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Best Books I Read in 2020: Looking back on the year via favorite reads

“Do not think it wasted time to submit yourself to any influence that may bring upon you any noble feeling.” John Ruskin

1. Gilead

At around this time last year, I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel I wasn’t ready for in my twenties, but which, turns out, suited me perfectly well in my thirties, six weeks pregnant, fighting morning sickness, settling into a new town. On one particularly balmy day in December, I remember watching my husband and son running through the park, cheeks flushed, sunlight casting hard shadows, and thinking of Rev. Ames’s line, “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

The book is filled with these graces, tucked into a slow and quiet pace that resists hurry. When I finished it January 2, I didn’t know we were on the cusp of a year that would ask us all to slow down, stay home—or how much I would need the ability to live small and quiet and low—but I was thankful for how its pacing had me meditating on parents who favor prodigal children as one “favors a wound”; the spectacular, ordinary beauty in the world; and, mostly, the “thousand, thousand reasons” to live this life, each of them sufficient.

(Also of note by the same author: Lila, which I may have enjoyed even more than Gilead, and Jack, Robinson’s newest novel, which I am still processing)

2. The Warmth of Other Suns

In the end of February and early March, I read The Warmth of Other Suns, before shootings and protests started making national headlines, before my local shopping center in racially divided St. Louis boarded up its windows for fear of vandalism or attacks. Truly, I think every American should read this epic nonfiction work, chronicling the Great Migration of Blacks up and out of the South over a period of more than 50 years (1915-1970).

It’s told through the lives of three specific individuals: Robert, George and Ida Mae—real people with real journeys from oppression to migration to new life in new places. Their stories, and particularly the time periods and histories against which those stories were lived, are painful and eye-opening and thought-provoking and, no matter who you are, relatable, because what Wilkerson does extremely well is show the utter humanity and dignity of each individual.

3. Gentle and Lowly

Gentle and Lowly, a book with which I spent two weeks in April, early-pandemic, tucked away at home with my husband and kids, immediately became one of my favorite books of all time, one I can already say with certainty I will read again. Starting with a foundation of Scripture and Puritan writing, Ortlund paints a deeply compelling and transformative picture of the heart of Jesus—one that leaves you exhaling and wondering, “Could it really be this good?” In a year in which people are said to be lonelier, more anxious, more burdened and more heavy-hearted than ever before, it would be hard to overestimate how much this book helps.

4. A Severe Mercy

In May, I reread A Severe Mercy, a love story, faith memoir and personal account of deep and painful grief. It’s just as remarkable the second time—relatable, hopeful, sad. Friend of C.S. Lewis and reluctant convert Vanauken writes, “I came to wonder whether all objects that men and women set their hearts upon, even the darkest and most obsessive desires, do not begin as intimations of joy from the sole spring of joy, God.”

5. The Narcissism Epidemic

In June, I tore through The Narcissism Epidemic, an absolutely compelling look at the image-driven, intimacy-averse condition to which much of our society trends today. Anyone who’s been in close proximity to a narcissist will benefit from this book, but also anyone who questions social media or modern “you are special” culture.

What works against narcissism, according to the authors: gratefulness (opposed to entitlement), hard work/diligence at something, humility (honest appraisal of self, value of others) and helping your community (finding commonalities, growing conflict-resolution skills). On social media, to push against admiring yourself or feeling the need to “express yourself to exist,” try instead to be “thought-provoking and society-enhancing.”

6. Living Life Backwards

In July, attending final prenatal appointments, waiting to find out if I’d need to wear a mask in labor, I read David Gibson’s book on Ecclesiastes, Living Life Backwards, in a sort of online book club with two long-distance friends. It was the balm I didn’t know I needed.

If you are overwhelmed, if you are someone who hates pretense, if you’ve asked yourself the big questions of life and been frustrated, his honest book has the grit to show you how to look at the absolute last thing you think you need to consider—death—to learn how to live with joy and buoyancy. I don’t know how else to explain the effect this book had on me but to say it made me happy, unburdened my mind and refreshed my spirt. It also stoked my love for Ecclesiastes enough that I immediately read three more commentaries (other favorite is Recovering Eden by Zack Eswine).

7. Ask Again, Yes

The novel Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane took my breath away with its absorbing, complicated, redemptive narrative of two neighboring Irish families and the drama they endure. I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book so much because I went in with no expectations or because it’s legitimately the page-turner I found it to be, but I loved it. Also recommended: Fever by the same author.

8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Before this year, I’d never read the classic A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith, though I had seen a movie version, and spending time with the cast of immigrant characters in poor, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn was a delightful way to engage my imagination between newborn nursing and naps. My personality always benefits from the perspective shift of savoring simple pleasures, and this book, like Joy in the Morning, is full of that.

9. The Enchanted Hour

The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon got me pumped up about reading with my kids, especially this year when school is looking so different from what we’d originally planned. The scientific data motivated me, the practical tips inspired me and the benefits truly shocked me (have I ever truly considered how, in times of tragedy or chaos, stories keep our humanity alive?). Bonus discovery: there are great benefits to reading aloud to anyone, not just kids.

10. Isaiah: God Saves Sinners

This is the second year I have read through Ray Ortlund’s Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, a highly readable and relatable commentary that illuminates the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Because this book sustained me last year through a major life transition and has again pointed me to the reality that God alone is my salvation, it is an all-time favorite and deeply meaningful to me.

11. What Grieving People Wish You Knew

In a year marked by grief and distance, What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) is immediately useful. I underlined many lines, noted mistakes I’ve made in the past and, already since finishing it in early December, have referenced it twice.

12. Hold on to Your Kids

Last but not least, Hold On to Your Kids was the outlier parenting book I didn’t expect to enjoy half as much as I did. I read it only a few weeks after reading Sally Clarkson’s Awaking Wonder, which is a lovely, philosophical look at parenting and educating that overlaps with this one in a particular point: emotionally connecting with kids is huge. That is probably the key message and takeaway, but along with it you learn a lot about attachment, peer orientation and, honestly, your own upbringing.

Honorable mention!

I am currently rereading The Supper of the Lamb, which I expect will be my first finished read in 2021, and Capon is funny, articulate, opinionated and, when it comes to celebrating a theology of creation, illuminating. (Also no one has ever made a more compelling argument for enjoying wine.)

“Studies show that scrolling tends to increase depression and anxiety, but reading a novel for even seven minutes can lower stress by two-thirds. Do your frazzled nerves a favour and read a book,” Boze Herrington.

disclaimer: this post contains Amazon affiliate links, through which I may earn small commissions on any purchases made. I also track books and products I like on Amazon here.