The Books of 2020, and Recos for your 2021 Reading List

Happy New Year! The Raging Moderate is back after a long hiatus where the day job has been getting writing priority.

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to be running a “Presidential Platform” series leading up to the inauguration of President Biden later this month covering a broad range of issues of the day. The Center thankfully has held, and we have a real opportunity right now to make our country a fairer and better place for everyone by meeting in the middle. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, for all of the countless reasons to happily put 2020 behind us, one personal success last year was a good year of reading. I had set out at this time last year to read 20 books over the course of 2020, and I ended up doing it two better (the shutdowns helped A LOT). The full list follows below, and three books stood out to me as great food for thought for a better 2021 if you have not already read them.

And the winners are…

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

  • Reading a book about a pandemic during a pandemic? Sounds like a Geico commercial I know, and I also read a compelling one in the nonfiction category–“The Great Influenza” by John Barry–that easily could have made this top three too.
  • Station Eleven is a story of resilience and hope after a fictional pandemic that makes Covid-19 pale in comparison, and just a great read.

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, by Ethan Michaeli

  • An essential history of journalism, of Chicago, and of the long, uneven, and still unfulfilled quest for racial justice. And as the title says, the Defender had an incredible impact far beyond our borders by speaking truth to power and bringing a critical perspective that was missing or shut out from the mainstream media of the day.
  • This is a big book but well worth the commitment, and it could not be more timely right now with our nation’s overdue reckoning with racial injustice.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

  • Speaking of timely, this Pulitzer winner from a few years ago reads like an adventure story as it teaches important lessons about history, science, and the environment.
  • This book only cemented why climate change and the environment need to be at the top of the priority list for the new Administration, and another great read.

The full list

Those were the highlights, but all of the books on my 2020 list were really good. As you get ready to buy your next book, whether one of these or not, please support your local independent bookstores!

As John Warner, a/k/a the Biblioracle, said so well, indie bookstores are critical to the entire ecosystem of books. If you can’t get there in person, you can support them by making your first choice when going online. And if you can’t find it there, Powell’s Books is another good option, as is Barnes & Noble as it transitions to more of a community bookstore model. Whatever you do, no matter how much you may like Amazon for other purposes, you will be a better citizen of the book universe by using these other channels when you buy books.

And here’s the full list, now organized by a few overarching categories but originally chosen and read in a far more random order. Only a handful were new this year, lots of justifiably famous writers who consistently turn out great books, and just one author appears on here twice–Attica Locke. I had read one of her others a couple of years ago and already am looking forward to reading her new one this year. Check her out if you haven’t already, and “Bluebird, Bluebird” would be a great one to start with.

Chicago history good and bad, and all great reads

Boss, Mike Royko

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, Ethan Michaeli

The Mirage, Zay Smith and Pam Zekman*

Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, Rich Cohen

Where’s Mine, Charles Kocoras

* This is out of print now but I was able to get it with no trouble from the Chicago Public Library and well worth the trip to get it!

Other great history reads

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, John M. Barry

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe

Thought-provoking reads on big issues of our day

Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Digital Disruption, Steve Dennis

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, Emmanuel Acho

Provocative page-turners

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke

Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman

The Cutting Season, Attica Locke

Drama City, George Pelecanos

The Girl Who Lived Twice, David Lagercrantz

The Guardians, John Grisham

The Last Trial, Scott Turow

Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam

Mystic River, Dennis Lehane

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

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