The 5 Best Books I’ve Read This Year
Plus, how the Audible App helped me read more than I thought possible
This year has been unprecedented in many ways. 2020 has held its share of drama, but it’s also created an environment steeped in personal isolation, and time away from the usual grind of life. For some, dealing with this has definitely created new challenges, while for others, it has opened up unforeseen opportunities in creativity.
I decided early on during the strangeness of the pandemic world and the loneliness I was observing in the lockdown, even with being an “essential employee” who still had to attend work, that I was going to read more books to distract myself from the chaos. Even as an essential worker, I found myself with an unusual amount of downtime. As such, I decided to utilize that time to my advantage, and I began listening to audio books to help this time pass.
The Audible app, it turns out, is a great treasure trove of basically any book you ever wanted to read. It’s like having an entire library at your disposal, in your pocket. I had used this app before to help me listen to a book or two on long commutes. Now, in rediscovering it, I hoped to knock out many classic novels that I had wanted to read for years, but never seemed to find the time. As such, this has been one of the most rewarding years for me personally, in nurturing my joy of literature, while also inspiring my own creativity.
This year I’ve read some of the best books I’ve ever read in my life, and probably some of the most important works of literature of all time. I’ve rekindled my love of language and my appreciation for the power of prose. And I have definitely deepened my insights into how prominent works of literature have had lasting impacts and influenced others over the years.
Here are my favorites that I have read this year so far:
- The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck’s iconic novel of life in the aftermath of the Great Depression is a stunning work of creative genius. The only Steinbeck novel I’d read before this one was Of Mice and Men, a book that has stayed with me all my life. This one will similarly stay in my heart forever as a defining moment of personal study. Written in 1939, it’s amazing how relevant and prescient Steinbeck’s words are to today. In telling the story of the Joad family, he is laying out the principles of how a capitalist society is doomed to fail, and how there is real strength to be found in unity. This novel contains some of the most moving passages I’ve ever encountered. I was in tears multiple times while reading it. This is a powerful book, and should be required reading for every American, as well as every citizen of the world. It very quickly became one of my favorite novels. I can not overstate how much this book means to me.
- As I Lay Dying: first published in 1930, this novel by William Faulkner is simply an astounding work of art. The prose is delicious in its craft and its deceitful simplicity. Faulkner, in writing about the Bundren family struggling to carry the remains of Addie to a burial site, also captures something of the essence of humanity, and of life itself. This book is extremely influential and a lasting testament to the power of words. It contains awe-inspiring passages on the philosophy of what it means to be alive, while showcasing the flaws inherent in the human animal. There is something visceral and profound in nearly ever paragraph. I could see easily how Faulkner’s work influenced another of my favorite novelists, Cormac McCarthy. I’m honestly mad at myself for never reading this until now.
- Ham on Rye: I’ve long been a fan of Charles Bukowski’s poetry, but for some reason had never read his novels until this year. In a three day span, I consumed both of his most famous works, Post Office, and Ham on Rye. While I enjoyed both of them a lot, Ham on Rye I found to be something quite special in terms of how I related to it on a deeply personal level. There’s something just extremely relatable in Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up, and learning how to be his own individual person, how to embrace his own identity, and how to find his place in society. It’s also just quintessentially a novel about what it means to be a man. So many moments of this work struck me as authentic, virtually without pretense, and thusly, real in a way that is hard to capture. It’s also a novel of brilliant hilarity, really understanding the absurdity of life. I’m so glad I read this.
- Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West: In some kind of serendipitous coincidence of timing, I finished a read of Moby Dick (another grand epic novel that easily could have made this list if not for some long passages that should be edited out of it) just before tackling this classic book by Cormac McCarthy. In doing so, I discovered how McCarthy had deftly taken the basic story elements of Melville’s gigantic American tentpole novel, and transposed them into his tale of the Old West. Blood Meridian is unflinching and beautiful. McCarthy holds such a commanding grasp of language, and uses it like no other. Passages of his prose read like emotive poems, striking to the heart of what moves us. But he also doesn’t shy away from the grim brutality of human nature. There’s a lot to be gleaned from this book, a lot happening beneath the surface of its complexity. A stunning work of violence and beauty and revelatory allusions to how literature communicates with itself and its predecessors. I highly recommend it.
- Infinite Jest: I am amazed that this book is going on this list, but here we are. I almost gave up on finishing this novel, saying I was going to quit at several points, but ultimately I stuck with it. I am thankful that I did. In its maddening complexity holds a wealth of insights. This book is meant to be difficult, as it is meant to satirically hold long passages of monotony, sticking its finger in the eye of Academic smugness. In many ways, it responds to the novel of Ulysses, another work that is insanely dense in its absurdity, but unlike Jest, ultimately came across as pointless to me. Again though, I think David Foster Wallace accomplished something that James Joyce ultimately failed trying to do, and his work achieves his goal by simultaneously mocking the literary worship of the novelist he is mimicking. Wallace manages to do both of these things, while providing keen observations about addiction, mental health, therapy, and psychoanalysis. He also critiques mankind’s obsession with art and violence, and sexuality, and provides the reader with astounding passages of philosophical introspection, and what it means to live and die. While being a frustrating book to get through, this one provides catharsis and moments of epiphanic realization and clarity that feel like psychological breakthroughs, and those moments are exhilarating. Infinite Jest is worth your time to read. Ulysses, the book that inspired it and in many ways it is in conversation with, is not, in my opinion.
So, those are the five best books I read this year, thus far in the year 2020, the year of covid-19, and hopefully the year that the reign of Donald Trump reaches its end. Some of the ones that could have made the list and didn’t are Rant by Chuck Palahniuk, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, along with Moby Dick. While I did finish Ulysses this year, I would never recommend that book to anyone.
Currently, I am working my way through Don Quixote by Cervantes. This is a wonderful book of fantasy and absurdity, and I am finding it endlessly entertaining and humorous.
If you’ve ever wondered if audio books are worth your time, I hope this short essay has convinced you to give them a shot. You will find, that in the hustle and bustle of daily life, this is a way to still utilize downtime productively. Some people I know believe that audio books aren’t really the same as reading the work yourself, but that is an opinion I vehemently disagree with. For me, being read to is just as effective as reading the words myself, and in many ways, more engaging. Either way, the words are being consumed by your brain, and your imagination is what brings them to life in your mind.
Trust me when I tell you, audio books are a valuable investment of your self and your time, because at the end of everything, stories are what we remember.