Books I read in 2020


Over at substack, you will find my year-end roundup of books I finished reading. Here are my favorite reads from 2020:

  • Nickel Mountain
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Zen Mind / Beginner’s Mind
  • Poems of Exile
  • The Art of Solitude
  • One Robe, One Bowl

For details, check out the eschorama substack newsletter. Happy New Year!

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Books I read in 2019

books, reviews

At the end of the year, I like to take stock of what I read in the past year. I keep a running log in OneNote of each book I’ve read. Here is the final tally.

47 books read, eight more than the previous year. Not bad, but I could have done better. There are so many good books on my shelves that I need to get to. In 2020, I would like to shoot for one book per week. As for the books themselves, I’ll include flash comments on what I can recall about them.

Harmonium by Wallace Stevens. It doesn’t get much more American modernist than this poet, right? This is perhaps his most famous collection, and it inspired me to read some of his work for my podcast.

America, 20th Century Poetry: Landscapes of the Mind (anthology). Total nostalgia play. I remembered this series of books from high school, and it took quite a long time to retrace the book titles. Once I identified the series, I went about finding them on eBay. They are not worth much in monetary value. The allure is how they inspired me to want to read and write more, and they are attractively designed, presenting the texts without commentary along with artistic, moody photography.

Light Up the Cave by Denise Levertov. I did’t quite finish this one, but I read enough of it to qualify as a read. I’ve been noticing an increasing impatience with books as I get older. I’m less likely to stick with a book if it isn’t sticking to me.

Family Life by Russell Banks. I believe this is an early novel by Banks, and I didn’t think it was particularly good at all. The only blessing was it was quite a fast read.

Driving Blind: Stories  by Ray Bradbury. This was a big disappointment. I love Bradbury’s lyrical prose style, but nearly all of the stories in this collection were paper thin, pulp mill fodder. There may have been one half decent story in the lot, and I think it was the title story, but I discarded the book, so don’t trust me on that.

Free Fall by William Golding. This was a tough slog, too. I remember the protagonist being a rather interesting character, but I have retained little memory of the book, and I got rid of it after finishing it. I’m pretty sure Golding is one of those novelists who only has one book that does it for me, that being Lord of the Flies, of course.

Oration on the Dignity of Man by Pico della Mirandola. This was a decent read. Short, compact distillation of renaissance humanist consciousness.

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Actually reread this twice because I taught it twice, once in spring, once in fall. Only counting it as one read to compensate for bailing out on the Levertov book mentioned above.

Duino Elegies by Rilke. This was my second tour through this book, and it is one of my favorite 20th century poetry volumes, not that I can explain everything. Rilke is one of those deep poets who is challenging in the best of ways. No gimmicks and pony tricks, just rich, woven high-quality literary fabric. I’ll come back to this again and undoubtedly learn more from it.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I enjoyed this novel by Gaiman. I don’t classify myself as an official fan, but his prose was lean and alluring from start to finish. Recommend!

All the Answers by Michael Kupperman (graphic memoir). My department chair loaned this to me because she knew I was teaching Salinger’s Franny and Zooey about the Glass family children who were quiz show whiz kids. Kupperman’s memoir is about his relationship to his father who was a real-life quiz kid on the radio. Read it in one night and learned much about the damage that such celebrity can bring to a family.

Great Ideas from the Great Books by Mortimer Adler. Adler is hard to ignore when it comes to the “great books” era in mid-20th century America. He was a indefatigable hucksterer of western classics, and all that seems rather quaint or hopelessly obtuse by now. He was a smart guy and very well learned, and his writing style was direct, which is about the best I can say about it. It also plods with a heavy handed step too often, and is prone to starchiness. He also had a bad habit of repeating himself to much, the true sign of a person who is more of an educator than a writer. I didn’t keep this one. He’s written better books than this.

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. This was a fun, vulgar read, though I did not hold onto the book after finishing it. Jarry was an avant garde French writer who pushed the obscene boundaries. Donald Trump would make a great Ubu Roi, I think.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. Reread this one for class. Ibsen never gets stale for me.

For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. I though this was a solid, short book that is most memorable for its energetic and unique prose style.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. I’ve been meaning to read O’Hara for years, and last year I finally got around to what many think is his best novel. I liked it. It is full of 20th century American moxie, take-hold characters, and “been there” realism. He’s a grittier version of Fitzgerald and deserves more attention than he gets.

How to Do Nothing by Jenny ODell. I think this was my favorite book of the year. Odell confronts a massive problem in modern society: our sense of futility and entrapment as victim-participants in the attention economy (i.e. smart phones and social media world). This is less a how to book than a set of reflective essays filled with pragmatic concerns. She channels thoughts I’ve been having for years, and the book really resonated with me. It gives me language to understand what is happening to us, and I totally connected to her “resistance in place” model of tuning out and tuning in to the local environment.

The Art of Love by Ovid. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Humprhies does a great job translating Ovid’s saucy poetry into English.

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. You’ve heard the phrase “banality of evil”? This is the book from which it comes. I learned a lot about how the holocaust can happen, how it can be executed by average (yet totally evil) people. I also liked the even-handed, journalistic approach to covering the trial of Eichmann in Israel. It’s like journalistic historico-philosophy, if such a thing exists.

