Make New Friends But Keep the Old: 2020 book list

At the beginning of 2020 I resolved to be a better friend. My strengths lying resolutely in the realm of writing, I decided to define that work in terms of keeping in touch by mail with the people I cared about. I craved connection. I picked, for the first time, a “star word” – in my case, the very literal “constellation” – to guide my year. I planned out who I wanted to correspond with, with what frequency, and wondered if a year of letters, perhaps less sporadic than previous years, could make up whatever time I’d lost. Could it communicate my commitment to my friends?

By mid-summer I felt almost prescient. While other people were just discovering how to use the post office in the midst of a global pandemic, I was slapping on another round of stamps. I didn’t stick to my original schedule, but I was mindful of who and how often I had to reschedule a letter in my planner. I took baby steps, too, aiming to do a more deliberate job of texting, sending pithy post cards, shooting off “how’re you holding up in ALL THIS” emails to long lost relationships. As the world got smaller, I tried to take advantage of the ubiquity of Google Hangouts and Zoom, and felt guilty for not always taking advantage of opportunities that were newly available – online readings, virtual reunions, really any chance for connections that could be transformed into something on a computer screen.

I got really tired of computer screens.

Autumn rolled around and I realized I was losing my resolve. I didn’t want to answer emails or pen a letter to my pen pals or make a quick phone call to someone I hadn’t heard from in awhile. I didn’t have a lot to talk about: I walked, I worked, I worried. I read a lot. I hardly wrote. I had one long-distance phone call that boiled down to a recipe exchange of things we were making for dinner that week. It was both unsettling and reassuring: someone I cared about was also doing nothing much more than the bare minimum and musing about what was most important.

As the world shifted from a state of emergency to a new normal and toward new horizons, I tried to stay grounded in the connections that mattered and the stories that lifted me, even momentarily, out of the uncertainty of 2020. I stopped worrying about how much I was writing; I tracked what I was baking, where we were exploring, how often I did yoga. I took deep breaths, tried new things, and reminded myself that I could always return to my favorite books, the authors I knew I could trust to help me see the world in new ways. (I did not read NK Jemisin but was comforted by the knowledge that I could, at any time, take her new book off my shelf.) These authors and their books were, after all, a kind of old friend, a connection to a past self who had persevered through some previous difficulty or to a loved one I could no longer visit in person.

I don’t know if I am now, at the end of the year, a better friend than I was twelve months ago, but I think I understand a little better who I want to be and who I am when the chips are down and there’s nothing to do but wait, when staying apart is the safest thing to do to protect the ones you love.

I read 60 books this year – 49 by women and 22 by people of color (there was some overlap). I read 3 books written by coauthors and 5 books by people I went to grad school with (one of them twice, because I had the sincere pleasure of reviewing it). I read 5 books in the two-person book club with my best friend from college, and 3 books (plus one I didn’t finish) in the book club formed with my aunts after the pandemic finally gave us a chance to talk more often. (I read books I did not like and would not have read except that someone I loved had chosen it and I wanted to have something to talk about.) Our office book discussions on racial justice and equity covered 2 books (we switched to films as the pandemic roared in), and I got to introduce Toni Morrison (an old friend) to some of my colleagues. (I also watched a lot of Disney movies I had never before seen – new friends!)

I read books about New York and longed to go there; I finally read Agatha Christie by listening to short stories and the first 3 Poirot books while taking walks in our old neighborhood in New Jersey, and felt like I was time traveling. I read 3 books by Ann Patchett, 2 by Jacqueline Woodson (old friends!), and 2 by Laura Lippman (a new friend!), plus 1 book about Virginia Woolf and fell in love again; I tried very hard to like the work of Roxane Gay and Ibram X. Kendi and learned that while I don’t like their writing styles I am very glad they are widely read. I read books about hosting better meetings, about learning to listen better, about being a better friend, about making the world a better place for everyone one (especially those who have been systematically outcast, maligned, and anathematized).

I read some books because I felt I had to, some because I wanted to do so before discarding them, some because the timing of everything – this year, in all its challenges – seemed to suggest that there was no better time than the present to learn something about the past. I learned a lot; I think I did not learn enough. I wanted to escape; I was grateful that all it took was a book to release me from some of the anxieties of this endless year.

I don’t know what 2021 will look like, of course. I think 2020 taught me not to take the year for granted, not to plan too far ahead, not to let friendships unspool so far that I have to make a resolution to mend the tears.

  1. Imagined London, Anna Quindlen
  2. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
  3. We Need to Talk, Celeste Headlee*
  4. Run, Ann Patchett*
  5. For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, Sarah Ruhl
  6. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison*
  7. Transcription, Kate Atkinson
  8. Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. They Called Us Enemy, George Takei
  10. Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine, Anaele Hermans and Delphone Hermans
  11. God: a Biography, Jack Miles
  12. Tenements, Towers and Trash, Julia Wertz
  13. Dear Girls, Ali Wong
  14. Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris
  15. A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines*
  16. The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo
  17. Displacement, Lucy Knisley
  18. The Book of Forgiving, Desmond and Mpho Tutu
  19. The Girl in the Green Rainboat, Laura Lippman
  20. Electric Arches, Eve Ewing
  21. On Cats, Charles Bukowski
  22. Blue Iris, Mary Oliver
  23. Flight Path, Cynthia Neely
  24. The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker*
  25. The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel
  26. Half, Sharon Harrigan
  27. Harry Potter a l’ecole des sorciers, J. K. Rowling
  28. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
  29. The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat*
  30. A Hero of Our Own, Sheila Eisenberg
  31. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
  32. The Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks
  33. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie
  34. An American Sunrise, Joy Harjo
  35. Colored, Emilie Plateau
  36. Life Sentences, Laura Lippman
  37. Half, Sharon Harrigan
  38. Atomic Blonde: The Coldest City, Anthony Johnston
  39. Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng*
  40. The Wife Between Us, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  41. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett*
  42. Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson*
  43. Parting Shadows, Kate Sheeran Swed
  44. Hunger, Roxane Gay
  45. The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamllo
  46. Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie
  47. Harbor Me, Jacqueline Woodson
  48. The Power Broker, Robert Cato
  49. Intimations, Zadie Smith
  50. Phantom Song, Kate Sheeran Swed
  51. Poirot Investigates, Agatha Christie
  52. Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, Rae Katherine Eighmey*
  53. How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  54. Caste, Isabel Wilkerson
  55. Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
  56. This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  57. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl*
  58. The Lost Girls of Paris, Pam Jenoff
  59. Speedboat, Renata Adler
  60. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

* books I loved

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