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The Best Books I Read This Year

This article is part of a collection of my favorite media pieces in 2020.


by Rutger Bregman

Now is a rough time to be alive. Not really rough, depending on scope; the bubonic plague, great depression, 1940s Europe, and Africa under colonization would probably be worse. Actually, let’s go with “everything before 1980”. I’d say “1970”, but I’m convinced everyone in the following decade was a serial killer. Let’s keep it at 1980. Realistically, things could be worse. But coming of age as a white suburban kid in the Obama years, things looked pretty great; sure, the great recession had been raging, but we were coming out of it. The Bush years were over, and we’d definitely never elect a worse President, and, speaking of Presidents, ours was Black, so if we can’t say racism is totally over, it’s gotta be… close, right?

Then 2016 hits, and the following four years try their best to ruin our conceptualization of continuing progress. Sure, it’s still no great depression or colonial Africa, but we did get our own sort of microdose experiences with fascism and plague. In the United States, we’ve had a government that’s at best obstructionist and at worst actively harmful. To many, there’s no sense of national direction; members of my generation are the first cohort in centuries to not be guaranteed a better financial future than their parents. Is there no hope?

Author Rutger Bregman’s core argument is that you don’t need to be an unrealistically-optimistic idealist to believe in a substantially more positive future. The utopian writers of the past dreamed of a 2020 very unlike ours. Less coronavirus, less mass murder, less “all of the news is a lie”. But, against all of its horror, human history has a tendency toward progress, toward better technology, better healthcare, and more wealth for everyone, even if the folks at the top have hoarded most of the growth.

Referencing history, political arguments, and scientific studies, Bregman makes the case for a significantly more fruitful future through relatively simple changes, including the adoption of universal basic income and a shorter workweek. The pessimists will say the world’s on fire; we don’t have to consider ourselves optimists to put it out.


by Gretchen McCulloch

Growing up, the internet was my third parent. Computer scientists have been dealing with the internet in its entirety for decades, but social scientists have been slower to the punch. Many, if not most, kids nowadays are like me, introduced to an unlimited stream of content and online relationships as soon as they can read (if not much earlier – kids’ YouTube channels are out of control). Facebook is nearly ubiquitous, especially among older Americans, and we’re only just now getting around to the effects that its universal adoption have had on our national psyche and the well-being of national democracy. Everyone texts, be it through traditional SMS, Facebook-owned Messenger, or Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Emojis, once quirky pictorial add-ons used nearly exclusively by teenage girls, are now a component of communication for all of us. My dad sends me emojis. He likes this one: 😜

We’ve largely ignored the loftier implications of inviting emoji onto our screens, but linguist Gretchen McCulloch hasn’t. Sourcing scientific data and modern linguistic theory, McCulloch argues that emoji aren’t merely expendable ornaments for dull text, but instead something better resembling a critical step forward in how we communicate visually. Before emoji, mood was all but absent from conversations held over text – you could try to use nicer or meaner language, or you could use weighty acronyms to clarify the feeling, behind words, but those were inorganic methods that served to underscore the disconnection of text rather than repair it. Really, the best option we’d come up with were emoticons, the Neanderthal-esque progenitors of emoji dominance to come. 

Now, though, depending on your crowd, emoji might be nearly ubiquitous. They’re available on phones, computers, and social media everywhere – the current challenge in tech is less about whether emoji should be adopted, but rather how they can be made more expressive. McCulloch points out that a few emoji at the end of the message transform a message’s meaning from cold cuneiform to vivid communications of anger, humor, and love, acting to substitute the roles of voice tone, volume, and facial emotiveness. They bolster the text, giving it meaning.

But McCulloch doesn’t stop with emoji; hers is an investigation of the broad effect the internet has had on how we communicate, reminding us once more that this relatively new technology is already inextricably deeply set in our history and already acts as one of the, if not the primary, defining features of our future.

If not from her book or podcast, you might recognize McCulloch as the co-writer of nearly all of Youtuber Tom Scott’s linguistics videos. Her solo work is equally fascinating.


by Michelle Alexander

This is probably the most important book I read this year. Cards on the table, this one wasn’t really on my radar before the murder of George Floyd by members of my city’s police department propelled racial justice issues into the spotlight both locally and nationwide. It’s weird typing that; “propelled” makes it sound like mistreatment of people of color by the police was previously an abstract underground concept that we only now know about. Indeed, the reality is a series of systematic failures that, rather than shocking us, have become next to commonplace in our understanding of news and justice. George Floyd’s murder neither revealed the system of corruption nor introduced us to an unfamiliar side of it; rather, the uniquely indefensible (from the perspective of the fortunate majority) circumstances of Floyd’s death made his personal tragedy impossible to ignore.

For those whose stories run parallel to Floyd’s, The New Jim Crow is neither a revelation nor a surprise. The book is still a worthwhile read for its scientific framing of an issue well-known to Black Americans, but its real value is probably for people like me – white folks open to learning more about the race-related rot at the core of the American justice system.

There’s something appropriately uncomfortable about suggesting that a book about the problems facing Black Americans is for white dudes like me, but The New Jim Crow is written from the perspective of a Black woman whose starting point isn’t too different from that of a lot of well-meaning white folks, the half-understanding that the criminal justice system holds inherent biases toward minority groups, but that these biases and their effects are not enough to constitute the founding pillars of a well-established American underclass.

In tearing down her own understanding of the justice system and its interface with Black Americans, author Michelle Alexander provides a comfortable, more familiar vehicle to lead an audience of people like me to understand the rot, its effects, and how deep it really goes. 


by Alexandre Dumas

“There’s nothing like the classics” says me, known classic skeptic. Novels that have managed to stand the test of time and still attract near-universal acclaim must be doing something right, but drudging through centuries-old prose is as good a way to put someone off the hobby of reading as it is to acclimate them to meaningful stories or intricate narration styles. Last year, I opened my return to reading with a bunch of Shakespeare. The bard’s tales are timeless, but his word choice, grammar, and orthography are not, and I sometimes felt myself struggling through even the shortest of his plays, as much as I may have otherwise enjoyed the narratives.

The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t nearly as old as Hamlet or Macbeth. It also benefits from being available in English only as a translation, which removes a little more confusion from play. Still, I was happy with how accommodating Dumas’s prose is for the mid-19th century. The story of his protagonist, Edmond Dantes, is as timeless as any of Shakespeare’s: a quest for revenge, and the questions Dumas asks are as relevant now as ever. 

I think it’s possible that in the middle of the pandemic, just as video games invited me to fantasy worlds and British TV evoked a cozy sense of normalcy, I took comfort in the ability of an old novel to transport me to an entirely different time in an entirely different place and supply me with all the necessary characters and carefully-crafted narrative to keep me there.

Honorable Mentions

  • Frankenstein
  • King Leopold’s Ghost

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