A Mid-Year Reading List
Last year, almost to the day, I wrote about my changing reading habits. After spending most of my life as a primarily non-fiction reader, I suddenly was reading almost entirely fiction. Where I used to read only one or two novels a year, now I was reading almost exclusively novels. I wrote that the books I’m reading generally fall into three categories: novels, essay collections, and memoirs.
A year later, this trend remains and in the first half of 2020, I’ve read a few books that I almost immediately count as favorites. This has been a fantastic few months of reading for me and I want to share some recommendations, especially if you find yourself isolated at home with some time to spare.
I could not wait for Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather, and devoured it the weekend it came out. Her last book, Dept. of Speculation, is a favorite and while I’m not sure Weather knocked me out like that one did, I’m drawn to her fragmentary structure and love spending time in the worlds she builds.
After seeing it on countless best of lists, I finally picked up poet Ocean Voung’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and wow! I was completely bowled over by this and still find myself thinking of it often. It was powerful and emotional and formally daring; each sentence so perfectly written. It’s a book that’s hard to describe so just pick it up and start.
Speaking of books it took me to long to finally read, just as the pandemic spread across the country, I was finishing up Ottessa Moshfegh’s stunning My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Moshfegh’s novel follows an unnamed protagonist who’s on a quest to spend a year in hibernation, trying to sleep through her life. As the story progresses, her sleeping gets deeper and her life stranger. This is a book about grief and tragedy but it’s also about waking up and experiencing life. (She has a new one out later this year — already on my list!)
And as I type this, I just started Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. I went through a Calvino phase about ten years ago but missed this one. I think it’s time to get back into reading his collection again.
I’m reading a lot of essay collections this year. Perhaps because I’m doing so much more writing lately, I’m finding myself looking to others for influence on structure, on voice, on language. Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel quickly became an instant favorite. Blending memoir and cultural criticism, this collection is essentially a look at his writing life. It made me want to write more.
I read all of Jia Tolentino’s pieces in the New Yorker so I was excited to read her first book, a collection of essays called Trick Mirror. These essays consider what it means to live online and tangentially, what it means to perform, to be a woman, to get married in the twenty-first century. I hesitate to call works of culture must-reads (or watches, listens, etc) but this feels like a book that so perfectly captures what it means to be alive today that I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone.
Like many people right now, it feels like, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading or rereading Rebecca Solnit. I’d never read her 2013 book, The Faraway Nearby, so I recently pick it up and breezed through it. These essays, loosely based around the life and death of her mother, reveal the stories that guide our lives.
The only memoir I’ve read this year is Anna Wiener’s excellent Uncanny Valley, about her life working in tech in San Francisco. I also worked in tech in San Francisco around the same time as Wiener and found her account eerily similar and at times hitting a bit too close to home. She captures the life of a low- to mid-level tech worker perfectly and is a book that gives insight into why so many millennials move west and get subsumed by Silicon Valley. (Also, it strangely made me miss San Francisco for the first time since I’d left.)
The one non-fiction book I read that falls outside the above is Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. If there’s a theme through the reading list this year, it seems to be books that somehow attempt to explain life in this current moment. Klein does an excellent job explaining US politics and how we got here. I’d like to write more about this book and I’ll definitely be thinking about it for a long time.
I posted my 2019 reading list here and will again be posting every book I read this year at the end of the year. Also, I just launched a new library section on my site that showcases some of my all-time favorite books. I’m hoping to add more books to this list soon.
I spend each summer reading one of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biographies. I’m on Master of the Senate this year and will be starting it later this month. I think I’ll read Normal People after that. I’ve also never read any Rachel Cusk and have Outline on my list to read soon. Richard Power’s The Overstory has been recommended to me more times than I can remember as well as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights so I’ve added them to the list. As always, the list of books to read grows faster than the list of books read.