The Mueller Report. Yes, I read the whole thing, bought it when it came out at Barnes and Noble. Although Bob Mueller will win no literary prizes this year, there were so many facts and evidence reported here, that it read a bit like a spy novel. A not well written spy novel, but a great and important story. Spoiler alert: the president DID commit impeachable offenses. Mueller dodges that final conclusion (timidly), but it’s hard to miss the obvious. Just read it for yourself, and don’t trust anyone’s opinion on it, even mine.

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. I considered teaching this play but decided against it. Not because it’s bad. It’s a great play. Some texts just aren’t the best fit for what you plan to do in a course.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. I picked up this one at a library sale and read it quickly. Not bad, but too heavy on the Catholicism for my taste.

Antigone by Sophocles. Reread this one. Again, I think I was considering teaching it again, but decided against it. One of my favorite Greek tragedies.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. People cite Zamyatin’s book as a precursor to 1984, which it was, but it gets dismissed as a result, as if Orwell’s book supercedes it. In some respects, Zamyatin’s is the better of the two. I was drawn into the dystopian setting and suspended my disbelief. Recommend!

Imagist Poetry: an Anthology ed. Bob Blaisdell. This is a Dover paperback edition. Nothing special, but it’s a nice window into the imagist movement.

Trilogy by H.D. I’ve been trying to downsize my book collection, and this year found me working through the poetry stacks. H.D.’s book was OK for me, but I gave it away after finishing it.

Anderson’s Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. This was a sampling of stories in a children’s edition that brought back a lot of good childhood reading memories, and Anderson’s stories are phenomenal. Like reading dream fantasies that beg for psychological interpretation.

The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau. I don’t have strong memories of this book, other than not liking it very much. Went into the giveaway bag.

The Last Samarai by Helen DeWitt. Something of a tour de force, but DeWitt did not let the gimmickry dissuade her from what is in essence a fine story with interesting characters. Recommend!

The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust by Howard Moss. My department chair lent me this one. It’s a slim volume of criticism, an appreciation of Proust.

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima. This short novel was pretty riveting. Concise, allusive storytelling.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. This one ranks with Eat the Document as a favorite by one of my favorite contemporary American authors. It’s more of a sibling/family story, and its themes are fascinating. The focus is on the brother who invents a fantasy celebrity life for himself, then disappears.

The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll. Thanks to a friend I got clued into the bullet journal movement and treated myself to Carroll’s book for father’s day. He sold me on the method, and I’ve been happily bullet journaling ever since. You don’t really need to purchase the book like I did. He has plenty of videos on youtube how it all works.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein I don’t have to tell you is a huge name in the scifi world, but this book was not good at all. Sorry.

Light in August by William Faulkner. This one was the perfect cure to the monstrosity that was the Heinlein novel. Faulkner’s book is good, very good, no…great. Joe Christmas was a riveting character, and Faulkner was in full control of his modernist technique. It’s modernist, but it’s also a wonderful story. A modernist novel AND a page turner. How did he do that?!

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Newport’s book is kind of like the Jenny Odell book mentioned above, only more in the self-help vein. It does have some practical advice for going about a digital detox to cleanse your life from social media poison. Read it in ebook format.

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum. This was an ebook read, too. Good defense of the humanities, but it seems anymore that we are all pissing in the wind with these polemics.

Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game by Hesse. Hesse suits my fancy, and the glass bead game, though one of his longer novels, was finely imagined and a rewarding read. I’ve read most of his books by now, so you can see the same themes reemerging often. While I would not rank this one as my favorite, it does strike me as an achievement, a capstone of his career.

Nervous States by William Davies. I learned about this book via the London Review of Books and read an epub edition. It diagnoses many of the social symptoms we are witnessing today, with respect to right-wing populism, social anxieties, belligerence, and the appeal of “strong man” leaders, among other things. Cogent, insightful, and eminently useful social and political analysis. Recommend!

The Digital Divide ed. Mark Bauerlein. I taught some pieces from this anthology for an English 101 class, and I had to read the whole book to figure out which ones to use. It’s a little dated by now, especially the pro-tech writers who are all wide grinned and pie in the sky about how technology was going to bring us dandelions and unicorns. Those might have seemed sustainable arguments 10 or 15 years ago. Not looking so rosy anymore, I would say.

The Maine Woods by Thoreau. It took me a long time to finish this travel book, but it’s very strong, creates a compelling sense of place.

The Plot to Destroy Democracy by Malcolm Nance. I’ve seen Nance commentate on MSNBC. He’s a former Naval intelligence office who “gets” how the game is played and lucidly explains the Russian influence angle. Recommend!

VIDA by Patricia Engel. I reread this book of linked stories for a class I taught in the fall. It is easy to read, and the students enjoy discussing it.

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. I used this in my English 101 class for the second time. It played well with the audience.

Nunquam by Lawrence Durrell. This is a curious novel that made me want to read Durrell some more. Its companion novel is called Tunc. At first I wasn’t sure where he was going with it, but the book grew on me and hooked me by the end.

The Age of Analysis: 20th Century Philosophers, ed. Morton White. This book exposed me to some philosophers I had not read before, especially those from the Pragmatism and Analytical philosophy movements. While reading it, the book literally fell apart in my hands, which is a screaming symbol of something.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America by Joyce Carol Oates. This was an impressive early story collection of Oates’ short fiction from the 60’s. She is not only a prodigious writer, she is versatile and has an innate sense of the storytelling art.

In conclusion,

It was a solid enough year in reading. I hope you had a good reading year too, and an even better one in 2020!