My 2020 in books

I’ve had a tough year reading books. I fell into the trap of seeing reading as work and lost the joy of it. I filled the story gap with films, but thanks to a throwaway Goodreads challenge (35 books in 2020), managed to keep going. Writers aren’t supposed to admit to not enjoying reading. It’s a truism that reading is a necessary part of writing, but in agreeing to go to a new book club, reading Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile became actually necessary. I would never have chosen it, but I’m happy I did, because the writing was brilliant, and showed a way to use fiction to tell the story of a real person, in this case the playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar died in 1990 from a brain haemorrhage. It made me think about poverty, alcoholism, bad parents, and my own working class roots.

From there I turned to a H.P. Lovecraft collection, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales. Most books I choose are novels, and if I do choose short stories they tend to be smaller collections, so this hefty tome, with several novellas of increasing conceptual density, became a serious obstacle. Instead of putting it back on the shelf, I let it sit on my desk making me feel guilty, because it turns out part of my personality requires that I finish books I start. I’ve always been a one-at-a-time book guy, and if a book becomes dull I skip and scan ahead, but those tactics didn’t work here. I ran aground just over halfway and stayed there until the end of March.

Stoner, John Williams’s classic, got me off the rocks and back on track. It’s one of my favourite books of the year, a view of a man’s life from birth to death, concentrating on his time as an academic at the University of Missouri — a simple man with a straightforward life, and all the wonders that entails. At the end of April I hit another book that knotted up my reading propellers — Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. I really didn’t like it, even though my peers seemed to unanimously love it, so I kept trying to finish it, and I kept sabotaging my own efforts. A grim period. Perhaps that first lockdown was getting to me. Eventually, like Lovecraft, I put the old woman aside, and switched to a burst of science-fiction.

Someone recommended To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers, on Twitter, I liked the idea of a novel about astro-biologists, and it was short. I’ve always found short novels to be the best route out of reader’s block. Each chapter sees the crew of a deep space mission to investigate life in the furthest reaches of space stop on a planet and study its biological wonders. The pleasure is in the atmosphere, descriptions and crew dynamics. From planet Chambers, I ventured to Shirley Jackson (We Have Always Lived in the Castle), Patti Smith (M Train), and Kerry Hadley-Pryce (The Black Country), three voices that couldn’t be more different, but lit up my summer. In August, I read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami, a familiar style, and a familiar Murakami protagonist, but expertly done.

My third literary roadblock of the year was Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. It’s lauded as one of the best science-fiction story collections… ever. The film Arrival, which I loved, was based on one of its stories, Story of Your Life. A co-worker raved about the collection to me. But, oh, how I hated this book. It wasn’t a rational reaction. The stories were beautifully crafted, and I admired them, but the ones I read were cold, empty things. I can’t think of a book that has ever repelled me so strongly. I couldn’t allow myself to give up, so it became this noxious presence on my desk for weeks and weeks. After a while I resented its very existence. I despised it. I wonder now if I was putting on that book something of myself that I was struggling to bring to consciousness. I must have been. The book was praised, successful, expertly crafted, oh-so-clever, but the characters were ciphers for ideas, and there was no discernible heart. I found the opening stories so cold they somehow froze my mind so I couldn’t continue. Eventually, I let the book go. I’m still not sure what my emotional storm over it was about.

This left me running well behind schedule in November. Luckily I hit a rich vein to get me over the finishing line — The Kingdom, by Lawrence Osborne, was a cold thriller set in a humid Singapore, and inspired me to get back on the writing saddle. Exit Management, by Naomi Booth, reminded me what amazing things can be done with voice. London Gothic, by Nicholas Royle, is another of his story collections around a theme, and testament to good prose, writing about what you love, and playing the long game. Anf finally, Equilibrium, by Tonino Guerra, a firecracker novel of ideas that got me thinking about literary form and the role of history in character’s stories.

That was my 2020 in books. Next year I want to read 60 books (!), some newly published (yes), and most importantly, enjoy reading more (YES). (Note to self. Stop believing hype and make up your own mind. If you’re stalled or bored, put that fucker down and find something you’re into. It’s not like there’s a book shortage. Ffs.)

  • Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, Adelle Stripe
  • Stoner, John Williams
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
  • M Train, Patti Smith
  • The Black Country, Kerry Hadley-Pryce
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami
  • The Kingdom, Lawrence Osborne
  • Exit Management, Naomi Booth
  • London Gothic, Nicholas Royle
  • Equilibrium Tonino Guerra