Once I recovered from the the initial brain fog caused by the shock of the pandemic, 2020 was a good year for reading as I simply had more (enforced, but still welcome) time for it. I’ve read progressively more non-work material since getting addicted to the Backlisted podcast, but this year was (so far) exceptional. I usually manage around 120-150 books, but this year, I went for the round 200 figure and made it. Lucky me. I hope the account and list below provides some diversion and materials for those of you looking for things to read in 2021.
The 63 works of fiction by living writers were dominated by things I heard discussed in podcasts and by things on prize shortlists.
I read the booker shortlist (as I always do) as well as things I fancied from the longlist (several of which I preferred to things that made the shortlist, notably Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was, where I massively recommend the audio). From the shortlist, Shuggie Bain stood out and was, I thought, a worthy winner, but I most enjoyed encountering Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, which I prefaced by reading the preceding two novels in the series. I’d actually read an LRB review of This Mournable Body before the Booker longlist was announced, so already had the first two books in my sights. Uncomfortable reading but recommended. I also read a few from the International Man Booker Prize, including the eventual winner (Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening), which is disturbing and brilliant.
Other than the Booker, I realised I’d already read so many books from current and past years of the Goldsmiths Prize that I thought I’d try for retrospective shortlist completism, which lead to reading Gwendoline Riley, First Love and Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, both of which are short and full of energy. Manyika was one of this year’s judges and I read the winner from this year’s list ahead of it winning, as it was the one I most fancied from the descriptions, M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again.
I also read items from the Republic of Consciousness Prize, although didn’t get round to the eventual winner (though I bought it and may read it in 2021): I really liked Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, which I thought would be too ‘now’ for me but was excellent, but my favourite book on the RoCP shortlist was definitely Toby Litt, Patience. This led me to take out a Galley Beggar subscription, although I was then immediately disappointed by Taneja’s We That Are Young, a take on King Lear set in contemporary India and which I gave a good go but couldn’t finish. This is probably me: I’m not generally a fan of updated classics, especially Shakespeare (I prefer him as an allusive source, as in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet books) or of historical novels. So, I didn’t like plot or setting in James Meek’s To Calais in Ordinary Time (a busman’s holiday for me), Hamnet, or The Porpoise as much as I liked the writing, although the last of these led me to one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year (see below).
My pre-existing &OtherStories subscription brought me a few interesting books, best among them Andrzej Tichý, Wretchedness, which has a strong contemporary music (specifically, spectralism) theme and which I accompanied by listening (later—I can’t read with music playing as both require full mental attention) to the album that was the tacit soundtrack to the book.
Favourite authors appear on the list, including Eimear McBride (whom I heard read from her Strange Hotel in Blackwells in Oxford when that was still possible), Ali Smith (whose Summer makes me plan to re-read the entire quartet in 2021).
I seem to have read an equal amount of fiction by dead authors (64 titles), ranging from the sixth-century Boethius (who I’d read for work, but here read in translation for ‘fun’, not that he’d approve of such fun, I’m sure), to those who died in the twenty-first century. Among these, I have a number of ongoing completist projects, including Edith Wharton (9 novels and novellas read this year), Anita Brookner (2 this year), Graham Greene (5), and Henry James (2). I also instituted a new completist project with Iris Murdoch, after Richard E. Grant’s rendering of The Sea, The Sea absorbed several long walks and sent me back to re-read A Severed Head and The Bell and read four others in addition.
Prompted by the Backlisted podcast, I started The Warden in the first lockdown and finished the entire set of six Barsetshire novels in the second, having had hours of perfect joy courtesy of Trollope and Timothy West, definitely Trollope’s vicar on earth. Other Backlisted recommendations were not so successful, in particular those meant to be comic, which I simply failed to find funny (humour is very personal), although I did enjoy Miss Buncle’s Book, but then I’m a sucker for metafiction.
My main discovery in classic fiction, though, was J. G. Farrell, who I definitely do find funny in a kind of irreverent way that I particularly enjoy. I read the first two in his Empire trilogy and will tackle the third in 2021.
