In 2020, everyone’s concerns have converged, it seems (if our opinions haven’t). My favorite books helped explain what was happening, provided guidance and insight, even comfort. Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:
James Baldwin – Collected Essays (Library of America): Name someone else who has spoken truth to power with such precision. Read chronologically, these essays form a fascinating autobiography, because everything Baldwin wrote about American history, culture and politics erupted from lacerating self-reflection. Not wanting to mar the pages, I’ve filled a notebook with pithy quotations from this volume, which – among other things – articulates as no other text has why Black Lives Matter matters.
Chip Jones – The Organ Thieves: In this thriller-paced tale of VCU’s failed effort to perform the first heart transplant, Richmond, VA, newpaperman Jones splits the sternum of racial politics and dirty tricks here in the capital of the Confederacy, going all the way back to 19th Century medical school grave robbers and all the way up to the racist decisions that may have killed a Black man to give a White man his heart.
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell – March. This 3-volume graphic novel-style biography of John Lewis begins with his farm childhood in Alabama and ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the last page a chilling coda concerning the assassinations of 1968. So many people died this year, many we all felt we knew: Ginsburg and Bryant and Boseman and Prine and Trebek and Connery and Van Halen and (Little Richard) Penniman and (Toots) Hibbert and the list goes on all the way along the line to our own family and yours, too, probably. Lewis’ nationally televised funeral felt like a memorial for all, fitting testament to a man whose life changed ours.
Robert MacFarland – Underland: I read everything MacFarland writes, joined his Twitter book club this year, and found his new book simply magnificent. It’s about caves and tunnels and secret nooks and the spooky (he would say “eldritch”) beauty of the earth’s entrails. Somehow, across 500 pages of prose, whole paragraphs read like rich poetry, some lines easily parsed as blank verse. It’s a dazzling work of subterranean exploration and reflection that I’m re-reading now.
W.S. Merwin – Garden Time: My dear friend, the poet and disability services worker Sarah Knorr, gave me Merwin’s final book of poems the last time I saw her before her death from cancer (we had tea at Sub Rosa Bakery that late-February afternoon, where I gifted her the MacFarland book). This may be Merwin’s crowning achievement, each poem diffracting the others, all reflecting an expansive wonder at our temporal existence and our longing for what may last.
Gordon Parks – A Choice of Weapons: Surprised to find that famous filmmaker and photographer Parks had written a memoir. Bowled over that he wrote only about his coming of age, stopping before anything like fame came his way. Gritty, angry, closely observed vignettes about one Black youngster’s travails in an early 20th Century America that had no use for him, each chapter a tightrope walk over a chasm that has claimed so many. Parks doesn’t pretend that his smarts or ingenuity got him across; he knows it was sheer luck. And the fury in his writing is all about the injustice of that.
Shusaku Endo — Silence: Martin Scorsese’s bleak film rendition freaked me out so much that I quit watching early on, then went to the novel, which – in a hard-earned epiphany — reveals the simple key to Christianity’s appeal, something a childhood raised in a Southern Baptist church, and decades of reflection on religion and philosophy, had somehow missed.
Sam Wasson – The Big Goodbye: Covid/BLM/Election/Zoom, the other common thread this year was streaming movies, they say. We’ve done our share, and some of that has been re-watching the 1970s classics I grew up on. This book, a blow-by-blow account of the making of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, taught me a lot about the work all those folks on the credits do, told a heart-rending story of Polanski’s tortured past, and opened up a Pandora’s box of classics I hadn’t watched before (check out Polanski’s Frantic, Ghost Writer, and Knife in the Water, whew!)
Paul Witcover – Lincolnstein: This book won’t be published until 2021, but my best friend Paul let me read it in draft, and wow! In the first chapter of this roller coaster picaresque, the brain of Jim from Huck Finn is transplanted into the body of Abraham Lincoln, the patched together monster then bolting for the Civil War South, and the hunt that follows turns up hilarious takes on characters from Southern history, literature and folklore, while nailing the lies therein. I so hope Quentin Tarentino or the Cohen Bros. lay hands on this book!
Peter Wohllebon – The Hidden Life of Trees: If anything has kept me sane this year, it’s been daily walks in the woods with our dog. This book, read early in the pandemic, opened my eyes to the community life of a forest, changed how I see and understand the trees that shade these walks, left me strolling more reverently, with a new sense of wonder, along the way.
Okay, your turn – What have you been reading this year?