Reading During the Weirdest Year Ever

This was the year of cultural shifts and global pandemics. We stayed home. We worked remotely. We Zoomed. We watched Tiger King. We mourned the death of George Floyd. We protested. We wore masks. We politicized everything. We argued a lot. Hamilton was on Disney+. Trump lost the election. We still managed to read.

Maybe not as much as usual.

But we read.

Let’s start with the stats.

Number books read:About 3231
# of female authors:1926
# of authors of color:118
# of YA/middle school books:20
# of abandoned books:At least 5-7Too Many to Count
# of fiction books1923
# of nonfiction books138
Number of audiobooks1823

How did your reading life go?

Lara: Pretty up and down, hit and miss, and all over the place. This was a year of total distraction. Usually, my reading time only competes with social media. This year, it competed with all media due to COVID, the election, racial strife, and loss of life. And, compounding it, I was laid off in June.

Through sheer luck, I read some of the books I most enjoyed before March. My wheelhouse is contemporary, literary fiction. Much of that I would start and put down, or start and take forever to get through. A couple of gems broke through the haze. Books I listened to via audio were a saving grace, despite losing precious listening-time when I lost my commute.

Jennifer: Well, as you can tell by looking at previous years, I didn’t read as much. Our lives were pretty shaken up from mid-March on, and I’m still thinking that we haven’t yet recovered. I read less. I concentrated less. I listened to more audiobooks than usual.

There were some great literary moments, though. I think the literary world, in truth, is one world that was or will only be positively impacted by the weirdness of 2020. Great books will come out of this era. Writers did what writers do: stayed home, drank coffee, talked to the pets, wrote or thought about writing or made plans to eventually write. And we learned to stay involved in the literary community by learning a new skill: Zoom. Which is ideal for a writer-recluse. I actually enjoyed the literary Zooms, finding them strangely intimate even.

I had the opportunity to be a part of a number of great events. I heard Marilynne Robinson, one of my literary heroines, speak. She’s an amazing woman, I think. Ibram X. Kendi spoke about his (mildly overrated) book, How To Be An Antiracist. I was so struck by the modesty of Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s longtime translator. I have been forever intrigued by how much of Ferrante’s brilliance is Goldstein’s brilliance—and Goldstein definitely took a humble backseat. And I got to hear my friend, Christy Wolfe, discuss her new book, Barefoot and Bright-Eyed. That was a pleasure. There were other events too. I didn’t really feel terribly out of the literary loop.

What was the VERY BEST BOOK read in 2020?

Lara: You know I can never pick one, and so why start now? Wait, this year has been totally different, so I WILL BE TOTALLY DIFFERENT AND JUST PICK ONE! Drumroll please…

The best book I read this year was: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane!

The answer will change as soon as I publish this column.

Jennifer:  I know it’s crazy to say, because of all of the controversy, fair or not, but the one I loved—like couldn’t wait to hear what happened next, and admired the literary finesse of—was American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. We reviewed it here.

What books were the biggest disappointments of 2020?

Lara: The biggest disappointment for me was A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. I honestly don’t know how this made it on so many best lists. The topic was timely, some unnamed natural disaster hits, kind of lampooning families summering somewhere—I can’t even remember. The families were all upper-middle class and white, and I was reading this at the time that George Floyd was pleading for a white officer to take his knee off of his neck. The story couldn’t have been any more tone-deaf to the times. I really didn’t give a shit about what happened to these über-privileged parents who were spending their summer blitzed out while their kids had to address the world coming to an end. Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind covers a similar topic with much greater relevance. If you are good with ambiguity, which both of these books have, Alam’s is the one to go with.

Oh, and sadly, I could not get into my literary boyfriend’s newest, The Cold Millions. I hope Jess Walter will forgive me.

Jennifer: I quit so many books (more on that later), that it’s hard to say what the biggest disappointment was—if I stuck with it, it wasn’t all that bad. You know what I mean? Don’t hate me, but I thought Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist was disappointing.

Lara: I found it disappointing too. Which was sad for me, because when I hear his interviews, I am totally with him. I found his book to be, at times, too academic in a patronizing way, and likely not super accessible to the people who would benefit the most from it. That said, the parts that really resonated and served as brilliant, teachable moments, were the personal stories he wove throughout the book. Those experiences, in his authentic voice, were so compelling. I wished he had written the book in this more personal account format. But as an academic, he may feel that the whole book is a personal account. And I understand that. It doesn’t change my feelings. I will continue to explore non-fiction books about race, systemic racism, and what I can do to be anti-racist. And as with any genre, I am sure there will be some books that are more personally revelatory than others.