I grew up reading Science Fiction and Fantasy and learned a lot, so I don’t have the same prejudices about the genre many people who like so-called literary fiction seem to. I don’t read a huge amount, but managed 8 books in this genre this year. Again, I used prizes as a way of finding out what to read here, which led me to N. K. Jemisin’s trilogy, as well as the Beukes and McLeod. I found the world building in all of these full of interesting ideas, although I got a bit bored of the trilogy by the third volume when most of the building is done and there’s just the playing out of plot. Le Guin remains excellent, even though the two worlds in The Dispossessed might readily be understood as Californian hippies vs free-market capitalists it manages to be a story that hasn’t dated and has fully rounded characters and more complex psychological states.
The short story is one of my least favourite forms. I’m not sure why, but I’m hard to please with these and the 8 collections here are generally things that people have bought me as presents and/or that I just keep hearing about and feel obliged to try. My main beef is that the temporality of the short story doesn’t suit my reading habits. In general, a single story demands reading at a single sitting, but reading multiple stories in a collection one after another can get very bitty and confusing and risks overwriting memory of one with another. This problem is exacerbated by collections that are very internally diverse in genre, length, or one, like Zadie Smith’s Grand Union. I end up allowing the ones I don’t understand, get, or like to dominate my memory of the volume as a whole. Maybe I should learn to be content with liking just one or two things in each such collection? My stand-out recommendation from these collections (although Williams’s Attrib. was good enough that I have enthusiastically and with a sense of relief bought her first novel for reading early in 2021) was Spindles, which seemed to emanate from an academic grant collaboration about the science of sleep. Each chapter presents a research finding in short-story form and then with a commentary by a scientist on the science. Many may find this a bit clunky, but I loved it, and there are some good stories in there too. I think the fact that there’s a single theme uniting the collection meant I could enjoy it more completely. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing.
The 21 collections here were a bit hit and miss but mainly interesting. Poetry I like to read all at once to get a sense of the poet’s style and lexis and then come back to it more slowly over time. The Levy was a re-read and I read some of the others twice (Chan’s collection, which I read before the audio version came out and then couldn’t resist listening to her reading it too). A few of the collections were send my way by hearing a paper on the contemporary sestina, since there are great examples of this form in the Stallings (title poem), Maris, and Agbabi. I really loved the Agbabi of these and must read more of her, but the most moving collection for me here was another where I read it myself and then bought the authorial audio, which comes in this case with additional information about the poems, which make them additionally touching: Raymond Antrobus, The Perseverance.
This is a genre that I love and I can’t believe I only read 13 books in it. Afropean was a welcome antidote to the overwhelming US-focus of discussions of race this year and is a book that I massively recommend in the authorial reading on audio. Pitts has a beautiful voice and a regional British accent (so not, like most black British writers, a London sound) and is a great reader of his own work. Orr’s Motherwell is tragic and angry and made me pensive and upset for days; Kane’s Son of a Silverback is similarly tragic but told in a truly comic mode that still made me cry at the end. Nell Stevens’s two entries here are both highly recommended too.
From the 24 books here I learned a lot of interesting things. Richard J. Evan’s volume in the Penguin History of Europe was quite simply the best general history book I’ve ever read: well-written and containing a proper balance of political and cultural (including musical, rarely included in general histories) information and analysis. I recommended it highly on Twitter at the time and I’m now reading his Nazi trilogy, although it’s a bit tough because of the horrible subject matter. Other highlights here were both disease-related: Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, which is a great and deeply resonant account of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic, and Sonia Shah’s The Fever, which is an uncomfortable riposte to Westerners who glibly think to fix Malaria without properly listening to the people living with it and who have endlessly made things worse, not better (up to, and seemingly including, the Gates Foundation). Pinker’s The Village Effect helped me understand why Zoom isn’t the same as ‘in person’ contact and the de Hamel was a more entertaining busman’s holiday than the Meek (mentioned above). Other than that, my favourite thing, which I was directed to as it’s part of the listed source material for Haddon’s The Porpoise (see above) was Nicholls’s The Lodger, which (don’t hate me!), I found much more interesting and compelling that Hamnet…
I tend to read play texts before I go and see plays, which I usually do once or twice a week for the bulk of the year (except in January, when there’s usually still panto and kids’ theatre on). As the record shows, the three I got to were the Donmar’s Far Away, Sam Wanamaker Theatre’s Women Beware Women and the NT’s production of the Dürrenmatt (which they did in English in an updated and geographically transposed version that I thought well-staged but didn’t really work). All were very interesting reading.
