The Best Books I Read in 2020

I feel like writing something that isn’t about my personal life for a change—and that doesn’t take six hours and leave me emotionally drained at the end—so I’m going to tell you about my favorite books of the year.

When I last wrote a piece along these lines four years ago, I imagined that it would inaugurate an annual tradition, and the fact that it didn’t was undoubtedly the biggest surprise of all of 2016.

Anyway, here are the best books I read this year.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who, during an actual pandemic, immediately become more interested in pandemic-themed art, and those who think that the first kind of people are insane. I am obviously in the former camp. But Station Eleven, by the impeccably-named Emily St. John Mandel, makes a world ravaged by a truly society-ending disease seem not only survivable but in some ways actually more satisfying to live in than even our pre-Covid world. If you haven’t already read this book, though, I might recommend saving it for the next pandemic.

The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters

If I’m going to, in 2020, recommend a novel where the main character is a cop, you know it has to be a damn good read. But The Last Policeman is especially relevant this year even ignoring its law enforcement theme. The book is an existentialist detective novel, set in a world rocked by the knowledge that a civilization-ending asteroid is months away from striking Earth.

Against this background, the protagonist tries to solve a standard-issue murder and must answer not only questions like “Who’s the killer?” and “What was their motive?,” but also questions like “Does anything even matter?” and “Why bother doing anything?” If you’ve ever contemplated those questions, you’ll enjoy this book, and if you haven’t, I envy you.

Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my favorite movie, both because it’s a beautiful film and also because I watched it right after losing my virginity. As such, I had extremely high expectations for this debut novel by Sunshine screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Although I didn’t have even a single profound sexual experience after reading Antkind, I still wasn’t disappointed. The book is 700+ pages of a plot so madcap that it’s almost impossible to describe—it involves, at various points, a film critic’s attempt to recreate a lost movie, non-consensual plastic surgery, ketamine addiction, clown fetishes, a future race of hyper-intelligent ants, and employment at Zappos—but in the end, it all more or less makes sense. 

I’ve mostly sworn off the dick-measuring contest that is each new doorstop-size book by neurotic male (always male) authors, but I’m glad I made an exception for Antkind. It’s a truly excellent book/phallic symbol.

Days of Rage, by Bryan Burrough

Whenever I’m feeling dismayed about the state of our current politics, I find it helps to learn more about the sixties and seventies, an era whose political violence outweighed even the aesthetic violence of its terrible fashions. In 1972 alone, for example, we had over 1,900 bombings by domestic terrorist groups, mostly left-wing.

Days of Rage will give you a comprehensive education on that era of American history, but it will also leave you thoroughly entertained, since the details of that period are absolutely fucking insane. Come for the political history, stay for the true story of the radical Puerto Rican separatist who blows off both his hands attempting to make a bomb, then single-handedly (or rather, single-no-handedly—I’m sorry, I already regret writing that) escapes from his prison cell a few weeks later despite, again, not having any hands.

The Three-Body Problem (Trilogy), by Liu Cixin

I was disappointed to find out this series isn’t about threesomes, and even more disappointed to find out that they’re Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite books. Still, this highly-regarded trilogy is one of those rare works that, like Sapiens, actually is as good as everyone says. It starts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, ends at the heat death of the universe, and does a better job creating a visceral sense of time on a truly grand scale than anything else I’ve ever read.

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

I love alternate histories, but most of them—even the ones I’d recommend, like For Want of a Nail and The Man In the High Castle—are overly formal and tend to prioritize plot over character, probably because most of them are written by men who seem to be a little bit embarrassed that they aren’t actual historians.

Unlike those, Rodham—which imagines what Hillary Clinton’s life would have been like if she hadn’t married Bill—manages to be both an alternate political history and a page-turned that’s only just literary enough to escape the “trashy airport books” category. It also contains the only good fictional depiction of Donald Trump outside of Home Alone 2. I absolutely devoured this book, and would pay an ungodly amount of money to know if the real Hillary’s ever been tempted to read it.

Lastly, an honorable mention for the worst book I read in 2020: Dutch, by Edmund Morris.

Although I have my fair share of commitment issues in my relationships with other people, I almost never give up on a book partway through, even if I absolutely hate it. Plus, I’ve had a longstanding goal to read at least one book about every American President.

So I forced myself to finish all 664 pages of this terrible, terrible book, a faux-memoir about Morris’ fictionalized encounters with Ronald Reagan. He apparently made this bizarre authorial choice after interviewing the real Reagan dozens of times and concluding that he was so inscrutable that only this kind of obnoxious postmodern twist could capture his true essence.

How anyone could fictionalize a real-world story and make the fictional parts substantially more boring than the non-fiction parts is beyond me, but Morris somehow does it. Do not read this book.

Yours in thinking about this all-time great John Waters quote,

Max

P.S. If you’ve gotten to this email and somehow find yourself wanting to hear my opinions on even more books, you can follow me on Goodreads, where I periodically write what I assure you are the least useful book reviews you will ever encounter.


Read of the week: Are you kidding? This entire email was the read of the week!