Perhaps, dear reader, you share my ambivalence about how to regard the existence of 2020. I mean, it definitely happened, but one of the year’s chief characteristics was the suspension of so many things for so long that many measures of the year are just a series of blank pages — for example, the day planner that I diligently used for exactly two-and-a-half months.
During that time of pre-Covid day planning, I was busy reading and buying the 2020 Spring frontlist of new titles for the bookstore. Now, almost exactly a year later, I am again buying a Spring frontlist and repeatedly having a sense of déjà vu as many of the same titles are included, this time in paperback. Normally, this wouldn’t trip me up as it is the correct timing — most paperbacks appear exactly one year after the hardcovers — but 2020 did not seem to follow any schedule correctly and the usual comfort a humble book buyer finds in the reliable publishing cycle has been disrupted this time around.
Every year, great books go unnoticed. This is an unavoidable tragedy given the volume of titles released. But unlike other years, I lacked the customary means of highlighting the great, unusual, and beautiful books that often find their audience at indie bookstores like Powell’s. So here, belatedly, I am able to jump up and down with semaphore flags to point out some of my Spring 2020 favorites making their paperback debuts in 2021. Most of these are out now; a few have upcoming April or May release dates and are noted as such.
I went back and forth about how order this list, and ultimately landed on “selectively random,” largely because it needed to start with this book. When the stores were closed and I was at home, cut off from customers and my fellow booksellers, this was the book I most wished I could recommend. Lulu Miller of Radiolab looks to a renowned, late-19th-century biologist for inspiration on how to persevere and rebuild a life that’s literally come crashing down around you, but instead she finds a dark American history that can’t be compartmentalized or ignored. This isn’t just a beautiful book about the history of ideas; it is personal, it is soulful.
Thinking back to the onset of the pandemic, there were a multitude of signals that the world was drastically changing, and I suspect that everyone needed to see more than one before we could start to accept it. A significant one for me came on March 10, when our sold-out event with Rebecca Solnit, at a large concert venue to have taken place on March 18, was cancelled. Solnit’s many books are beloved by the Powell’s community, and the enthusiasm for her appearance was no surprise. Her memoir offers everything we’ve come to expect: complex sentences rich with nuanced thought. Her interest is more in the world than in herself, and this may initially seem less revealing than most autobiographies, but few writers are able to so clearly convey a firmly centered, but outward-looking, perspective.
I’m trying not to make the pandemic the lens for every book on this list, so here is a refreshing look at an entirely different kind of disaster: the largest recorded earthquake in the history of the United States! The sparse population of Alaska in 1964 allowed for a fortuitously small death toll, but it also rendered communication difficult, making local reporter Genie Chance’s near-constant radio broadcasts all the more essential and reassuring. But this isn’t just a book about one person’s contribution to a state’s resilience; it’s about everything that humans experience, in a way I find hard to describe. Here’s my real pitch: Mooallem has written a fascinating and finely balanced work of creative nonfiction that I found essential and reassuring.
I don’t know about you, but the last year of my life has been hyper-local. This has given me a lot of time to contemplate the wayfinding elements of Portland’s street grid. Deirdre Mask gave me a whole new way to think about those elements in her globe-spanning history that starts with how streets are named and buildings are numbered, but extends to how a society defines and redefines itself. Like the works of Mark Kurlansky, Mask uses the specific and seemingly mundane to tell a vast and captivating story about human civilization.
The question of how to endure has been on all our minds this year. For some, the question has always been more existential: Why endure at all? Facing that abyss, and finding an answer, can be a life’s work — and tragically all too many never do. That question always troubled William James, who developed his philosophy of Pragmatism to calm what he considered his “sick soul.” John Kaag shares his own experience with that question, and finding comfort in James’s answers to it, in a book that sensitively blends memoir, biography, and philosophy. Kaag earnestly makes the case that, under the right circumstances, ideas alone can save lives.
Here is a novel that has stayed with me long after many others have faded from my memory. This is a work contrasting spiritual beauty and human depravity. Framed by a mass shooting at a Muslim school, most of the story is told in flashbacks of the principal’s path to that school on that day. Despite — or directly because of — the horror of that scene, this novel offers one of the most humane and appealing depictions of religious awakening that I’ve ever read.
This was one of my favorite collections of poetry in 2020, and because it had the rare-in-poetry hardcover and then paperback releases, I can include it here. Phillips’s poems offer evocative vignettes ranging from a perch atop a New York skyscraper to falling asleep on a bus in Barcelona, all suffused with the blistering politics of our age. I’m an inexpert reader of poetry, all I know how to do is to recognize what I respond to; I found it here and I felt Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s call to “face some kind of hard truth / About the spiraling shape of the past.”
