The adventures, thoughts, and general scrawlings of a classical pianist

2020 in Books

Although I am, at this point, really dragging, unable to get back to any emails in a reasonable amount of time, and needing to lie down multiple times a day, I am gritting my teeth and making myself write this post, because it is February 2021 and if I don’t get around to this now, I never will.

2020 was a real [obscene hand gesture] of a year—I won’t bore you with details because, well, it communally sucked for everyone, didn’t it? If you’re interested, I wrote a whole piece over on Substack that is my best attempt at describing the suspended state of despair I think we were all in, and specifically describes the futility of making music in that state.

If you missed it, I also put together a blog post in August summarizing the things I had managed to accomplish; for the highlights of what else I was able to do after that, kindly see the press page on my website.

My reading goal in 2020 was to read more new books than I had the year before; since I finished 64 new books in 2019, my goal for 2020 was 65. I ended up blowing past that number in August, and by the end of December had finished a nice round 100. I have no idea what my reading goal is for this year, if any, since a goal of 100+ gets you into the realm of reading for the sake of reading, which goes against everything I stand for, so for now I’m just 🤷🏻‍♀️ about my reading goal for this year.

Before I get into my list, several observations I took away from a year of reading:

  1. Premises are the worst way to pick books. All the worst books I read (some of which I didn’t finish) last year were ones I picked solely on the basis of a catchy or intriguing premise, while the absolute best experiences I had reading were books where 1) I didn’t know the premise beforehand and 2) when I did read the premise/synopsis afterwards, it sounded utterly uninteresting to me. I’ve also found that premises have a sneaky way of reinforcing hidden biases; I am fully guilty of picking books because their setting or time period was more familiar or attractive to me, and I ended up learning so much from books I wouldn’t have picked based on their descriptions.

    My sincere advice for picking books is to read as much as you possibly can from a variety of recommended sources, which takes a while but will help you figure out whose recommendations are most solid for you. I follow a bunch of my favorite authors on Twitter and read everything they recommend, there is no shortage of book roundups and lists all over the internet, and there are a few friends whose recommendations I will read without any research or hesitation. Which gets into my next point:

  2. Reading is a social activity, and the experience is infinitely more wonderful with reading buddies. I am indescribably lucky to have friends who also enjoy reading, whose tastes overlap with mine, and—even if we haven’t caught up in months—can jump right into discussing books without going through the motions of required social pleasantries. In particular, Stephanie of @cozyreadingclub has the most similar reading taste to mine of any person I know, is a fellow theme-overanalyzer, and reads at a similar pace to me, so it’s easy for us to tear into books together and discuss them ad nauseam (this is especially rewarding as we do a lot of comparisons between the scores of various books that we’ve both read).

    I honestly don’t think I would get as much as I do out of reading if it weren’t for these literary friends who are always a text or DM away. There’s something truly, fantastically wonderful about discussing books with friends (and the insightful, deep conversations about life and humanity that arise out of book discussion). If you’re having trouble reading for pleasure, I strongly recommend posting your current reads (and thoughts) on social media and following whatever discussions come out of there; you might find yourself with some reading buddies who make the journey more worthwhile.

  3. Libraries are the best and e-readers aren’t evil. I would not be able to read at the volume that I do if it weren’t for my local library—however many of my tax dollars it’s getting, it’s not enough. I especially appreciated my library’s e-offerings last year, as physical branches shut down and physical book checkouts were suspended. For Christmas 2019 I’d requested and received a Kobo e-reader—yes, I used to boo-hiss! e-readers and scream that you would have to pry physical books from my cold dead hands, but after several years of nonstop travel, even I had to admit that lugging a stack of hardback books around the world was ridiculous, particularly as I’m capable of knocking out several books on one flight alone and the fact that I couldn’t buy souvenirs because of the stack of books in my carry-on was just objectively absurd.

    I ended up loving my Kobo (which I picked for the sake of its not being part of the Amazon ecosystem—AWS notwithstanding—as well as its native support for Pocket, which I use religiously) for the few trips I took at the beginning of 2020, and then ironically it ended up being the real lockdown MVP. I think it actually enabled me to read more than I would have even if the libraries had remained open and I’d been able to check out physical books, because the 24/7 aspect of e-book checkouts meant that I could move through books much more quickly.

  4. Reading books feels infinitely better than doomscrolling. Nothing more to say there.

Anyway, on to the 100 books themselves. Same rules as 2019—these are only new-to-me books in English that I actually finished, yadda yadda yadda. Stars (⭐️) indicate standouts, which frankly meant a little less in 2020, as some books which I acknowledged as being really outstanding reads somehow didn’t hit, and several books which really did don’t really stick out in my mind as being fully deserving of the star. I’ve chalked it up to the fact that 2020 was really an emotional flogging, and look fondly at the starred books as ones that, whatever their qualities, kept me afloat.

Also, in 2020 I started a reading-specific Instagram, @readingwithsharon, and wrote a review of EVERY SINGLE book I finished, so I’ve linked each title to the review I wrote.