Jennifer: Here are my candid thoughts on this absolutely timely book — it missed the mark: I was very touched by the role cancer has played in this man’s life. Taking on both racism and cancer separately and simultaneously is not for the weak. I do wish him a great many future successes.

That said, I disagreed with his thesis! While Ibram X. Kendi is UNDOUBTEDLY brilliant, I thought his ideas were uncompromisingly secular and they left pretty much no room for alternative ideas. It’s very didactic. His thesis, with which I disagree, is as follows: policies precede ideas, so policies need to change before ideas change. He writes, “Knowledge is only power if knowledge is put to the struggle of power. Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist.” I disagree! I believe still that ideas come first!

I’m going to say more because I believe that 2020 needs to be a pivotal year in how we understand race in America.

I think he made great points about the myths we’ve adopted culturally: “Assimilationists believe in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race then racism will miraculously go away.” Yeah, I agree. This is wrong and misdirected.

He’s hard on Chris Rock. I’d like to be able to explore this further. It isn’t that I don’t see his point; it’s that I wonder if Art–and comedy, especially—is unique in its ability to shed light on evils or truths. I really admire the ability of a comedian to reveal our absurdities. I admire the brazen poignancy of a Chris Rock.

He writes, “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalism.” Well, then. Is he a Marxist? Get ready for division, not unity . . .

He discusses how we racialize space with “the ghetto,” “the inner city,” and “the Third World.” Interesting.

I learned much. I think ideas change hearts. Not Marxist power structures.

So, Lara.

I also didn’t love A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet.

What books do you feel like you really wish you had read?

Jennifer: Not in order. I’ll probably get to two or three in 2021.  Maybe four. A tad depressing.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine

Lara: So, so, so, many books.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Colker
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford
Beach Read by Emily Henry
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Wintering by Katherine May
Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

There’s more, but I should stop. You get the drift.

Were there any books whose titles just sucked you in before you actually read the book?

Jennifer: Well, you know I rushed to buy Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, and Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I had to read them.

Also, maybe, another one. Brace yourself. Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing. Which was entirely Woody-ish. I might explain a bit. I think I have arrived philosophically at the point at which I find it necessary to separate Art from Artist. I think, frankly, it’s the only way for any Art or Artist to survive! I have loved the Art of terrible people.

I have no clue if Allen is a terrible person. I thought his memoir had all the insight and wit of his best stuff. Then, having discovered that he had done a number of films that were either unpublicized or only released abroad or rendered obscure, I went on a mini-Woody Allen rampage and watched some of his latest, post-demonization. In all honesty, I turned them off and ended my rampage—finding him philosophically bankrupt and repeating his same old oversexed nihilism. So that’s my Woody Allen Story. I’m sad to say that I don’t think his Art is going out with much of a bang . . .

Lara: I can’t even talk about him. So back to your question… I don’t think so. Oh wait. I really loved the title and cover for Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars. Unfortunately, the cover and title were better than the book.

What book(s) surprised you the most this year?

Lara: Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behindis really something and it has stayed with me. On the dust jacket description, it’s not my jam. But I really got into it. It’s a perfectly timed, topical novel with world-ending (or certainly interrupting) components. It has whip-smart observations, social commentary, and the awkwardness that comes from our own unconscious biases. The audio was performed by one of my new favorite narrators, Marin Ireland, who voiced the much underrated Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson.

Jennifer: I actually don’t know. Maybe Severance by Lin Ma. Weirdly ironic. A non-zombie zombie novel about a worldwide virus originating in China. Literary fiction. I’m probably done with my zombie-phase, but this was unusual and spoke to bigger things.

Wait. Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday! Totally good!

Oh, one more! Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a novel, even though he’s known for his nonfiction. The Water Dancer. I’ll tell you what I think. It was pretty good. I’d watch for his next fiction attempt. It’ll probably be great.

What was your Top Ten For 2020?

Jennifer: Not in order, and not easy. (I read some non-2020 books too.)

