2020 is finally coming to a close, it was a tough year, et cetera et cetera. While 2020 really sucked, I still intend to end the year on a less platitudinous and depressive note. We all know how terrible this year was for many people. It sure was a hell of a lot tougher for others than it was for me and I am thankful for having been able to buy and read books all year. Many people aren’t in a position where they can afford the luxury of reading, let alone buying, books. Despite all of this, I want to take the time to give credit to my favorite books of the year. Unfortunately, The Plague by Camus wasn’t one of my 13 favorites, even though I liked it well enough. I enjoyed almost every book I read this year, which made it hard to pick 13 of them but that makes the list even better, doesn’t it? Some of the books I read earlier have grown on me, while others aren’t as high up on the list as I expected them to be when I initially read them. I’ve already made reading plans for 2021 but this post is dedicated to the books that really had an impact on me in 2020.
13. Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
To be completely honest, I haven’t read every single poem in this collection. Nonetheless, this was an important read for me for several reasons. Firstly, I was never into poetry that much and Ginsberg changed that. It showed me that poets don’t have to lose themselves in countless stylistic devices that have to be deciphered before the actual meaning can be discovered. While there is certainly tremendous value in such poetry as well, it still was a refreshing experience to read Ginsberg for the first time. The second and probably more important reason is that Ginsberg really got me started on my journey through the Beats-canon and American literature in general. Even though my uncle had already suggested that I should read Kerouac and Burroughs and I had at one point even tried to read On the Road, Ginsberg was the neccessary segway for my descent, or should I say ascension, into this kind of literature. I bought the collection of poems right after watching Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese’s pseudo-documentary about Bob Dylan. There’s famous footage in there, where Dylan and Ginsberg visit Kerouac’s grave. The whole atmosphere of the movie motivated me to dive deeper into that era of American arts and a huge chunk of what I have read since is American literature from the second half of the 20th century. Even though his famous poems like Howl and America are fantastic, Mescaline is probably my favorite. I love the line “I’m stuck change the record Gregory ah excellent he’s doing just that”. Exactly my type of humor.
12. Leviathan by Paul Auster
There’s not too much to say about this one, except for that it’s incredibly well written. I love Paul Auster and I also love this kind of postmodern metaficiton. Benjamin Sachs’ descent into madness was very appealing to me because Auster, or his alter ego Peter Aaron, describes his devolution in such a comprehensible way. One of the things that makes Auster so great is that he is one of those postmodern writers that are complex, yet easy to understand. This was my last read of the year and I will definitely follow it up with another Auster novel in 2021.
11. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
While Paul Auster is easy to digest, Burroughs is certainly not. This might be the reason why Naked Lunch is so low on the list, despite it being one of the most important and influential books on here. I wrote a paper on it this year, which is why I read a whole lot of material on this novel and Burroughs in general. I love Naked Lunch and I went back to it multiple times to read some of its passages aloud but I just didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it as much as I did the other books on this list. This might change in the future because this is one of the books that stayed with me for a long time after I had completed it. I can guarantee that I will reread it at least once. Who knows, it might even pop up in one of these lists in the years to come.
10. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
James Baldwin might be my favorite author. I took a course in African-American literature this summer and encountered Baldwin for the first time. We were supposed to read Sonny’s Blues for class and my girlfriend (who also took the course) and I were dumbfounded by the emotional force behind his prose. Giovanni’s Room is, without a doubt, the most depressing novel I’ve read all year. Baldwin apparently tried to make it into a film with Marlon Brando, who was a close friend of his. The movie never happened, which is a shame because I haven’t read many novels that seem like they were written to be adapted into a movie.
9. Native Son by Richard Wright
Baldwin criticized the novel in the first essay of his collection Notes of a Native Son. He didn’t like the overt portrayal of Wright’s ideology in the text, which at the time wasn’t only made up of Wright’s concern for civil rights but also of his communist convictions. Baldwin argued that the roots of racism were way more complex than Wright portrayed them to be and that protest literature in general doesn’t acknowledge this complexity. While Baldwin is, at least in my opinion, certainly correct in his assessment, Native Son moved me in ways that seemed intended by Wright. The original introduction explains the creation of Bigger Thomas, who is a symptom of racism in America and who is only a metaphor for all the African Americans that were and are being denied so many different aspects of American life, so that it’s only a matter of time until there is some form of retribution. But even if one ignores the politics, the novel is a bone-chilling thriller, the likes of which I have seldom read. There are a lot of Crime and Punishment vibes going on here and I wasn’t able to put the book down for very long.
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is a hard book to review because the content is so gross and amoral but at the same time the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. This is why I didn’t bother reviewing it but who needs another review of Lolita anyway, right? What stuck with me after I had finished reading the novel, was Nabokov’s ability to write in English, his second language, at a level that he called “second-rate” but is still better than that of most American writers. As someone who doesn’t speak English as their first language it is very encouraging to see someone like Nabokov pull it off.
7. Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima
I didn’t quite make it through the whole tetralogy this year but at least I read the first half. I haven’t read a bad novel by Mishima yet and this one really taught me a lot. In my review I talked at length about the struggle between pragmatic and radical views on politics and Mishima does a great job of doing both sides of the argument justice, even though he clearly leaned towards the latter. Runaway Horses is also a great starting point to learn about Japanese history and religion, at times it even explains religious concepts in detail. This doesn’t mean that it’s a tool suffiecient enough to learn about history but it sure is a way to confront oneself with a beautiful culture that is so very different from ours.
6. Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank
Last week I mentioned Thomas Frank and how he is an important influence on me. This is the book that got me interested in his work and it taught me a lot about politics and history. Of course there’s an ideological flavor to his writings and I don’t agree with all of his views but that is the case with any piece of journalism. What is important is intellectual honesty and Thomas Frank is certainly honest. It is hard to write about this book without diving too deep into politics but rest assured that I will certainly write an article or essay on his work in the future.
5. Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
Room to Dream is a one of a kind biography. I posted a review on Goodreads but I wasn’t too happy with it, which is why I didn’t bother to post it here. While the physical copy of the book is longer and contains more information, I highly suggest listening to the audio book. McKenna and Lynch take turns narrating the biography, with McKenna chronicling Lynch’s life and work in a more traditional way, while Lynch himself narrates every second chapter, expanding on the previous one. It doesn’t seem like he’s reading off a script, instead he talks about whatever comes to mind. If you’re a fan of his you’ll know that he’s an extremely entertaining guy to listen to. His anecdotes are insightful and inspiring to anyone trying it to make it as a creative. I highly recommend picking this up if you’re a fan of Lynch, movies, or art in general.
4. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I mentioned earlier that it took me two tries to get into On the Road. Well, I’m glad I gave it a second try because this really kickstarted my longing for a time that is no more. The travelling through America, the drinking, the music, it all vaulted me into the world of Billie Holiday and Jack Daniels. I recommend this to anyone who hasn’t read it, just because it’s a snapshot of a generation and a movement that was in such stark contrast to the Eisenhower years and influenced so many great artists of the 20th century.
3. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Coetzee is one of those Nobel Prize winning novelists that are hard to avoid. I went into Disgrace assuming that it would be good but I didn’t expect it to be this good. There are so many layers to this novel that I’m thinking about writing an essay on it instead of a review. No one needs to tell you that Coetzee is a great novelist but there is so much to unpack here. Disgrace is about sin and punishment but one thing is nowhere to be found: redemption. David Lurie, the novel’s tremendously unlikeable protagonist, starts a rather onesided and short-lived relationship with a student. This relationship gets him into trouble and eventually costs him his job. Instead of defending himself he accepts his punishment but he doesn’t see why he should ask for forgiveness. He doesn’t care about forgiveness, nor does he think that he needs it. This, of course, is not true. The novel is a parable for the hopeless reality we enter when we fail to seek forgiveness, when we fail to forgive others and, maybe even more importantly, fail to forgive ourselves.
2. Another Country by James Baldwin
There are probably a few novels on this list that would be considered “better” novels by most readers. A lot of people would also consider Giovanni’s Room to be the superior Baldwin novel. I have to disagree, even if this disagreement is based on the fact that this was the first novel of his I read and that several of the characters are trying to make it as a writer, which is something I can certainly identify with. Another Country is a novel about many different things and it deals with all of these topics in a profound way. It deals with racism, the dilemma of the artist having to choose between safety and honesty, and the ambiguity of love. Baldwin’s writing is drenched with so much pain and sadness, yet he is still able to find beauty in the hideousness of being human. Baldwin was a firm believer that you can only love others if you love yourself, the same way you can only understand racism if you truly see and feel the pain of others and even more importantly, understand the reasons for their pain. Another Country is as aesthetically pleasing as it is complex and its characters are some of the most memorable I have ever encountered.
1. The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
I could’ve chosen a number of titles for the top spot but this novel was just too much fun for it not to be my favorite of the year. I detailed my delight in a review back in October, so you can check that out if you are interested in my exact reasoning behind it. Even though The Broom of the System has some flaws and a rather unsatisfying ending, I enjoyed it more than any other book on this list. I couldn’t believe how funny and absurd it was. In addition to the humor, I was impressed by the novel’s structure and it opened my mind to countless new ideas on how to structure a story. One more thing I love about the novel, something which I also wrote about in my review, is the accessible philosophical discourse. You don’t have to read Wittgenstein or Derrida to love this book but if you do you can dig a lot deeper than the absurd story and the quirky characters. This is a novel I would recommend to anyone. It’s easy to read and it’s so much fun.
I hope you guys have the best possible start to 2021 and I’ll be back with more content in 2021!
My 13 favorite reads of 2020Tweet that shit!