Ah, 2020. What a year. It was filled with a lot. Frankly, probably too much. One thing that helped get me through this year was reading. Through all the bumps, bruises, and realizations, the books I read this year helped provide me some solace.
As I look back on my year through books, audiobooks played a bigger role than they ever have. (I read 35 books in 2020; three were audiobooks. I’m breaking records!) Last year I commented on how proud I was to have reread a book and how I hoped that it would become a tread for me. Well, I wouldn’t call it a trend yet, but I did manage to read four books this year for the second time, one of which I read twice this year.
As in years past, a good chunk of my reading this year was centered around race and racism. Given the racial and social uprising that occurred this year, there were many, many social justice-themed booklists popping up all over the internet. I peeked at them, but quickly got overwhelmed. In the end, my guiding principles were to dive deep into history and to ensure, no matter what books I found myself reading, that the authors were mostly folks of color. Added fuel for this came from an antiracist summer book club I helped organize with my school.
In no particular order, here are some of the standouts from all the books I read this year.
- Late in the year, Eddie S. Glaude’s Begin Again formally introduced me to the heart and mind of James Baldwin, which I am thankful for. I was pulled to read it after listening to Glaude on an episode of NPR’s Throughline podcast. Although I read Fire Next Time last year, I approached it blindly. Begin Again gave me needed context and positioned me to better interpret Baldwin’s work. Almost immediately after finishing Begin Again, I read No Name in the Street, which was passionate and pointed.
- I enjoyed the symmetry between Katherine D. Kinzler’s How You Say It and Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening. One focused on language and speaking and the other on how we listen to each other, but both reminded me of the importance of communication. How You Say It also opened my eyes (and ears) to language bias and discrimination…and how widely accepted they are in society.
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport was great. It reminded me a lot of Essentialism from Greg McKeown, which I read a couple of years ago. I couldn’t help get a sense of elitism from Newport (and McKeown), but I appreciated his message nonetheless. Given that practically everything has moved to a screen now, his book was a refreshing pushback to make sure that I use technology to serve my personal and professional needs. At least partially because of his book, interestingly, I no longer have a SmartPhone.
- Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, which was published 1971, proved to be one of the more stimulating, momentum-building books of the year. A colleague gifted it to me before the school year began and it lit my fire for the year ahead. It motivated a blog post that helped me realize that, despite my struggles with infusing social justice into my curriculum, the medium is the message.
- Rereading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin was inspirational. When I first read it in 2016, it felt lofty. A lot has happened within me since then and, in reading it again this year, Emdin’s message was clearer and more in-sync with my goals. It moved me to organize scheduled cogenerative dialogues with my students this year. (It also paired well with Teaching as a Subversive Activity.) I can’t wait to read Ratchetdemic next year.
- Like a lot of the reading I did this year, Locking Up Our Own by James Foreman provided me a history lesson. Saturated with data, it gives an honest and forthright perspective on policing, the criminal justice system, and their impacts on Black Americans — and our country as a whole. Clearly written, Foreman tendered an incredibly complex narrative in a straightforward and concise manner. Hats off.
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was long, but worth the time investment. He did a masterful job of making me feel like a speck on the timeline of history, but also helped me understand a great deal about how we sapiens arrived here in this moment.
- Ben Orlin’s Math with Bad Drawings was hilarious, insightful, and warm-hearted all at the same time. Easily five stars. My only disappointment is that it took me so long to get around to it. Since reading Math with Bad Drawings, I’ve been doing my best to emulate Orlin’s stick figures with my kids. They’re so fun and lively. Needless to say, I’ve been failing miserably.
- Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su and Christopher Jackson was special. Su and Jackson found a way to capture the intersection of mathematics and humanity in an engaging, heartfelt, and beautiful way. Their open letters throughout the book epitomized the overarching message of the book and left me feeling uplifted and ready.
- We Want to Do More Than Survive by Bettina Love was probably my Book of the Year. It was outstanding and exposed much of what I’ve been searching for these last few years. Love’s poignant comparison of teachers today with 19th century abolitionists revealed as much as it motivated. Hell, the book was so good that, back in June, it got its own blog post.
- I didn’t get into much fiction in 2020. That said, I closed the year with the novel The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which, although I’m not actually finished with it yet, is outstanding and easily one of my best books of 2020. I doubled-down on Coates by rereading Between the World and Me in late summer, which is easily in my personal top ten books of all time. Coates has a unique ability of leveraging words to capture the absoluteness and idea, experience, or scene — especially when it comes to matters of race, racism, and the human condition — in ways that few writers can.