Pandemics and disease
In amongst the reading here are a few very pertinent titles in the current pandemic. Pale Rider and The Fever have already been mentioned and missing from here is Defoe (which I read in 2019 because of Backlisted, so before the pandemic) and Camus The Plague (which is on my to-read list in 2021). In addition, I very much enjoyed both Station Eleven and The End of October by writers who had imagined a contemporary world-changing pandemic in prescient detail before COVID-19. James Meek, Calais in Ordinary Time, is about the ‘Great Mortality’ of the mid-fourteenth century and Death in Venice has a cholera outbreak in Venice with resonant remarks about the tension between public health and economic activity. They Came Like Swallows is a novel but almost personalised non-fiction as it draws on Maxwell’s own childhood experience of the 1918-20 flu pandemic; it is beautifully written and he’s another writer that I wouldn’t have come across without Backlisted.
* = relates to pandemic
 = unable to finish (exempt from overall count but not local genre count)
Mary Gaitskill, This is Pleasure.
Tom McCarthy, Remainder.
Lucy Ellmann, Mimi.
Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd.
Eimear McBride, Strange Hotel.
Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff.
Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley.
Toby Litt, Patience.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Aller Tage Abend
Sebastian Barry, A Thousand Moons
Andrzej Tichý, Wretchedness.
[Preti Taneja, We That Are Young.]
Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll.
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa.
[David Nicholls, The Understudy.]
Michael Hughes, Country.
Tim Finch, Peace Talks.
Daniel Kehlmann, Die Vermessung der Welt
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
Lucy Atkins, Magpie Lane.
Jenny Offill, Weather.
Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport.
Gabriel Josipovici, The Cemetery in Barnes.
C. Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold.
Sophie Ward, Love and Other Thought Experiments.
Kiley Reid, Such A Fun Age.
Ali Smith, Summer.
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
Brandon Taylor, Real Life.
Ingrid Persaud, Love after Love.
Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist.
Mark Haddon, The Porpoise.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
Avni Doshi, Burnt Sugar.
Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Colum McCann, Apeirogon, A Novel.
*Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun.
Gabriel Krauze, Who They Was.
[Diane Cook, The New Wilderness.]
*James Meek, To Calais, in Ordinary Time.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Book of Not.
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, This Mournable Body.
Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King
Gwendoline Riley, First Love.
Sarah Moss, Summerwater
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet.
Annie Ernaux, Les années
*Lawrence Wright, The End of October
Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Katherina Volckmer, The Appointment
David Foenkinos, Le mystère Henri Pick.
M. John Harrison, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again.
Anakana Schofield, Bina.
Deb Olin Unferth, Barn 8.
J. M. Coetzee The Schooldays of Jesus.
J. M. Coetzee, The Death of Jesus.
Sarah Moss, The Ghost Wall
Samuel Fisher, The Chameleon
Vesna Main, Good Day?
Graham Greene, England Made Me.
Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin.
Elizabeth von Armin, The Enchanted April.
Graham Greene, The Man Within
George Eliot, Felix Holt.
E. E. Cummings, The Enormous Room.
Arnold Bennett, Riceyman Steps
Henry James, The Europeans.
D. E. Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Book.
Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country.
Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome.
P. D. James, The Children of Men.
Edith Wharton, Summer.
Edith Wharton, Bunner Sisters
Jane Austen, Emma.
