Favorite Reads of 2020

It doesn’t really need to be said again… but wowza! 2020 was a YEAR. Even with all of the emotional ups and downs of the pandemic year (plus finishing graduate school remotely, virtual graduation, moving to a new town, and starting a new job), I still managed to read some great books.

In fact, I read more books this year than ever before! According to my Goodreads Annual Reading Challenge, I have finished 81 books. 

This was the year of audiobooks for me – I read/listened to about 35 audiobooks. Thanks to the Libby app and library cards, I borrowed many audiobooks each month. I tend to listen to audiobooks when I am driving (anything more than 10 minutes), cleaning, cooking, or doing dishes. In the fall, I listened to many while walking around my new neighborhood. 

About half of the books I read this year were physical copy and, unlike other years,  I read fewer than 10 books on my Kindle. I didn’t actually finish many Kindle books, as I tended to use my Kindle for a lot of reading for school. I like the highlighting and note taking feature on Kindle books and it helped when writing papers for graduate school. Most of my school reading isn’t counted in my books read tally because I didn’t usually read a book cover to cover (no cheating for me!).

Here are my favorite books I read in 2020, organized by date read.

The first four books were all included as favorites on my mid-year reading update. Here is a link to that blog post.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Dates read: January 22-29, 2020
Originally published September 2019, The Dutch House was all over Bookstagram (Instagram accounts dedicated to reading) at the close of 2019. Prior to The Dutch House, I had only read one other book by Ann Patchett, Commonwealth. Patchett is a wonderful storyteller. The Dutch House became one of my most recommended books of the year, anytime someone wanted to read or listen to a fiction book. The audiobook is read by Tom Hanks, and it is lovely.

The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister
Dates read: March 17-19, 2020
I wanted to read this book after it was mentioned on my syllabus for the introductory preaching course I took in the fall of 2019 at Yale Divinity School with Prof. Carolyn Sharp. I read The Time is Now in the early days of the pandemic. The chapters are very short and easy to read, almost like blog posts. It was my first introduction to Sister Joan Chittister’s writing, and I have since added several of her books to my to-read list. Sr. Joan writes in an easy to read style; this book would be great for a small group book study and discussion.

The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen
Dates read: March 20 – May 23, 2020
Another early pandemic read, I savored The Genesee Diary, reading a few pages each day. From my mid-year write up: “It was a wonderful book to savor. It really is a diary of Nouwen’s seven-month sabbatical at Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. Nouwen is self-reflective, without being too self-conscious, and examines the busyness of his normal daily life as an academic.” I do recommend this book, but not for those who haven’t read anything else by Henri Nouwen. I think this book would be best appreciated after some familiarity of his other writings. Life of the Beloved or The Wounded Healer are two of his more popular books.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
First read in 2006
Dates re-read: June 9-12, 2020

I don’t know what it was… early in 2020 I started thinking about The Catcher in the Rye, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Holden Caulfield. I don’t think I had ever re-read a book before and now I am curious what else I should re-read. I hardly remembered any of the book from my initial reading while in high school. In re-reading, I was surprised at the prevalence of mental health issues apparent in Holden’s behavior and those he interacts with. I think when I first read The Catcher in the Rye as a young teenager I probably skimmed over the death of Holden’s brother and the suicide of his classmate. Re-reading The Catcher in the Rye gave me a lot to think about.

Franny & Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Dates read: October 9-10, 2020
As soon I read The Catcher in the Rye, I knew I would soon follow it with Franny & Zooey. I received a lovely used copy of this book a few years ago. I felt like it was just waiting on my shelf for this year. Franny & Zooey was a wonderful follow-up to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye over the summer. Franny is a short story and Zooey is a novella. I think that both were originally published in The New Yorker, in 1955 and 1957, respectively.

