Is there such a thing as a banner year in a reader’s life? If so, what’s the measure?
Can I call 1988 one of my best because I received a handsome hardbound copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for Christmas? It seemed like a coming of age.
In 1993, I fished my mother’s shelves for scandalous content, landing on a yellow-jacketed copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. Eleven might not have been the perfect age for that, but it did make a Roth fan out of me.
The year 2001 brought Rabelais, Pascal, Montaigne, and Voltaire. And—voilà!—the tools to compete with the legacies at college.
Here’s some of what I read at grad school in 2012, written as alternative lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:
And in 2015, I judged a literary prize for the first time. It was a weird wonderful experience, though I cannot recommend reading more than one novel in a 24-hour period, which, I find, puts one at high risk for vivid dreams.
Compared to any of the aforementioned years, 2020 was a stone bummer. We certainly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, the details of which need not appear in this particular column. (I’ll save my shouting for the National Mall, when it’s safe to travel.) But because it is, ostensibly, about a year in reading, I do want to mention the alarming number of admired critics stating, in print, that they’ve entered the fresh hell of being unable to read anything of substance. A couple of pages, a chapter here, an article there—that’s it. I’ve been in that unenviable state before, in a different year, and it was one of the most frustrating and frightening experiences of my life. It really drove home how much of my identity is built on the small skill of making sense of marks on paper. A crucial miscalculation.
This year I developed the opposite affliction: Started reading, couldn’t stop. Read in wild stretches, bookended by bed, compulsively, and occasionally without pleasure. Read like I’d find a phase-3 vaccine vial at storage temperature between the covers. Read like I’d learn to make my own vaccine at home, where I did a gross majority of my reading, save five days at a coastal hotel where we hid out from some forest fires. I read books by authors who were new to me, famous names you love to see, poet-essayists, journalist-biographers. (These aren’t “We Didn’t Start the Fire” lyrics.) Illustrators who collage! Rock-star reportage! Many poets who don’t rhyme—and two poets who do!!!!!! (Sorry, I lied.)
Would you like to see a list? Here are just a few of the 2020 books I highly recommend:
Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Memorial by Bryan Washington (Riverhead)
White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Colorby Ruby Hamad (Catapult)
This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope by Shayla Lawson (Perennial)
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965 by Jia Lynn Yang (Norton)
Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press)
Horsepower by Joy Priest (Pitt Poetry Series)
Young Readers’ Literature:
The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf (Harper)
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (Amulet)
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illus. by Sydney Smith (Neal Porter)
Smash It! by Francina Simone (Inkyard Press)
To tell you the truth, it’s a nowhere-near-exhaustive list. I’ve fallen in love with dozens more this Sisyphean year; perhaps thousands in the course of my literate life. And that is why, despite my gentle grousing, I never resolve to read less.
Megan Labrise is the editor at large and host of Kirkus’ Fully Booked podcast.