Some books I read in 2020 [other]

In mid-2020, I wrote a summary of three books I read this year. I’m going to expand on that post here—focusing on books that have made an impact insofar as I keep thinking about them after I read them. In some cases I’ll group multiple books together that vary along a theme, or which I associate for some reason. As in that earlier post, the point is largely personal, i.e., helping me remember these books and what I got out of them, but hopefully they might inspire readers of this post to check them out as well.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. This book is really haunting. The premise is quite unique: the narrator, who is called “Piranesi”, describes his days wandering a crumbling and apparently endless house. He’s not really concerned or scared about his situation. In fact, he demonstrates an incredible reverence and love for “The House”. He occasionally interacts with another human (whom he calls “The Other”), who is keen to discover what he believes to be a secret power hidden inside the house. One of my favorite aspects of the book is the narrator’s genuine and earnest love for the House; he sees himself as a kind of servant or vassal of a larger mission, and this sentiment is beautifully conveyed in the diary passages.

The Outline Trilogy, by Rachel Cusk. This is technically three books, the first of which is called Outline. I’m not exactly sure how to describe them. The narrator is an English writer named Faye; in each book, she travels to some destination (e.g., Greece) for some ostensible purpose (e.g., teaching a writing workshop), but the “story” is really just a series of interactions that she has with individuals she encounters. Her interlocutors describe their lives in great detail, and the way they do so is revealing about their personalities, their focuses, and their inevitable and very human self-absorption. Nothing much “happens”, but I found these books captivating.

Milkman, by Anna Burns. A young woman is harassed in a series of escalating encounters by an older man known as ‘Milkman’––not to be confused with the actual milkman, who also exists. It’s apparently set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and each scene is taut with the underlying tension of a town caught amid the forces of revolution and war. No characters are named (at least as far as I remember), and even the setting is technically inferred––there are references to enemies “across the road” and others “across the water”. What really struck me was how tense and paranoid a person’s life during this time must have been. There is a sense of claustrophobia and emotional exhaustion throughout.

Circe/Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I’m grouping these together because I read them one after the other (Circe, then Song of Achilles). I first heard about them from my brother a couple years ago, and then Madeline Miller was interviewed by Ezra Klein last year, in a welcome departure from thinking constantly about COVID-19. Her writing is achingly beautiful; as Ezra Klein points out in the interview, she’s a lovely “sentence-level” writer––each word feels carefully chosen, as in poetry. And both books are wonderful retellings of characters from Greek myth. I think I prefer Circe overall for its slow, langorous pace, but the end of Song of Achilles made me cry.

Speaking of Ezra Klein, I also read Why We’re Polarized. 2020 was a year in which I became much more interested in politics––not only in terms of ongoing political events, but the actual political process, which before listening to Klein’s podcast (and reading his book) had always felt very opaque to me. I was dimly aware of the structure of our government, the various branches and the divisions therein, but––perhaps embarrassingly––I never really gave much thought either to the motivations of such a system, nor to the various behaviors such a system might incentivize (whether good or bad). I enjoy Klein’s perspective because, as he writes in the book, he’s very interested in systems. A lot of contemporary accounts of polarization focus almost exclusively on the role of individual psychology (e.g., Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, or George Lakoff’s politics as family model). Klein delves into this as well, with an emphasis on the way that partisan identity can shape our interpretation of data we’re exposed to (i.e., motivated reasoning), but he also looks at the United States through a wider, often historical lens. I’m still thinking about many of the ideas in this book.

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. 2020 was also a year in which I decided I wanted to actually learn more about climate change––beyond the loose, folk model I already had. Some of that has involved (and currently involves) learning more about the mechanics of climate change, the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of clean energy, and various political levers that policy analysts are exploring; but I also wanted to learn more about why so many people still don’t accept that it’s caused in large part by human activity or even that it’s happening in the first place. This book covers that, and more: over the last 50-60 years, a set of individuals with vested interests in both particular industries (e.g., tobacco or fossil fuels) and economic and political ideologies more generally (e.g., capitalism as an opposition to socialism) have consistently worked to sow doubt about a number of topics (e.g., ozone depletion, acid rain, the link between smoking tobacco and cancer, etc.).

Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows, by Melanie Joy. I’ve been vegetarian on and off throughout my life, and in early 2020 I’d already returned to being vegetarian. But reading this book achieved a few things for me. First, it helped ground my existing convictions: the situation “on the ground”, so to speak, is much worse than most of us can really imagine. Second, it expanded my convictions: the situation for egg-laying hens is just as bad in most places, or even worse in some cases, than it is for, say, cows raised for beef. That caused me to eliminate eggs, milk, cheese, and butter from my diet. It’s possible I’ll reintroduce cheese at some point, or perhaps consume it very rarely, but so far I haven’t felt an overwhelming need to do so. And third, Melanie Joy really pins down why this is such an uncomfortable topic for many people, and why it’s often dismissed or even ridiculed. She gives a name (“carnism”) to the invisible assumptions that make up our culture: eating meat is “natural”, “necessary”, and “normal”. I think it’s important to question the assumptions or axioms undergirding our lives and our societies, and this book does that very well.

Written on January 17, 2021