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Every year, I read about 75 to 100 books (including poetry and short story collections) and I share my thoughts on my favorite and my top books I read that year.
I broke this list up into categories: autobiography, black authors, personal finance, dark academia, classics, thriller, as well as popular young adult series.
If you want to know the top 10 modern poetry collections I read this year; I have a separate post which you can read here.
In 2020, I read a total of 90 books.
In this post, I have compiled by top 20 books I read in 2020.
1. “Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes
“Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes” is a fascinating – linguistically articulate – autobiography. Roland Barthes was a remarkable French theorist. I studied him extensively during my French Master’s degree.
Aided with photographs of the streets of France, of his childhood, and of himself. Roland Barthes constructs an intricate biography of himself and of his works. He mingles the personal with the textual, as well as the theoretical.
Interestingly enough, he starts out alphabetically. He takes a word starting by ‘a,’ and then he writes about it, then ‘b,’ then ‘c,’ etc. Roland Barthes is very clever, playful even.
I read this for my Autobiography class and it blew my mind. The discussions we had around this book were riveting.
2. “The Diary of Frida Kahlo” by Frida Kahlo
“The Diary of Frida Kahlo” is an intimate self-portrait of the well-known Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I also read this for my Autobiography class.
Kahlo was a fantastic artist. Her paintings are so powerful, vibrant, and heart wrenching.
This diary covers the period of 1944-1945 in which her creative process is being recorded. Kahlo made a lot of little sketches that would later be turned into full sized canvas paintings. Every page of her journal is brightly filled, illustrated, and illuminated. Ink splotches, colourful paintings, and sprawled handwriting.
You can’t help feeling very intimately invested into Kahlo’s life; her emotions, her relationship with her husband Diego Rivera, her creative journey as well as her emotional and physical pain. Kahlo has chronic pain due to polio and to her accident in youth that left her leg and pelvic bone impacted. In her later years, she represents even further her degenerative health.
In this way, the added pages of her diary entries make for this heavy tragic viewing of her life and her artwork as they are filled with symbolism and iconography.
3. “Stray” by Stephanie Danler
“Stray” is an autobiography by Stephanie Danler in which she discusses the years she takes care of her mother who has been disabled by alcoholism as well as her turbulent teenage years with two heavily addicted parents.
In this autobiography, Danler explores herself back and forward between her younger teenage self and her adult self who is at once estranged but also tightly involved in her mother’s life and illness.
Furthermore, Danler expresses her own struggle with addiction, her own use of drugs and alcohol. As well as her problematic relationships as she discusses divorce, married life, dating, sexual relations, and everything in between.
Danler’s first novel was such a success. She made her lifelong dream come true with the publishing of “Sweetbitter” (which is one of my all time favourite novels.) Her writing style is raw, poetic, and metaphorically charged. I knew from “Sweetbitter” onwards, that I would read anything and everything she ever publishes.
In this memoir, Danler explores the reality of survival. She navigates out of this world she was born into in order to heal and find a way to make a life and a family of her own. As she navigates this harrowing trauma, she tried to rid herself of her fated family legacy.
The honest brutally of this memoir left tears in my eyes, my heart in my throat, and finally; hope in my belly.
4. “Open City” by Teju Cole
“Open City” is a fascinating exploration of urban New York city life through the narrator’s walking and wanderings within its streets.
However, beyond the surface, the story is about much more than urban living and walking.
“Open City” explores historic sites, represents ethnic minorities as well as discusses the repercussions of colonialism. This story interestingly assembles political, cultural, and philosophical thought into this one mundane narrative.
The story follows a young Nigerian doctor, named Julius, as he navigates his present with the echoes of his past and shared collective past with other immigrants he encounters.
5. “I Am Not Your Negro” by James Baldwin and edited by Raoul Peck
“I Am Not Your Negro” is initially an unpublished and unfinished work by the highly acclaimed black author James Baldwin. The intention behind this book was to write about three leaders of the civil rights movement – all three that have been tragically assassinated – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.
Filmmaker Raoul Peck published these notes by Baldwin and cleverly juxtaposes them with Baldwin’s past speeches and interviews to weave a narrative about the history of race and discrimination in America.
There is so much to unpack with so little pages of notes and script. But I wholeheartedly agree with Baldwin, that history isn’t the past; “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
The documentary is truly worth the watch as well!
6. “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
“She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman” is an illustrated biography of the life and heroism of Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman was an activist, a heroine, a brave black American woman that had saved hundreds of lives of black slaves including the ones of her family members.
Furthermore, Harriet Tubman was one of the famous Underground Railroad conductors. She was a suffragist, an advocate for women, she worked as a Spy for the Union Army, and she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War.
Her dedication, her fearlessness, her will to do right and to help others is beyond awe-inspiring.
I was swept away, moved, and at many times upset at the hardships that Harriet faced. The injustices and the misrepresentations of slavery in North America will have you questioning humanity and history textbooks.
This biography also explores Harriet Tubman’s personal life and struggles which is a step further than the movie they released not too long ago, titled “Harriet.”
