At the start of last year, I challenged myself to read one book per week. It’s not that this was hypothetically some impossible feat—I love reading and when I get into it can read voraciously—it was more so a challenge of persistence. And while I got off to a good start, reading about 4 books a month, by the time lock-down hit and my mental health took a nose-dive, I similarly fell into a serious reading slump that lasted for most of the year. Needless to say, I didn’t even come close to my goal of 52 books, not even half. But, considering the circumstances, I’m proud of myself for the reading I did do. In the end I read 22 books, still a little more than my total in 2019. You’ve got to take the small wins.
So, I thought I’d share with you my favourite of the books I read last year, in a loose order of how much I enjoyed them.
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5. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
A Thousand Splendid Suns was one of two books I read in 2020 by author Khaled Hosseini, the other being The Kite Runner. Both were astounding and told equally heart-wrenching stories in the setting of Afghanistan, but A Thousand Splendid Suns emotionally annihilated me on a level that all fiction aspires to but only the best succeeds in doing. Usually, and unfortunately, when a male author writes a female main character it is glaringly obvious (search r/menwritingwomen on Reddit), but this novel was one of the welcome exceptions. Mariam and Laila are both beautifully written female characters, and their eventual mother/daughter-like friendship within what could only be described as utterly tragic circumstances was inspiring to read. This book made me cry, yes, but much more than that, it made me furious. I cannot describe how much vitriol and contempt I had for the situation that these women were in and the man they were under. While ATSS is fiction, it is nonetheless a fiction set within fact—a society under Taliban rule—inviting you to reflect on the contemporary realities of sexism within our world.
4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
As someone who considers themselves a quintessential introvert (a shy, sensitive, cerebral, hard-to-get-to-know homebody who prefers a night in with a good book to a night out on the town), Quiet was easily one of the most important and affirming non-fictions I’ve ever read. It explains in impressive detail the psychology of introversion—a core, innate dimension of a human’s psychology—and poses it in relation to mental health, personality, creativity, career and society as a whole. This book doesn’t downplay the importance of extroversion but instead shows, with copious evidence, how valuable and necessary introversion really is. By extension, it shines an unforgiving spotlight on the Extrovert Ideal which has existed in the Western world for decades—particularly in America—and how negatively this ideal has affected introverts and diminished introvert voices, especially in childhood and adolescence. All in all, if you’re an introvert, a highly-sensitive person (HSP), a parent to an introverted child, or just someone interested in psychology, this book is an absolute must-read. Quiet made me understand myself and some of my experiences in a way that no other book ever has. I was already proud to be an introvert but now I know that I’m damn right to be. Not to mention Quiet is probably the most well-researched book I’ve read—almost 1/6 is just an impressively extensive bibliography.
Side note: I will be doing a blog post later this month about introversion and sensitivity based heavily on the findings in this book, so if you’re interested in learning more about introversion please check that out.
3. Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
I’m a huge fan of non-fiction, as while fiction allows you to escape reality, non-fiction grounds you in reality. This book did exactly that. Recounting Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp from a first-person perspective, this book was a sometimes difficult but all the more essential read. We all know the Holocaust—it’s a history that we’ve been taught and re-taught, in school and then interminably through film and TV, so much so that, with some irony, its story has almost become normalised. But I can tell you with conviction that nothing hammered home the true, unthinkable atrocity of what the Jewish people went through more than this book. And yet, despite its tragedy, this is not a miserable read. I still don’t know how Frankl did it but he somehow managed to write a book detailing the worst of human behaviour within a message of hope which courses throughout every page. I left this book not feeling nihilistic, but, as the title suggests, possessing a deeper realization than ever before of how meaningful and valuable life really is. Not seeing the value in human life is, after all, how we as a humanity end up committing genocides and heinous crimes against each other. A must-read for everyone, but especially those experiencing ennui.
2. (Reread) 1984 by George Orwell
My only reread of the year was of my favourite book of all time, 1984 by George Orwell (cliché, I know). 1984 is a timeless classic, timeless most of all because of its lasting relevance. Orwell recognised something in his time which led him to write 1984, a dystopian world in which even your thoughts are being determined; every move you make is scrutinized; everything you do is controlled and monitored. I’m someone who worries a lot about the future we’re headed towards based on the present we’re living in, where I believe we’re not far off sometimes from emulating the “thought police”. As a cynic, science-fiction and dystopia are my favourite literary genres, and this book has everything you’d want in a science-fiction dystopia.
1984 more than frowns on absolutism. Its take-home message is one that is ultimately interpretative, but I’d like to think it’s at best a warning or a call-to-action, at worst an inevitable template, of what we could/will become if we don’t stop to challenge our gradual loss of privacy, individualism, and not just multifarious opinion but the need for it. The only thing wrong with 1984 is its after-effect—this book is so convincing that I fell into a bit of a depression pit shortly after finishing it again. There’s a reason why George Orwell is one amongst only a few authors to inspire the creation of a word, his being “Orwellian”, as his ability to write novels which reflect the despondency of the real world is unparalleled.
1. Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
Philosophy happened to be a common theme amongst many of the books I read this year—A Midnight Library, Man’s Search For Meaning, A Guide To The Good Life—but perhaps no book was more philosophically gripping for me than this one. Written by one of his former students, Tuesdays With Morrie is a true story about an old man, Morrie Schwartz, in a state of degeneration following a diagnosis of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). After one of his former students—the author of the book—re-establishes contact, they begin to spend each Tuesday of Morrie’s last remaining months together in what the author realises is the last and most important class with his old professor. Broaching subjects such as “forgiveness”, “fear”, “death”, and “a meaningful life”, philosophical subjects we all want to understand further, Morrie shares life lessons with Mitch from his own experience and wisdom. These lessons, which extend also to the reader, are rooted in the utmost humility. Here is a man who is dying, losing his ability to do the simplest of tasks and, worst of all, being terribly cognizant of it all, but who nonetheless decides not to succumb to crippling self-pity or remorse. Instead, he accepts his fate and does what he can to help others with the time he has left. A simple but powerful message.
I cannot even begin to describe how much this book means to me already, having only read last month, in one sitting, and in floods of tears. This is a book for no specific demographic or human state; this is rather a book everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.
. . .
It’s important to reflect on the goodness, the beauty, the privilege of just living, of being alive. A good portion of the books I read last year happened to hammer that message home, something I was beyond grateful for in the year that was 2020, a year where more than ever humanity needed to be reminded, and was reminded—hopefully irrevocably—of the value of life itself. Just being. There is so much gratitude to be found in being. In 2021, hopefully I’ll read more books with a similar philosophical message, and implement their teachings into my day-to-day life, knowing that no matter what, at least I’m alive, and therefore there is always opportunity.
. . .
For some further recommended reading:
- The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
- All God’s Children Wear Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My 5 Favourite Books of 2019:
- Lost Connections by Johann Hari
- Singing And Swinging And Getting Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
- Misery by Stephen King
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