Here it is, a list of my ten favorite reads of 2020. No, not every book in the list was published in 2020, but yes, every book on this list is superb. They’re presented here in alphabetical order with a few thoughts about each book. For more detailed reviews please check out The Stacks page on Instagram.
I did keep track of everything I read. Mostly because I’m a huge nerd and love a good spreadsheet, but also because I like to stay accountable to my reading goals.
Before I dive into my top 10 books, here is a little breakdown of what I read in 2020. I read a total of 95 books, which blew my goal of 36 out of the water. Though my goal was purposefully low because I didn’t know what to expect with the addition of The Mini Stacks this year.
- 64 were by authors of color (67%)
- 62 books were by women or nonbinary authors (65%)
- 48 books were by women/femme authors of color (50%)
- 45 books were published in 2020 (47%)
- 52 books were acquired by me in 2020 (55%)
- 59 books were nonfiction (62%)
- 15 books received five stars (16%)
- 1 books received one star (1%)
I love a good stat, and I could break down my reading even more, but I won’t. Instead here are my top 10 favorite reads of 2020.
Anna K: A Love Story by Jenny Lee (2020)
A modern retelling of Anna Karenina set in current day NYC with socialite teenagers. Think “Gossip Girl” with amazing storytelling and wonderful characters.
I loved this book. Jenny Lee really creates something fun and exciting that I didn’t want to put down. I found myself so invested in the characters and their journeys. There’s a central love story that doesn’t feel corny, which is hard to do, especially with teenagers. This one comes highly recommended.
The Autobiography of Malcom X as told to Alex Haley (1965)
The story of one of our most important and influential leaders, Malcolm X. This book changed my life and the ways in which I see and relate to the world around me. I can credit it with helping me begin to understand racism as something systemic in America and not something only “bad” people do. This book is revolutionary.
One of the most impressive parts of this book is how Malcolm is able to stand in his truth and share that with the world and say it fully with his chest, and then learn something new and change his mind. That kind of courage is tough to imagine. His commitment to seeking justice and equality for Black folks was not to be interfered with, even if it was he who was getting in the way.
Black Futures edited by Kimberley Drew and Jenna Wortham (2020)
Easily my most immersive and unique reading experience of 2020. Black Futures is a collection of essays, art, memes, conversations, recipes, lyrics, and more that attempt to detail and encompass the experience of Blackness today. This book is a time capsule of Blackness and a dream for our future.
I loved this book so much. It is massive and rich and full of wisdom and joy and creativity and activism and defiance and beauty. It is the embodiment of the saying “Blackness is not a monolith”. The topics range from Black Indigeneity to self-care, from Ocean preservation to Colin Kaepernick. And it’s not just about each of these things the book connects the many seemingly disparate dots and exposes the multitudes we, Black folks, contain. Drew & Wortham clearly poured so much love into this collection and into telling our stories. A blessing.
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry (2019)
A deeply personal examination of life, family, gender, race, memory, and violence Breathe is a lush and layered addition to the epistolary tradition in Black American writing.
Perry has created something that is both complex and direct. A combination that is nearly impossible to do well. She is audacious and generous in allowing the reader into her relationship with her sons. I kept asking myself where does she get off writing with this much skill and emotion? The care and love in these pages are unmistakable. I can barely scratch the surface of what I want to say about this book here.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon (2018)
This book was on this same list in 2018, but in 2020 I reread the book before Laymon was a guest on The Stacks. This time I listened on audio. This book holds up and is maybe even better the second time around. Heavy is an emotional memoir of Laymon’s life as a young Black man in Jackson, Mississippi.
The book is brutally honest and unyieldingly vulnerable. We are told of struggles and successes, addictions and abuses. Throughout Heavy there is blank space for the reader to connect to Laymon and to connect his life to a bigger picture of being Black in America. Laymon’s dedication to the written word and to the power of revision is striking.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey (2020)
When Natasha Trethewey was 19 her stepfather murdered her mother. Memorial Drive is the examination of that event, Trethewey’s childhood, and the ways trauma and memory are in a constant struggle.
This book is incredible. I had visceral reactions through out my reading. Tears. Gasps. Tightening of my chest. This story is painful, powerful, and beautifully told. The kind of bravery Trethewey mustered to put this story on the page is something I cannot comprehend. There are depictions of domestic violence in this book that are haunting. They are difficult to read (despite the fact that Trethewey is careful to protect her reader). These sections are necessary. They are not gratuitous. To tell this story without these details is to protect abusers and the systems that enable them.
Othello by William Shakespeare (1603)
This play is extraordinary. It might be my most favorite Shakespeare play (and at this point I’ve read almost all of them). It is smart and complex and feels timely every time I read it. Mostly because racism, sexism, and violent white boys never seem to go out of fashion. And yes, this was already on my 2018 list of favorite reads.
Iago’s rage and jealousy stuck out during this read more than anything else. He lies so convincingly and so consistently, the parallels to the party in power in America are haunting. The fearlessness with which white men take and destroy is front and center in Othello. Also Act 4 Scene 3 is a scene that I love so much as it shows the way women fight against instinct and intuition to love toxic men. It is beautiful and devastating.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (2020)
This short story collection is so good. It’s funny. It’s depressing. It’s complex. It’s rich. It’s Southern. It’s sobering. It’s sexy and violent. It’s specific. It’s surprising. It’s delicious. It’s Black and free and brilliant. Philyaw snapped on each and every story. They’re short and pack a major punch. There is no apology. There is no white gaze and for that I feel entirely grateful. I don’t want to tell you more. Just read this book.
Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream by Mychal Denzel Smith (2020)
A masterful work that calls into question the dissonance of The American Dream and the reality that is The United States. Smith asks for reflection and reimagining in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Abolition, justice, reform, and redistribution are all on the table in this brutal and searing call to action.
Smith is an incredible writer. He distills the contradictions of America and Americanness down to its true, immoral, and predatory essence. I was impressed by the ways Smith kept Stakes Is High in the current moment (the book is not afraid of confronting the here and now) and also rooted in a history that reminds us that none of this is new. The book is in conversation with the great texts on race and liberation in America, and is part of the tradition of abolition, revision, and rigorous curiosity.
Sula by Toni Morrison (1973)
The simple synopsis: the story of best friends, Sula and Nel, the town they grow up in, their families and their bond. The complicated synopsis: everything.
Sula is an incredible feat of storytelling. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s tragic. Morrison says all she needs to say without any excess. The ways Morrison captures the joy and trauma and complexity of Blackness is what will always stick with me from this book. The humor that is an integral part of Blackness is not overlooked, it is the foundation of this story.
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