This year, around March, I found myself with a lot of extra reading time on my hands (the strangest thing). As we bring the 2020 chapter to a close, I’m reflecting on what I’ve read this year. More importantly, I’m reflecting on the books that brought me the most joy, provided the most clarity, and lent the greatest support in a year that has been lackluster, unclear, and unyielding. These are the 10 books that got me through 2020:
10. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Synopsis: Friedan’s revolutionary work discusses “the problem that has no name” — the unhappiness of housewives in the 1950s and 1960s. Friedan explores the plight of women feeling unfulfilled and depressed despite living in comfort and security with their husbands and children. In particular, Friedan critiques marketing that targets women, women’s education systems, and the media that women are encouraged to consume. The Feminine Mystique alleges that the narrow options available to women have cost them their identity, during this time.
Why you should read it: The Feminine Mystique is, quite simply, an essential text. Essential for women, essential for any feminist, and essential for anyone that seeks to understand and push for change in culture. This one may not have a strong 2020 connection, but you absolutely shouldn’t skip it.
9. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Synopsis: Lilith is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. From her birth, she is known to possess a dark power that is simultaneously revered and feared. As she grows, Lilith is enlisted in a conspiracy — the women on the plantation are orchestrating a slave revolt. While she supports the movement, Lilith’s life is complicated by her own family history, desires, and thoughts — which makes her a liability.
Why you should read it: This book is rich and weighted. In subject matter, in themes, and in authenticity. Jamaican author Marlon James weaves a compelling and complex tale that leaves the reader constantly questioning and reassessing just as Lilith does. It’s a story grounded in a difficult and brutal history that pairs well with the context and conversation of the current moment. One of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read.
8. The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money by Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Hage
Synopsis: In association with the popular personal finance blog by the same name and described as “the personal finance book for people that don’t care about personal finance,” The Financial Diet is a comprehensive and practical guide to contemporary money matters. The book offers advice on getting through an overspending detox, managing debt, and learning to live on an entry-level salary. The Financial Diet applies smart money decisions to the traditional arenas like investments and discussing finances, but also injects practical sensibilities into everything from cooking on a budget to home decor and maintenance.
Why you should read it: I’ve been a reader (and occasional contributor) of The Financial Diet for several years. In any year, I’d recommend the book and blog as a great resource for young people looking to make smarter money choices. However, 2020 presented a unique set of circumstances and an upset of our overall security. In this year, especially, there’s a lot to be gained from simplicity, financial planning, and learning to budget well (and still live well).
7. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Synopsis: In the midst of the Jazz Age in 1920s Mexico, Casiopeia Tun yearns for a life of excitement beyond the confines of her grandfather’s house and the small town she lives in. One day, she discovers a wooden box in her grandfather’s rooms and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death. He enlists her help in restoring him to his throne and Casiopeia journies with the alluring and powerful deity from the jungles of the Yucatan to the bright lights of Mexico City… even into a strange world totally separate from our own.
Why you should read it: Yes, Silvia Moreno-Garcia makes this list twice! She’s that good. Similar to Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow is a vivid and captivating exploration of its settings, the 1920s and Mexico. Moreno-Garcia’s instinct for romance and adventure are positively delightful and a joy to read, and both are used with excellent effect in the novel. What I appreciate especially for Gods of Jade and Shadow is how this novel really digs deep into Mexican folklore. It’s a deeper cultural study that makes for an excellent introduction to the lore, for readers that are unfamiliar.
Synopsis: After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the mysterious house and the bizarre family that lives there.
Why you should read it: Mexican Gothic was easily one of the most sensational horror novels to come out of 2020. Mexican Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a master of period pieces and marries the aesthetics of 1950s Mexico perfectly to the austere, Victorian fantasy of High Place. The horror elements are truly creepy and the book oozes a delicious dread. Moreno-Garcia isn’t just a star author on the rise, Mexican Gothic cements her as a blazing comet in modern literature.
5. Circe by Madeline Miller
Synopsis: Circe, the daughter of Helios, is a strange child that is met with disapproval by the immortal Titans and Olympians. Turning to mortals for companionship, she discovers she possesses the power of witchcraft and that she is capable of creating monsters and posing a threat to the gods themselves. She is banished to an island where she hones her skills in the occult and, in small strange ways, profoundly influences the lives of all that cross her path — god and mortal alike.