7. “The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!” by Gloria Steinem
“The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!” is a feminist collection on love, life, and rebellion. It is also illustrated with beautifully written inspiring quotes.
Gloria Steinem is an American feminist known for her participation in the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s and you can see part of her fight in this illustrated book.
The slogans in this book are at once hilarious, heartfelt, and inspiring. Steinem often cites some of her well known friends such as bell hooks, Michelle Obama, Flo Kennedy, and others.
8. “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” is exactly what it is subtitled.
A few years back, Adichie received a letter from a friend asking her how can she raise her child to become a feminist. The response Adichie gave to her friend can be found in this short little book. Adichie gives 15 suggestions on how to raise a child in order for her to become a feminist as well as a strong independent woman.
Furthermore, the guided advice that Adichie gives applies to all women as well as to all parents. She encapsulates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century in which there is still this ongoing fight for women rights.
Here is an example of the advices she gives: “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women.”
9. “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” by Ramit Sethi
“I Will Teach You to Be Rich” is the first personal finance book I have read in 2020 and since then it has kickstarted my personal finance journey. It has sparked my desire to read and learn more about personal finance and finances in general.
Thus, “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” is a 6-week program that helps readers master their money and plan financially for their future. Covering topics ranging from debt, saving money, automating payments, maximizing credit cards, starting investing, purchasing a car, planning for big life events such as marriage, buying a house, etc.
I talk in greater depths about this book and how it helped me in my personal finance journey in this blog post right here.
10. “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki
“Rich Dad, Poor Dad” has been highly acclaimed for two decades now. The view Kiyosaki broaches on money has changed so many people’s perspective on money or at least has challenged, or given a different perspective. Me included. I think this book is invaluable.
I like the rich dad/poor dad dichotomy to explain how to live a richer life but also a rich life in which one does not have to work for money but instead, letting money work for them. The tips offered in this book were good. Straightforward.
In summary, the (upper – general) middle class that work for an income are really the ones who are being heavily taxed. They are encouraged in this cycle by the government and our educational institution. Playing it safe, as usual, is costly.
Once again, if you would like to know my further thoughts on how this book personally affected me, you can read my separate post on my Top 3 Personal Finance Books for Beginners.
11. “Unshakeable” by Tony Robbins
“Unshakeable” was the third of a handful of personal finance books that reshaped the way I thought about money; this time more geared towards investing. Delving deeper into some psychological responses we have towards investing such as risk aversion, reluctance, as well as stress and anxiety at the stock market constant rise and plummet.
I go more into details in another post highlighting the debunked myths Robbins offer about investing.
My summarized thoughts on this one:
Robbins is succinct and to the point. He gives tips (pesky brokers, taxes, and fees) and hints (the frequency of bear markets and the yearly 10% correction of the market) that are crucial for new and old investors alike.
12. “Normal People” by Sally Rooney
“Normal People” is a raw real life exploration to trauma, insecurity, love, sex, relationship, depression, family, social class, and education.
It is mind boggling to me how a book with no quotation marks can encapsulate dialogue so poignantly. The writing in this book is unrivaled.
“Normal People” follows the story of Marianne and Connell that are from different social classes. In high school, the pair engage in an intimate relationship secretly, until it goes South and they both go their separate ways. They’re both deeply perturbed emotionally and psychologically from this separation.
Then, we watch as they interact and get involved with each other’s lives on and off again in college. We follow their interpersonal, social, and psychological hardship growing up in Ireland and through their connection with each other and others around them.
The characters of Marianne and Connell are so complex and tangible; I can already feel them living in my head for a very long while.
I will read anything Sally Rooney writes and can not wait to pick up her other published novel “Conversations with Friends” in the next year!
SEE ALSO: 15 Romance Books for Valentine’s Day
13. “Volkswagen Blues” by Jacques Poulin
All the pitch that you need for reading “Volkswagen Blues”: Writer discovers that constantly writing in solitude is a way of not living, and that relationships bring value to your self and to your writing.
Moreover, history is complicated, falsified, misinterpreted, and that is why we need to reread and read diversely while we are at it.
Culture and language are everything; they are the core of our being.
Also, this book is for fans of Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
Yet, “On the Road” wasn’t as good as a read for me. (Don’t tell anyone though, I can feel the literary mob chasing me down already.)
Back to this book… “Volkswagen Blues” follows Jack who is on the journey of finding his long lost brother following the Oregon trail from Gaspé to California. Along the way, he gets entangled with a much younger woman called The Grasshopper (La Grande Sauterelle in french) who is half white and half native.
Through this journey, both members reconcile with their selves. We see a historiographic view of colonialism and multiculturalism in North America from the Native side of the story – the one that isn’t captured in history books but from passed down oral tradition and personal ancestral accounts.
A highly important read by a great french Canadian writer.
14. “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt
“The Secret History” is a quintessential dark academia book. A few students at a New England college are granted access to the classes of a renown, yet highly private, Classics professor.
Soon enough, these students are involved in a morally corruptive descent, greatly reminiscent of a Greek tragedy.
Here are my notes I made in response 5 minutes after finishing the last pages of the book:
Donna Tartt is a true master at plot and character.