  1. Olga Tokarczuk / Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
  2. Elena Ferrante / My Brilliant Friend
  3. Elena Ferrante / The Story of a New Name
  4. Elena Ferrante / Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
  5. Elena Ferrante / The Story of the Lost Child
  6. Sophie Kinsella / My Not So Perfect Life 
  7. Adam Johnson / The Orphan Master’s Son
  8. Trevor Noah / Born a Crime ⭐️
  9. Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows / The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ⭐️
  10. Jon Ronson / So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
  11. Colson Whitehead / The Underground Railroad 
  12. Amy Tan / The Kitchen God’s Wife
  13. Anna Wiener / Uncanny Valley ⭐️
  14. Meng Jin / Little Gods
  15. Charles Yu / Interior Chinatown
  16. Rebecca Traister / All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation ⭐️
  17. Lisa See / Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
  18. Gillian Flynn / Gone Girl
  19. Sherry Thomas / A Conspiracy in Belgravia
  20. Jodi Picoult / Nineteen Minutes
  21. Laila Lalami / The Moor’s Account 
  22. Amy Tan / The Valley of Amazement
  23. Shaun Bythell / The Diary of a Bookseller
  24. Genki Kawamura / If Cats Disappeared From the World
  25. Muriel Barbery / The Elegance of the Hedgehog
  26. Amy Tan / The Bonesetter’s Daughter
  27. Jenny Zhang / Sour Heart ⭐️
  28. Stacey Lee / The Downstairs Girl
  29. Jacqueline Woodson / Red at the Bone
  30. Catherine Hewitt / The Mistress of Paris
  31. Téa Obreht / Inland
  32. Marjan Kamali / The Stationery Shop
  33. Eleanor Herman / The Royal Art of Poison 
  34. Cathy Park Hong / Minor Feelings ⭐️
  35. Samantha Irby / Wow, No Thank You
  36. Abigail Hing Wen / Loveboat, Taipei ⭐️
  37. Susan Fowler / Whistleblower ⭐️
  38. Lindy West / The Witches Are Coming
  39. Tove Jansson / The Summer Book
  40. E. J. Koh / The Magical Language of Others
  41. Crystal Hana Kim / If You Leave Me
  42. C Pam Zhang / How Much of These Hills is Gold
  43. Jasmine Guillory / Royal Holiday
  44. Kristin Newman / What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding
  45. Tara Westover / Educated ⭐️
  46. Madeleine Thien / Do Not Say We Have Nothing
  47. Rachel Cusk / Outline 
  48. Rebecca Solnit / The Faraway Nearby ⭐️
  49. Amy Tan / The Hundred Secret Senses
  50. Kiley Reid / Such a Fun Age ⭐️
  51. Rachel Vorona Cote / Too Much
  52. Scott Hawkins / The Library at Mount Char
  53. Ken Liu / The Hidden Girl and Other Stories ⭐️
  54. Alexandra Chang / Days of Distraction ⭐️
  55. Sophie Kinsella / I Owe You One
  56. Cixin Liu / The Three-Body Problem
  57. Que Mai Phan Nguyen / The Mountains Sing
  58. Damon Young / What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
  59. Jenny Offill / Weather
  60. Kwana Jackson / Real Men Knit
  61. Jasmine Guillory / Party of Two ⭐️
  62. Isabel Allende / A Long Petal of the Sea ⭐️
  63. Kevin Nguyen / New Waves ⭐️
  64. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / Americanah ⭐️
    Note: I read Americanah before learning about Adichie’s comments on trans women and feminism; the book did resonate deeply with me for its themes on (cis) feminism, race, and American culture, and whether or not you choose to read this book knowing the fuller context of her views is ultimately up to you.
  65. Bryan Stevenson / Just Mercy ⭐️
  66. Mieko Kawakami / Breasts and Eggs
  67. Taffy Brodesser-Akner / Fleishman Is in Trouble ⭐️
  68. Frances Cha / If I Had Your Face
  69. Kevin Kwan / Sex and Vanity 
  70. Naoise Dolan / Exciting Times
  71. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow / Big Friendship
  72. Homer, trans. Emily Wilson / The Odyssey
  73. Jia Tolentino / Trick Mirror ⭐️
  74. Kelly Yang / Parachutes
  75. Allie Brosh / Solutions and Other Problems
  76. David M. Masumoto / Epitaph for a Peach
  77. Eleanor Herman / Sex With Kings
  78. Nina George / The Little Paris Bookshop
  79. Lauren Collins / When in French
  80. L.M. Montgomery / The Blue Castle
  81. Ottessa Moshfegh / My Year of Rest and Relaxation
  82. Tommy Orange / There There
  83. Eva Ibbotson / A Company of Swans 
  84. Eva Ibbotson / The Secret Countess
  85. Sophie Kinsella / Surprise Me
  86. Eva Ibbotson / Magic Flutes
  87. Virginia Woolf / A Room of One’s Own
  88. Eva Ibbotson / The Morning Gift
  89. Hiromi Kawakami / The Nakano Thrift Shop
  90. Eva Ibbotson / A Song for Summer
  91. Georgette Heyer / Cotillion
  92. Meryl Wilsner / Something to Talk About
  93. Maisy Card / These Ghosts Are Family
  94. Meg Wolitzer / The Female Persuasion ⭐️
  95. Patricia Lockwood / Priestdaddy
  96. Jenny Odell / How to Do Nothing
  97. Melissa Dahl / Cringeworthy
  98. Thomas Thwaites / The Toaster Project
  99. Rebecca Solnit / A Paradise Built in Hell
  100. Sylvia Plath / The Bell Jar

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