It’s also helpful to compare it to my total reading:
And why do I track these numbers? Because when I didn’t pay any attention to it, I gravitated to a very homogeneous reading list. Which isn’t very good if you want to be exposed to a range of voices and ideas.
Here are some other stats from my reading in 2020:
Sci-fi is still #1: This year sci-fi hit 54% of my reading, up from 37% last year. Carried me through the pandemic.
New is still better: About 75% of my reading came from the last three years. The oldest book was from 1997 (and my favorite fiction read of the year), and it was the only more than 20 years old.
Print dominates: Reading on my phone was a terrible idea this year. And audiobooks barely happened. My print reading hit 94%, quite a boost from last year’s 77%.
YA is dead to me: Once upon a time I used to read a lot of YA. This year? Nada. That’s not quite true, as some books fall under multiple categories and I classified them as other than YA. But even if we track those down, it’s only two or three. I’m not sure why I’ve grown so tired of this genre, but I have. It’s kind of sad too, because it sometimes it seems like YA is where all the interesting developments are happening in fiction.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi – A fascinating book and a difficult read, this one made all the headlines in the aftermath of George Floyd. I’ve also seen a fair amount of criticism about it, but that’s not surprising. It’s a challenge, but I think the underlying premise—if you’re not actively fighting racism then you’re part of the problem—is sound.
Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer – A fascinating combination of memoir and history. I started listening to it as an audiobook but got bogged down in some of the detail and had to finish a paper copy. The history of our treatment of Native Americans is always jarring, but this summary of recent problematic encounters is even more jarring. These aren’t just sins our forefathers committed generations before we were born.
Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America by Stacey Abrams – Nothing like reading about voter suppression in the lead up to a presidential election. Especially one where the biggest story is the post-election rejection of said election based on absolutely no proof. It’d be fascinating to hear Abrams take on that, because that seems like a whole other problem from the one she tackles.
Honorable mention:The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures by Noelle Stevenson – Stevenson’s Nimona has always been one of my favorite graphic novels, and after watching and loving her Netflix reboot of She-Ra, I had to pick up Stevenson’s memoir. More than anything, it’s about creativity and learning to accept yourself. Also has some great cartoons.
My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due – I’ve had this book on my to-read list for years and finally tracked it down. Worth the wait! It’s a horror/sci-fi story about immortals that’s very reminiscent of Octavia Butler. It has an effortless quality and sucks you in. While it works as a standalone, it’s also part of a four-book series that’s worth checking out (I’m currently on the fourth installment).
The Trials of Koli by M.R. Carey – I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction, and the Koli series is just perfect. It’s got a bizarre voice that takes a little getting used to, but the world and ethos is fascinating and fun. This is actually the second installment, but I liked it better than the first.
Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer – I’m also a sucker for AI stories. Based on a short story about an AI who likes cat photos, this novel creates a bigger world around that concept that manages to be intriguing and funny without getting lost in the YA trappings. The sequel comes out this year and I’ve already got it pre-ordered.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal – This was our last book club book before the pandemic descended, and it was an incredible story centered on food. I’m usually not much of a foodie and wouldn’t be interested in the topic, but this one was really captivating.
Network Effectby Martha Wells – After four novellas focused on the Murderbot, Wells gives us an entire novel. And it’s fun (I said I’m a sucker for AI stories). There are a couple points where it slows down and drags a little, but overall it’s fast-paced Murderbot fun.
The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey – Seems like cheating to give this series two spots on the list, but they were among my favorites of the year. The first one does an amazing job of setting up the world (oh yeah, and it has AI as well—double whammy of AI and post-apocalyptic). I think the end drags a bit, which is why I liked the sequel better.
A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen – It’s really weird to read a book about a global pandemic that kills 70% of the population in a year when a global pandemic kicks off. That eerie bit aside, this was a fascinating story about the aftermath of a pandemic.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson – This is kind of post-apocalyptic, but more than anything it’s a multi-verse story. It has some fun twists and turns and was enjoyable mostly because it was so unexpected.
The Regional Office Is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzalez – This wacky super spy story was riveting from the first page. The ending was kind of a letdown, which is why it slipped so low on this list, but the reading experience was pretty great.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey – A sci-fi/western with a little post-apocalypse thrown in (sense a theme?), this story was a fun, quick read. It’s sticks in my mind mostly as being the type of book that got me back into reading. I read it in July, after a few months of having a really hard time getting into books. The blurb sounded fun (“Are you a coward or a librarian?) and it came quickly when I requested it from the library. Just what I needed when I needed it.
Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess took the multiple world setup and really ran with it. I listened to the audio book while also reading The Space Between Worlds, which made for a really bizarre pairing.
Since 2020 has been such a dumpster fire, I thought it might help to recap a few accomplishments. One of the big ones is my latest book: Better Politics, Please.