From my Goodreads review: “I love the way Salinger writes dialogue. As a reader you are drawn into monologues and quips and so many other verbal spars. The Glass family is easy to imagine. If you liked Catcher in the Rye, I think you will like this. Religion plays an interesting role in the essays. Poor Franny. All the men in her life are constantly mansplaining her. Just let the poor girl have a quarter life crisis. And don’t even get me started on the relationship between Bessie and her children. So strange.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
Dates read: July 18-25, 2020
I saw a friend post about this book in 2019, and it had been on my radar ever since. Kathleen Norris has written a beautiful ode to the prairie lands of America. Her words paint brushstrokes of the natural environment and human isolation. I felt like the week I spent reading this book was actually a full year soaking in the seasons of the Plains. She does an incredible job detailing the weather and landscapes. This was my first time reading a book by Kathleen Norris, but I’ve already added another book of hers to my to-read list. In a year of limited travel due to the pandemic, I felt like I was transported to the Dakotas thanks to Kathleen Norris’ writing.

“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris, page 121

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
Dates read: October 27-30, 2020
I am not a regular podcast listener, but I do enjoy occasionally listening to episodes of On Being, a public radio conversation and podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett. Many of the people she interviews on the podcast and the topics she discusses are both of personal and professional interest. I was very glad to be able to borrow this audiobook through Libby. I enjoyed the audiobook because it was read by the author and included snippets from the podcast. However, one bookish friend of mine commented that it was too much to take in and hard to listen to. Whichever way you read this book, I do recommend Becoming Wise. There is so much wisdom and life experience shared by those she interviews. Those who are already fans of Krista Tippett may also appreciate the personal life stories she shares scattered throughout.

Barack Obama Book Club
In November, I did a deep dive into the world of Barack Obama. I knew that his newest memoir was being released in November, 2020. I decided spur of the moment to read/listen to his two previous memoirs before reading A Promised Land. All three books were favorites for the year.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Dates read: November 11-13, 2020
Originally published in 1995 and re-released in 2004, this book had been on my radar for a while. Barack Obama is a great storyteller, and he doesn’t linger in one place too long when describing things for the reader. I thought Dreams from My Father had a great flow and enjoyed listening to it. Obviously, listening in 2020 was interesting because Obama’s commentary on race is actually very mild. Don’t expect to hear the phrase Black Lives Matter. Context is also important. This book was written “pre-politics” and he doesn’t write about his graduate studies at Harvard or anything beyond that time.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
Date read: November 17, 2020
Again publication date is important when reading Barack Obama’s work. The Audacity of Hope was first published in fall 2006. I continued to be impressed by Obama’s concise storytelling. He doesn’t repeat much between any three of these books.

From my review on Goodreads: “This is not Barack Obama running for President, or at least that’s not exactly what he thinks. At the time he wrote this book as a way to “finance” his campaign for US Senate. I put finance in quotes because he already won the campaign. He says that it was just part of his pitch to Michelle for how he could help their family financially after running a big campaign. Before he realized that the BIGGEST campaign lay ahead.
The Audacity of Hope is idealistic first term Senator Obama. He writes about his respect for President George W. Bush. Obama the optimist writes a lot about values. The values of the Founding Fathers, shared values, values that were instilled in him by his mother, etc. All sorts of values.
The optimistic Obama sees the government as the place where people can work together for good. He also talks about how President Bush and the people around him were just everyday people trying to make the best decisions they knew how.”

A Promised Land
Dates read: November 17-27, 2020
After so many hours of listening to Barack Obama read his work, I never grew tired of his voice and his storytelling. My own political coming of age coincided with Barack Obama’s presidency. I was aware of many of the events that he talked about, but obviously learned a lot from the level of detail he provided with his reflections.  I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book where Obama explains just how improbable his quick ascension to running for the highest office in our country was.
I was captivated and very interested through the election and his first days in office. I’m not a policy wonk though so the intricate details on Affordable Healthcare and some of the energy policy were not as interesting. His choice to split this memoir into two parts was smart. He keeps a good balance of storytelling, nothing too long and doesn’t try to cover too much ground.

I hope that my reading recap inspires you and your reading life in the year ahead!
Do we share any favorites? Please let me know.

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