Anita Brookner, A Closed Eye.
Edith Wharton, False Dawn.
Edith Wharton, The Old Maid.
Edith Wharton, The Spark.
Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head.
Edith Wharton, New Year’s Day.
Graham Greene, The Captain and the Enemy.
Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea.
Anthony Trollope, The Warden.
Amy Levy, Reuben Sachs.
Rudyard Kipling, Kim.
Winifred Holtby, South Riding.
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (trans. Walsh).
Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle.
Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat.
Edith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon.
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers.
Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale.
B. S. Johnson, Trawl.
Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne.
Henry James, What Maisie Knew.
William Golding, The Spire.
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island.
Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper.
Bruce Chatwin, Utz.
Heinrich Böll, Ansichten des Clowns
Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado.
Iris Murdoch, The Flight from the Enchanter.
Mario Levrero, Empty Words.
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage.
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori.
Iris Murdoch, An Unofficial Rose.
George and Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody.
Iris Murdoch, The Bell.
Anita Brookner, Brief Lives.
A. J. Cronin, The Citadel.
Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington
James Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.
Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore
J. G. Farrell, Troubles.
* William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows
Fred Uhlman, Der Wiedergefundene Freund
Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset.
Georgette Heyer, Venetia
J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur
* Thomas Mann, Der Tod in Venedig
Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin.
Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed.
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season.
N. K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate
Lauren Beukes, Zoo City.
Ian R. McLeod, Song of Time.
N. K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky
Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man
Spindles, ed. Penelope Lewis and Ra Page.
[Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man]
Eley Williams, Attrib.
Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Time.
Virginia Woolf, The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction.
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories
Zadie Smith, Grand Union
Mary Jean Chan, Flêche (twice)!
Stephen Sexton, If all the world and love were young.
Kathryn Maris, God Loves You.
Raymond Antrobus, The Perseverance.
Patience Agbabi, Bloodshot Monochrome.
Anne Stevenson, Completing the Circle.
Ian Duhig, The Speed of Dark.
Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic.
Rachel Allen, Kingdomland.
Sam Riviere, 81 Austerities.
A. E. Stallings, Like
Deborah Levy, An Amourous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell.
Patricia Lockwood, Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals.
Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage
Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade
Patricia Lockwood, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black.
Wayne Holloway-Smith, Love Minus Love.
Gregory Leadbetter, The Fetch
Caleb Femi, Poor.
Louise Glück, Vita Nuova
Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost.
Charles Sprawson, Haunts of the Black Masseur.
Werner Herzog, Of Walking in Ice.
Nell Stevens, Bleaker House.
Russell Kane, Son of A Silverback: Growing up in the Shadow of an Alpha Male.
Dr Amanda Brown, The Prison Doctor.
Johny Pitts, Afropean.
Derek Owusu, That Reminds Me.
Deborah Orr, Motherwell.
Rachel Clarke, Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss.
Nell Stevens, Mrs Gaskell and Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart.
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place.
Elizabeth von Arnim, All the Dogs of My Life
OTHER NON-FICTION (INCLUDING POPULAR SCIENCE AND BIOGRAPHY)
Richard J. Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914.
Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma.
Merve Emre, What’s Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing.
Adam Rutherford, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.
Peter Thonemann and Simon Price, The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine.
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War.
Helen Lewis, Difficult Women.
Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.
Julian Barnes, The Man in the Red Coat.
Susan Pinker, The Village Effect: Why Face to Face Contact Matters.
Tim Flannery, Europe: The First 100 Million Years.
*Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.
Adam Rutherford, How to Argue with a Racist.
Hallie Rubenhold, The Five.
Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.
Ha-Jung Chang, Economics: A User’s Guide.
Selina Hastings, Rosamond Lehmann: A Life.
Francesca Wade, Square Haunting.
Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall.
* Sonia Shah, The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years.
Anne Harrington, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search For the Biology of Mental Illness.
Charles Nicholls, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street.
Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution
Caryl Churchill, Far Away.
Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Der Besuch der alten Dame.