  1. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Too bad that 2020 buried this good book.
  2. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. This is a beautiful, epic Mexican novel.
  3. A TIE BETWEEN TWO HIGHLY ANTICIPATED BOOKS WITH BRILLIANCE AND SHORTCOMINGS: The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. Not as great as the quartet with a mildly meandering plot and graphic sexual moments, but still that fierce candor and perception. And Jack by Marilynne Robinson, part of her own quartet. I think the opening scene drags on and some of her prose is so over-my-head intellectual—but then she’s quietly beautiful and profound in other parts.
  4. I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum. I have a secret love of TV criticism.
  5. The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump edited by Ronald Sider. This influenced my thinking the most in 2020. I think this was an important book.
  6. Weather by Jenny Offill. I just love her dry wit and style.
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Compelling storytelling always.
  8. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. Family, tragedy, the way it goes in life.
  9.  All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg. Bragg is a Southerner and a sharp journalist.
  10.  Severance by Lin Ma.The Foreshadowing of Covid.

I read two great graphic novels: God Talk by Mira Jacob and Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me by Lorina Mapa too. I thought Bob Woodward’s Rage was important.

Lara: Can I just say I love that you read All Over But the Shoutin’? I read it years ago and it’s one of my favorite memoirs of all time. And you know I love me some memoir. Okay, now to my list, in no particular order. Maybe.

  1. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane – Family drama so very well written. She’s like a protégé to Ann Patchett, if I may be so bold. We reviewed it here:
  2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Speaking of Ms. Patchett, this book is a gem of family disfunction and nuance. And the audio is pitch-perfectly narrated by Tom Hanks.
  3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – I listened to this book and have talked about it in about 38 book clubs this year. Super fascinating and it has to be discussed after you read it. It just has to be. Check out our review here:
  4. You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy– Nonfiction rarely makes my Top 10 List, but this is a must. I conveniently listened to it and followed up with a purchase of the book to highlight and mark up. I never mark-up books— so that says something.
  5. Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer – I don’t remember how I came across this book, but I did and I listened to it narrated by the author. She’s not a trained audiobook reader and that worked for this. I really felt like a conversation at her kitchen table, looking out at the breathtaking view her Alaskan waterfront home provides. Plus, I know follow her on Instagram and get to see her stunning photos.
  6. Gun Love by Jennifer Clement – This was a re-read for me due to it being a book club selection. So, this time I did it via audio and it was just as good as the first time. The writing is just pretty damn perfect.
  7. Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow – how is a THIRD nonfiction book ending up on this list? Award-winning investigative journalist (and son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen) Farrow has done his homework to uncover and expose the vile behavior of Harvey Weinstein and the number of people who conspired to protect him. It’s equal parts fascinating and infuriating the lengths people and news giants went to protect Weinstein. I do not recommend the audio, which Farrow narrates. It’s over-performed and pretty cringeworthy at times.
  8. The Passengers by John Marrs – This was the best thriller I read of the three or four I read this year. Driverless cars, eight passengers trapped in their vehicles and being driven to their deaths all while the world watches and ranks the activity via social media and streaming video was a roller-coaster ride I could not put down (or in my case, stop listening to).
  9. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alaam – You can check out what I said above. I am not typically a re-reader, but this one may warrant another pass.
  10. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – I know this is a controversial pick. You can check out my defense of it here:

What books ALMOST made the list, but didn’t for some reason?

Lara: Only because I haven’t finished it, is Sue Miller’s Monogamy. The writing, as all the youths would say, is fire. And I would have to say Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. I liked it. I didn’t love it. It hasn’t stayed with me like her debut Homegoing which I still think about four years later.

Jennifer: Agreed. Transcendent Kingdom was a solid second book. I’ll continue to read her. It just didn’t hit me as hard as her debut.

Books You Shamelessly Abandoned (or was there shame?):

Lara: Too many too list. I blame the ‘Rona.

Jennifer: There’s always shame. I abandoned way too many. I’m embarrassed to say.

Favorite movies?

Jennifer:  Lara, I have to mouth off here.

My husband and I are serious home entertainment critics, so I need to share.

The King of Staten Island – This film had great writing.
Da 5 Bloods – Spike Lee’s film. But Delroy Lindo was amazing.
Chicago 7—The performance byMark Rylance was great.
HBO’s My Brilliant Friend was great TV.

I think I could go on, mentioning Mrs. America and American Son

Lara: I watched very few movies this year, although I did catch The King of Staten Island which was great. My mom and I also watched the entire Downton Abbey series — DIVINE. We also watched all 528 (I think it was actually 143) hour-long episodes of the seven-series show The Good Wife. Brilliant. 

Books not yet published that you’re excited about?

Lara: I have no idea.

Jennifer: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Vol. 2 by Emil Ferris

Next Up!

We hope you will join us later this month for our review of The Grammarians by Catherine Schine.


Can’t get enough of Snotty Literati? Follow us on Facebook!

Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at

Want to see what Lara is up to? Stay right here at