Confession: although I’ve read many economics books, I find I don’t usually retain as much as from most other nonfiction. That’s not the case here. I’ve been aware of the existence of Modern Monetary Theory, but I’d generally only heard it dismissed as a fringe idea by more mainstream economists. Stephanie Kelton has written an approachable — and retainable! — explanation that’s what ’90s kids would call a “paradigm shift.” These days, due in no small part to this book (oh, and also the historic economic uncertainty we’re all living through), MMT isn’t so easily dismissed.
Speaking of ’90s kids, I entered my first chat room in the fourth grade. The room was only open to students in my school district and I think it was unmoderated? Seems like that could have gone bad, but I made it out okay. Joanne McNeil explores what the creation of spaces like that did to the people who entered them, the culture they created, and how it all evolved into the modern Internet. The result is a deeply interesting work of sociology and criticism that makes me think it might actually be too early to decide that I made it out okay.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been collaborating on comics for decades. They’ve spanned multiple genres, but they always return to crime fiction, usually releasing stories in installments as a part of their Criminal series. In the last few years, however, they’ve shifted from the monthly comics market to releasing original graphic novels, and surely Pulp is why. Like an episode of a streaming series that wants to be 36 minutes long, Pulp’s plot isn’t suited to a 20-pages-at-a-time serialization, but it is exactly the correct length. Mixing several genres, Pulp is both a very satisfying heist thriller and a reflection on the false and damaging stories we tell ourselves about violence.
Every year, it seems, I have the same experience. I hear about a big biography for a person who has been a peripheral or featured player in numerous other books I’ve already read, so I pass the biography by only to be dragged back to it because of the obnoxious amount of praise it gets from very credible sources. In 2019, it was George Packer’s Our Man, about Richard Holbrooke, and in 2020 it was The Price of Peace, about John Maynard Keynes. Keynes is among the most influential economists in history, and Zachary D. Carter’s thorough exploration of his theories couldn’t be timelier. Keynes also happens to have had one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th century. So, another win for the obnoxiously credible sources.
Any time I make this kind of list, I try to include literature in translation, and I’m happy that Little Eyes fits the brief. This is the potent tale of a near future where many people buy smart toys that are always watching and listening, and the result is even creepier than you’d expect. Samanta Schweblin’s novel is global in perspective and her clever premise is shown is multiple permutations, making it more revelatory about the nexus of technology and privacy, where the decisions are individual and the encroachments are by degrees.
Maybe, like me, you let this 800-page final volume of a trilogy intimidate you. I hadn’t read Hilary Mantel’s two earlier books about Thomas Cromwell, the Machiavellian aide to Henry VIII: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and when The Mirror and the Light was announced, I thought that I’d never be able to invest the time to get caught up, even if the earlier volumes were both universally beloved Booker Prize winners. But then the world changed my plans for me (rude!) and I found that I did indeed have the time. So, please allow me to confirm: these books are all masterpieces, the third one somehow manages to outdo its predecessors, you can get them all in beautifully redesigned paperbacks, and they are absolutely worth your time.
Similar to Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, Clare Carlisle has also written a moving account of a man struggling to live with the full implications of a philosophy, only here the man and the philosopher are both Søren Kierkegaard. Considered the father of Existentialism, Kierkegaard spent most of his writing life alone amidst the crowds of Copenhagen. He was both prolific and reticent, making most biographies skew towards academic assessments of his writings. Carlisle is able to guide the reader to inhabit the mind and soul of the man asking “not Why do we suffer? But How should we suffer?”
Like a lot of very important issues, the widespread housing crisis may have fallen off your radar in 2020 (if you could make your rent, that is). Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates is largely focused on the specifics of the California housing crunch, but its lessons are widely applicable, especially the difficulty of identifying and implementing solutions. Most memorable for me is the saga of an activist-turned-candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the revealing exploration of a common clash in the municipal politics of the West: the very liberal versus the slightly more liberal.
I love a good short story, but sometimes I find myself comparing the various entries in a collection, and my assessment of the whole book is brought down by my reaction to the story I liked the least. This is a bad habit and a personal failing that I need to work on. But sometimes an author will take pity on me and write a book that is less a collection than a diamond with different facets, each a glimpse of something beautiful and true. Souvankham Thammavongsa uses precise details to illustrate the multitude of invisible barriers that await immigrants and their children as they find their way in a new land.
Barbara Demick’s previous book was Nothing to Envy about life in North Korea, and here she again tells the stories of ordinary people trapped behind a totalitarian wall. Demick’s focus is the Tibetan town of Aba, and the history of, and growing resistance to, Chinese occupation there. This is an expertly balanced collection of voices, telling of international politics and the daily struggles to navigate the fallout.
I have been allotted 125 or so words per entry, but I don’t need nearly that many for this one: this audaciously American novel was the best book I read in 2020, and I feel that you should read it too.