I came up with this idea before the pandemic struck, but really fleshing it out and making it happen was a total pandemic project. I needed that. I needed something to focus on in the midst of all the chaos.
A project I worked on for 15 years came to an end at the close of 2019. I went into 2020 not knowing what was next (whoa, boy howdy!). Better Politics, Please was a fun way to try something different. It gave me a lot of hope, despite a real lack of hope in the rest of the world.
I’m grateful for all the help that made this project a reality. I couldn’t have done it without the many people who supported it.
What a rollercoaster ride this has been. I could probably say that about every book project I’ve done, but this one really felt like it. With a pandemic, civil unrest, and now a Supreme Court fight, this has been a trying time.
And that’s why I think this book is more necessary than ever. People will always disagree, but we need to find a way to do it without condemning each other to hell. That sounds extreme, but that’s how people treat one another today.
Sometimes I think we need to find something to celebrate in people we disagree with. We need some small measure of common ground. I don’t pretend to be a peacemaker who can bring all sides together and create harmony, but I think that can be a productive start.
Instead of picking fights, let’s start conversations.
Let’s Make Civic Engagement More Civil
I hope that’s what this book can be. It’s 35 stories of politicians from both sides of the aisle, from all levels of government, and finds something in who they are and what they say that can be inspiring.
Politics can be pretty divisive and depressing. What happened to hope? Too often, politics feels like a battleground where we lob accusations back and forth. And that’s not likely to change after November’s presidential election, no matter who wins or loses.
Politics have long been divisive and people will always disagree. But I have hope that we can do better.
So I’m launching a new project. It will be a book of political profiles, titled Better Politics,Please, that will tell encouraging stories of finding common ground.
Yeah, that’s a tall order these days.
But if we want to make civic engagement civil, it starts with we the people. I hope you’ll join me in creating better politics, please.
I read 107 books in 2019, and about a quarter were non-fiction. I often have a hard time getting through non-fiction, with a top five or seven list at the end of the year, but this year I had a bunch of favorites and went for a top 10.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin – I’ve never read James Baldwin before, and now I’m kicking myself. He has such a profound, scathing, prophetic voice. The things he said about race more than 50 years ago are still painfully true today. It’s a quick read, but will take a lot longer (and multiple readings) to truly digest.
Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobia – A helpful and insightful memoir that gives a glimpse into the nonbinary perspective. Jacob makes the point that no single memoir can encapsulate the nonbinary experience and tries to avoid telling what’s become the typical tragic tale. What I found most interesting was Jacob’s experience in church. While they did have some rough patches, their church was ultimately affirming.
The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang – Really compelling memoir about a Hmong refugee who grew up in Laos and escaped war to struggle with racism in America. The introduction really didn’t hook me, but once it got into the father’s story it really got good. The audio version is voiced by the author, and her voice breaks up in some of the really tough parts, making for a powerful listen.
Tomboy by Liz Prince – Not only does this memoir skewer gender norms in a fun and playful style, but it’s a coming-of-age memoir about the most awkward time in our lives that explores dealing with gender issues. Nothing like a good awkward teen story.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker – A graphic memoir about George Takei’s childhood in the Japanese internment camps of World War II. The story of the internment is pretty rough, though Takei does a good job couching it in with the perspective of history and our strides forward since then (and slips backward). It’s a history we often don’t remember, which makes this an important read.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates – I remember Ta-Nehisi Coates doing the round of interviews when the book came out, and there was a strain of a kind of incredulousness that he wasn’t more hopeful. After reading the book, I can see why. He sees Trump as a racist backlash to Obama, a return to who we are. The problem isn’t Trump, the problem is much deeper than that. And it doesn’t leave a lot of room for hope. Like other Coates books I’ve read, this one demands a lot more than a simple reading. I felt like I was scratching the surface and would need to revisit it multiple times to really grasp the ideas fully. Some powerful, well argued and well researched stuff.
Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda LeGarde Grover – A book of simple stories and remembrances, full of wonderful turns of phrase and memory and history and culture. The focus on Duluth and the seasons gives it a nice local feel, but the best part is just the explanations of Ojibwe cultural practices with a sense of how they’ve changed over time. But it’s a story your grandmother would tell, not a rote history lesson. It’s intriguing how often the Indian boarding schools are mentioned, an intergenerational trauma that many of us might remember as old history, forgetting how it continues to have an impact.
Diesel Heart by Melvin Carter Jr. – If you’ve ever met Melvin Carter Jr., it’s quickly apparent that he likes to talk. He tells stories and can jump from one topic to the next, always passionate and brutally honest. He has a raw voice that doesn’t sugar coat anything. Which makes his story of growing up in the latter half of the 20th century in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood gripping. He encounters a lifetime of racism, from St. Paul’s gutting of the Rondo neighborhood to serving in the Navy during Vietnam to serving on St. Paul’s mostly white police force for 28 years. It’s a memoir with a lot of heart and character. (Read my recap of his reading at Amore.)