I ended up reading 32 books in 2020, having initially set the goal of #52booksin52weeks and then dialing it down to #40book2020.
I do not have children and the milestones that accompany them, so this project afforded me, in my 34th year around the sun, with a unique way to mark time during an incredibly slow-moving and stressful year for the entire planet.
In June I posted about my reading goals and dropped a list of titles I had explored thus far. Here are the rest of them and a few further reflections on what it meant for me to undertake this endeavor.
Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker
Whitaker is the founder of Tempest, a modern, women-focused online recovery program. Her book outlines concrete tools for quitting drinking and explores the deceptive ways in which the alcohol industry targets female consumers. Overall it frames sobriety as an empowering choice in line with Feminist values.
The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation
I read much of this sacred Hindu text over the course of a long night of insomnia last summer. I recall hyper-focusing on the pre-battle dialogue between prince Arjuna and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu as I fought my own interior battle with anxious thoughts. The spiritual wisdom of The Gita is stated with the gentle clarity of a blue sky… so much to revisit and absorb… That’s the rub with ambitious reading goals. This year, I look forward to reading and re-reading that is slow and deep.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Baldwin writes about race in America in a way that is depressingly prescient. I prefer his writing over some of the newer anti-racist literature that is trending right now. His is such a compassionate, nuanced voice while remaining truthful and unaccommodating to White fear.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
A friend lent me this book after I expressed how much comfort I was taking lying under large, broad-leafed trees during COVID. This is a rich, layered novel worthy of multiple reads — it interweaves nine narratives, all with trees at their center, and then builds toward Drama, reading almost like a thriller toward the end.
The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry & Writing by Richard Hugo
One of the most salient pieces of information I took away from Triggering Town was that all writers, poets, pushers of paper and pen, artists, creatives, have “obsessions” or certain topics, themes that they return to over and over and that’s OK. Hugo’s suggestion is to lean into these — that’s where the gold lies.
Good Poems: Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor
This is such a great book! It contains a wide range of contemporary and older poets loosely categorized under themes ranging from “Lovers” to “Day’s Work.”
A Spring Within Us by Richard Rohr
This book reads much like the daily emails Rohr sends from the Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded in 1987. Each week has a theme, ranging from an introduction to the Enneagram to a series of reflections on “Transforming Suffering.” Each week ends with some kind of meditative or contemplative practice. Rohr is a Franciscan priest and prolific author; when I get annoyed/frustrated with the Christian establishment his writings renew my faith.
Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Minds by Jen Wilkin, The Essential Jesus, and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron are each part of a year of spiritual seeking.
The first provides practical practical tips for reading the Bible that you might expect from an exacting high school English teacher. I agree with Wilkin that many devotionals can have a “Xanax” effect in telling the reader what she wants to hear and so I appreciate the concrete tips she offers for the woman who longs to read the Bible for her own damn self. The Essential Jesus is the Gospel of Luke, and When Things Fall Apart is rooted in the Buddhist tradition, one that I could read ten or twenty times and still gain something new. It begins with a reflection on fear, including the bravery it takes to truly live in the present moment — “being present” is a truly vulnerable, groundless place to be, according to Chodron, and yet that is how we are called to live.
The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith
I found The Well-Gardened Mind through this article in The New Yorker. My husband has thrown himself into gardening since we moved to St. Louis in 2015 and though he has a very calm aura I’ve always sensed that tending to his vegetable garden offered him a profound and much-needed release. I bought the book for him and subsequently read it myself, curious about the psychological connection between gardeners and their plots. The author is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist married to a landscape architect… you can imagine where that takes her.
The Book of Genesis
Reading Women of the Word and The Essential Jesus sparked a hunger in me to undertake a different reading project altogether, that of making my way through The Good Book. The Book of Genesis, like The Gita, is written in a concise, assertive voice, inviting slow, patient reading.
The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner
A wise friend of mine once told me that there’s a direct relationship between feelings of personal powerlessness and the feeling of anger; for this and other reasons I have struggled against losing my temper during the season of COVID. This is another book intended to be ingested slowly. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on mothers and daughters, the description of “over-” and “under-” functioners in romantic relationships, and the hopeful outlook of effectively channeling anger versus somehow eradicating it.
We Are The Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life by Laura McKowen
We Are The Luckiest is another sobriety memoir or “quit lit” as the chicks say. The author used to co-host the Home podcast with the aforementioned Holly Whitaker and leads her own women’s online recovery program. One detail from this book that stands out to me is the reverence with which she speaks of paying her bills on time, making her bed, doing the mundane deal. Only a sober person who has worked hard for their recovery can understand this level of appreciation for the ordinary.