Why you should read it: There has never been a year where escape is so desperately needed, and that’s precisely what Circe is. The book hits all the sweet spots for lovers of Greek mythology with its thorough research and attention to detail, while still being completely fresh and accessible for contemporary readers with no prior classics knowledge. The story is sweeping, beautiful, and surprisingly moving. There’s been a lot of critical buzz for Circe and it is absolutely earned.
4. My Own Words by Mary Hartnett, Wendy W. Williams, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Synopsis: The late Supreme Court Justice assembled this collection of her writings, with the help of her biographers Williams and Hartnett. The book contains the Justice’s speeches and writings on subjects ranging from gender equality, her life, her rulings as a Justice, and examples of Ginbgurg’s prolific writing that date back as far as her school newspaper contributions in eighth grade. My Own Words is a fascinating look at the life and mind of one of history’s most influential women.
Why you should read it: When Justice Ginsburg passed in September 2020, I picked up My Own Words again to process her impact and to mourn the loss of a great mind. It’s a very heavy read, but each topic and piece is made easily accessible by the biographers as it is organized. Ginsburg was a brilliant woman and relentlessly hopeful. The My Own Words collection is almost a reference resource, where readers may pick it up and flip to the speech or opinion that they need.
3. JAWS by Peter Benchley
Synopsis: If you’re not familiar with the 1974 book, there’s no doubt you’ve seen the iconic film that it inspired. For the truly uninitiated, JAWS is the exciting story of a massive killer shark and the brave men that hunt the monster down.
Why you should read it: JAWS the film turned 45 this year and felt especially familiar and timely in our current moment. As we entered a pandemic summer and the real-world horror of irresponsibly large super spread events occurring, obvious parallels could be drawn between JAWS and the reckless actions of selfish leaders. The book is a great read, anytime, but hits differently now.
2. Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize To Make More Room For Happiness by Gretchen Rubin
Synopsis: Gretchen Rubin, author and host of the immensely popular Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, tackles the ever-present problem of household clutter with over 150 simple (and often humorous) tips, tricks, and suggestions. In her book, while Rubin realizes that many feel calmer when their surroundings are more organized she also recognizes that there is no “one size fits all” solution for managing the clutter that bothers us.
Why you should read it: I think it’s safe to say that in the time of COVID, we’ve had plenty of time to work on our surroundings and figure out how we feel about our homes. Who can’t relate to the struggles of turning your home into a place for work and for rest? Our homes have become a prison, a sanctuary, a school, an office, an escape, and, at the end of the day, are the most important spaces we have. Clutter seems like a small and trivial thing, but in a world where absolutely nothing is guaranteed that tiny bit of control means so much. Rubin’s strategies are accessible and the book is not an overwhelming read. If you’re feeling chaotic, thumb to a page and try something out. Outer Order, Inner Calm is easily one of the most useful texts I’ve read this year and I can’t recommend it enough.
1. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard
Synopsis: In American Nations, award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard proposes that the diverse culture of the United States (and some of Canada) can be divided into eleven distinct nations. Each nation is defined by its own unique history and a highly individual regional culture. Beginning with each “nation’s” earliest inhabitants and colonizers, Woodard begins to piece together a picture of how different forces acted upon the regions of the nation and created beliefs and behaviors we still see reflected today.
Why you should read it: Coming into 2020 as an election year had renewed my interest (and anxieties) about political rivalries and in the difficult reckonings we routinely face when thinking critically about the United States. When our differences are laid to bare in social media comment sections, it can be cathartic to go back to the source. American Nations is frank in its appraisal of our country. It acknowledges the full spectrum of stories of colonization. In reading the book, we’re reminded of the most brutal beginnings and of the instances where cultural collaboration and sharing was successful. You walk away from the book with a better understanding of how we got here and how the goal of defining “America” has always been muddy. For lovers of history, amateur political pundits, and those of us seeking a firm foothold in today’s most difficult discussions, American Nations is an essential text.
With books spanning genre and topic, these 10 books got me through 2020, which ones helped you? Let us know on social media.
Synopses for the 10 Books That Got Me Through 2020 list are non-spoiler.
Caitlin is a sweater enthusiast, film critic, and lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began with being shown Rosemary’s Baby at a particularly impressionable age and she’s been hooked ever since. She loves a good bourbon and hates people who talk in movies. Caitlin has been writing since 2014 and you can find her work on Film Inquiry, The Financial Diet, Nightmarish Conjurings, and many others.