Top Books to Read in 2020 As Everything Falls Apart
In a COVID-strained year, tales of families repairing their lives and the caste system's effect of Black Americans made an impact
When COVID hit, I made a vow to read any book strongly recommended to me. That's how I found myself simultaneously devouring Christie Tate's well-written memoir GROUP: HOW ONE THERAPIST AND A CIRCLE OF STRANGERS SAVED MY LIFE (Avid Reader Press) and my favorite 2020 work of fiction, Charles Baxter's THE SUN COLLECTIVE (Pantheon). Overachieving neurotic Tate's revelations aren't earth-shattering but give an honest, entertaining look at healing through opening up to strangers turned allies. Baxter's novel is our story: a society untethered from its moral ground, swaying in the greed and anxiety of a Trump-ish leader named Amos Alonzo Thorkelson as rumors of the mythical Sandmen killing the poor and the Sun Collective perhaps taking out the rich pollute everything. Meanwhile, Baxter's patented polite Midwesterners do their buttoned-down best to get by. Baxter remains one our very finest writers, and you should seek out his work now.
Best nonfiction: Isabel Wilkerson's CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS (Random House) is perhaps the most important and timely book of 2020. The Pulitzer Prize winner's thesis is that India's caste system isn't far removed from the way America historically has treated African Americans. She throws into the mix evidence that the Nazis came to the United States to examine our legal system's treatment of Black Americans as a model for how they would deal with Jewish people.
My runner up in nonfiction, Robert Kolker's HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD: INSIDE THE MIND OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY (Doubleday), is a riveting, smart read about a perfect American family's facade falling away as six of the 12 Galvin children sink into schizophrenia.
Older books that helped get me through our virus era include Daniel James Brown's beautiful THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS (2013), which does for competitive rowing what Netflix's The Queen's Gambit did for chess. I'm a writer knee deep in hammering out my own book, and THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION (2016) by Benjamin Percy is how-to written with the singing prose of a novel.