playing favorites 2020

a photo of a shelf of pulp fiction titles from the very-worth-it Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago. these novels look like the Penguin Classics of gay erotica. each book’s risqué title is written in a bold all-caps black font on a white background. a single block of color runs across the top of each book’s spine. identical colors are shelved together but not in a gradient, more like a patchwork rainbow. the first version of this caption contained a lot more accidental innuendo. i decided the books should speak for themselves.

Like most millennials, a lot of my reading these days takes the form of news and pop culture. It was a natural progression for the voracious reading habits that began when I was a kid. When you only read about current events, a lot of what you read is useless even a day later. So a few years ago, I decided instead to devote some of my time to reading more books. Last year I started keeping track of the books that I read. This year I wanted to share my five favorites that I read in 2020.

5. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

I learned about this book from an article (haha) near the start of the pandemic. The article’s author compared the book to the unsettled start of our 2020 pandemic. In The Memory Police, the narrator describes a town in which things disappear. One day birds disappear. Another day, the concept of a calendar disappears. The calendar on your wall would need to go, or else the memory police may come and do it themselves. At first these things start to disappear from people’s minds, like water seeping out of a crack in a pitcher. Eventually, the memory police arrive to destroy all traces of the items. Possessing these items or talking about the things you’ve lost are crimes. Some people in this town never forget the items or concepts that go away. But for most of the town, there’s only a feeling that things are different.

Reading it through that lens, I found it distressing in places and comforting in others. Distressing in how complicit everyone seemed to be in the undoing of their own society. Comforting in the reminder that life goes on despite it all.

4. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Minor Feelings is a memoir as a collection of essays about being an asian american in the united states. The stories are imbued with race and racialization. Minor feelings, the author writes, are “emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” The book was a meditation on shame and identity and what it means to be a part of… all this.

I read more memoirs this year than I can remember ever reading. I learned about Minor Feelings from Jia Tolentino, a fellow second-generation asian american. I’m exactly six years apart between both of their ages, so there was a lot in this book that I related to. I also kept a series of notes of things referenced in this book that I wanted to look up. I started this book the night of the election and finished it a few days later. I loved it.

3. The Hidden Lives of Owls by Leigh Calvez

A friend of my parents gave us this book as a wedding present. Bev and Frank have lived for years in the pacific northwest. I can’t think of another book that better captures how I feel about this place. Each chapter tells a story about a different owl species. The book is full of facts about each owl, though it reads more like personal stories than reference guide.

The most dramatic story for me was the story of the Great Gray Owls with the Great Horned Owls. My favorite owl is the so-tiny Flammulated Owl, which lives in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. And now, whenever we go out into a stand of trees, I can’t help but look up.

2. The Injustice Never Leaves You by Monica Muñoz Martinez

This book is a history of anti-Mexican violence and lynchings in Texas. Each chapter centers on an individual, a family, or a town. It lay bare the savage brutality of the white settlers and Texas Rangers in the early days my home state.

This was another fast read. It’s also the rare library book where I bought the book soon after finishing it. I started this one near the beginning of 2020, and you know what this year has been like. It was a bleak way to begin a year that seemed to only get bleaker. This book makes clear how little progress we’ve made against the enforcers of white supremacy. It also reminds me why it’s so important to fight, even when it feels futile.

1. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Covering an entire millennia or so of the future, this book was a sprawling epic told through a few lifetimes. The story begins on a planet and spreads out to the entire universe. I could have spent an entire book in any of the settings the author created. There’s a brilliant designer of space stations that take centuries to build. A ship captain who spends weeks in space that are decades to the people she meets whenever she lands. A boy who fell from the sky and at first only communicates with music. And, sadly, a universe controlled by ruthless century-spanning corporations.

This book was the novel of my dreams! The immersive storytelling was catnip for my imagination. The characters were diverse and queer and fully realized. I have a stack of books that I still need to get to, but I’ll be coming back to this one soon.

I’m taking next week off, so my next post will be in early 2021. I had a blast working on radical innovations this year. This blog has helped me bring clarity to my ideas and given me confidence when I’ve needed it. And at least once this year, something I wrote for this blog made its way into an official government memo to 500+ organizations across the state. This work is my attempt to build the fractals that adrienne maree brown describes in Emergent Strategy:

“In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose.”

I know that the qualities we are can lead to the decisions that build the future we need. I’m grateful and lucky that I get to put my ideas into coherent sentences and share them with you. I hope you enjoyed reading.