearty stew, and crusty bread. And so I call it comfort reading.
But 2020 wasn’t all rereading: I also discovered several new novels so lovely that I know they’ll become my comfort reading of the future. Of course, beautiful novels can’t erase the grief and bewilderment of this year, but they did much to remind me that the sun is still up there above the seething clouds and that God is still good, whatever the case count.
I closed last year’s “Best Books” post with the words “I hope 2019 treated you well. May 2020 treat you better still,” but I don’t think I’ll send you forth with those words again. Maybe a better greeting to the new year would be the words our pastor says each Sunday after the Scripture reading:
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Let’s carry that truth with us into 2021: The word of our God will stand forever.
Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger
I read Virgil Wander twice in a row and couldn’t bring myself to put in back on the shelf for weeks after I finished. Virgil is a delightful narrator, and Leif Enger’s use of language dazzles—it is hard to look away from certain words, they’re just so perfectly placed.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
I heard this book mentioned last spring on BiblioFiles as the perfect book for quarantine. I promptly bought it and, by the time I’d reached end of the first page, I heartily agreed: A Gentleman in Moscow is the story of a young Russian gentlemen sentenced to lifetime house arrest during the Bolshevik Revolution. But he lives in a high-end hotel, so this hotel and its inhabitants become his whole world. This book is quiet, beautiful, and utterly charming.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster
It occurs to me now that these first three books were all BiblioFiles recommendations—but there you have it. The Center for Lit folks haven’t steered me wrong yet. This book is pretty self-explanatory: Foster, a professor, teaches the rest of us the good habits of a thorough reader. I hate to sound dramatic, but I am not exaggerating a bit when I tell you that this book completely changed the way I read.
Dialogues of Fenelon, Vol. II
A friend recommended this magical little book, and it got me through many a dark day this year. Written by Francois Fenelon over four hundred years ago, these readings are short and to the point—perfect for grabbing off the shelf at 5:00 on a day gone wrong and reminding oneself what’s what.
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Had I read this before? Absolutely. Did I enjoy it even more the second time through? I sure did. I happened to be mid-Bleak House when our school and church shut down in March, and in a moment like that, I was so grateful for Dickens. This book may showcase some of his less popular qualities, but for all that, I think it might be my favorite: it includes one of the first murder mysteries of English literature, one of the most intriguing characters in the Dickensian canon (Lady Dedlock), and, of course, spontaneous combustion. It also begins with the best opening paragraph I think I have ever read.
Real Love for Real Life, by Andi Ashworth
This slender book is all about caregiving, in its various forms during our different seasons of life. Andi Ashworth writes from her own experience as a mother and caregiver to aging parents and to the many guests that pass through her family’s home, but she writes about it in ways that feel practical and applicable to a variety of situations. There is a bit of Edith Schaeffer in this book, if you know what I mean. I am so glad I got to read this book this year, when caring for my family felt like caring for their suddenly huge needs through small, tender ways—listening when they needed me to. Keeping them supplied with pie. And so on.
Morning by Morning, by Charles Spurgeon
Despite the title, I keep this little volume by my bed and read from it most evenings before I go to sleep. Spurgeon’s warmth and tenderness, his candor and his sense of humor all make this a beautiful book to read in installments—it is one I never want to finish!
Weeknight Baking, by Michelle Lopez
I wouldn’t fairly represent my reading life in 2020 if I didn’t include Weeknight Baking, because it’s the cookbook I baked almost all the way through between May and December. I read it cover to cover and baked every single cake mentioned in here, plus most of the cookies (some of them several times); this pie crust is my new standard recipe. Michelle Lopez tackles classic recipes and breaks them down into steps so you can make them over the course of multiple nights after work—an approach that works excellently for those us without demanding jobs but with a house full of kids.
A Sense of Wonder, by Katherine Paterson
A Sense of Wonder is out of print (alas!), but it is a beautiful collection of essays that I savored slowly this year. I have only read a few of Paterson’s novels, but I love her perspective on writing for children, how seriously she takes it and how much she respects her readers. I’ll return to this one, for sure.
Jack, by Marilynne Robinson
This book just barely made the cut, as I finished it on December 30. But say what you like about 2020—and we all have a lot to say about it—at least it brought us a new novel from Marilynne Robinson. This one is just as lovely as the others, so if you haven’t read any of them, take this away from today’s post: go forth and read Gilead, the first in this series. It is probably my favorite novel, and perhaps the only other one, besides Virgil Wander, that I’ve read twice in a row.