She crafts descriptions masterfully.
Her atmosphere weighs heavily.
600 intense pages.
Super morally grey.
I was so utterly invested in these characters, especially the main character Richard.
I feel simultaneously that this was written yesterday but also in the early 20th century, instead of the late 20th century.
The less you know going into this one, the better.
15. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
“Anna Karenina” is a classic Russian novel classic and very well loved, studied, adapted, and praised. It is a hunky (800+ pages!) and discursive classic but it is well worth your time and initial effort to keep track of the characters and their many nicknames.
A story worth the read. A story about different Russian lives in the 19th century. Different faith and fates. A story about marriage, life, and interpersonal as well as social conflict.
Tolstoy is very meticulous about social, political, and economical problems of his time. The first half is focused on the marital aspect and is family heavy.
Throughout, the thread of discussion follows religion, belief, sin, and faith.
And then the second half is a political discourse on war and serfdom.
Above all, this is a story on man’s freedom and confinement within himself and in regards to society. Needless to say, there are a lot of clashing POV’s.
The duality – Anna and Levin – reminds me of a Shakespearean tragicomedy. The balance is always restored. The end of marriage (and family) for Anna juxtaposed with the beginning of Levin’s.
I would love to have seen a second shorter book on the lives of their children, on the social-political change in Russia following these families. To see a second generation with new hopes and new tragedies.
Tolstoy is truly one of the greatest Russian novelist of all time and “Anna Karenina” remains a masterpiece.
16. “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
“Little Women” is such a comforting classic. It reminds me of Christmas (not because Christmas takes place in the very first pages) but because it brings about that warm family connectivity feeling even when I read it during the middle of the summer heat wave.
It just has that homey feeling.
The story follows four little women growing up and navigating the world around them. There is Jo the writer, Amy the artist, Beth the kind hearted, and Meg the eldest. I simply adored all four girls and their separate characteristics. All the side characters also worked into my heart and my appreciation.
This classic was simply engrossing and not overly moralizing. Poetic and lyrical, sad, light-hearted, and touching all at once. A tale of poverty, identity, family, loss, love, and marriages. A tale about art and talent; piano, painting, sewing, and writing, as well as the value of hard work.
There were so many strong feminist resistance presented by Louisa May Alcott through her character “stand-in” of Jo March and it was very well executed for its time.
SEE ALSO: Top 10 Christmas Books
17. “Frankenstein” by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
“Frankenstein” is a gothic classic that never goes out of style. Fun fact, it is also considered one of the pioneers of the Science Fiction genre as well.
It is STILL odd to me that I – amongst many others – assumed that Frankenstein is the name of the monster, but it is actually the name of the “monster’s” creator, Victor Frankenstein, who is actually the monster. The most monstrous is mankind and its prejudices and abhorrence to any “other.”
I won’t say too much because I go into this one repeatedly in other posts and I don’t want to bore my readers because you already know I highly recommend reading this one.
And, if you would like to know more of my thoughts or find any other of my gothic recommendations; I’ve got you covered friend.
18. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” not only blew me away but took me by surprise. I want more of this please. However, I wasn’t crazy about the Netflix movie adaptation. The book though… a masterpiece.
Here are my thoughts post-reading:
I read this in two sittings. I was so gripped and interested in seeing how it ends. This story is probably the only story that has ever made my heart race like that. I just couldn’t stop. The inner monologue was simply captivating and the dialogues made me pause and think a lot. This story weaves truth, memory, and fiction masterfully.
19. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” by Suzanne Collins
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is the prequel to The Hunger Games series. The story follows President Snow, Coriolanus Snow, when he was a young 18 year old student in the capitol.
In the year following young President Snow, it is the tenth Annual Hunger Games. The students of the capitol are tasked with mentoring the unfortunate kids from the district before they enter the arena.
In this book, we also personally follow Coriolanus’s story as he tries to make a name for the Snow household who’s been succumbing to poverty since the repercussions of the war.
Although this book is long and very un-Hunger Games like, it was a very invested reading. I can’t believe how effortlessly love and humanity are disregarded for power (control), money, fame, and politics.
20. “Midnight Sun” by Stephanie Meyer
“Midnight Sun” has been long awaited for. A decade’s worth of wait for readers and fans of the Twilight series.
This book follows Edward’s perspective instead of Bella’s. We see as their love story unfolds, as “the lion falls for the lamb” to quote Edward’s words. This time, we see what is is like to be a vampire falling in love with a human. And not the other way around.
One of the reasons this one is an interesting fresh perspective is due to the fact that being in Edward’s head is pure angst, overthinking thoughts, and Hades and Persephone analogies.
It’s frustrating and fascinating all at once.
Want to know the top poetry I read this year? Read my Top 10 Modern Poetry Books of 2020.
This concludes the top 20 books I read in 2020. These books have brought fresh insights into my life irregardless of their varying genres. Reading has always been an important goal of mine every single year since I was a child of ten. I have been an avid reader and will remain so for the rest of my life.
One of my passions has always been to inspire others to read as well sharing my thoughts and recommendations on the books I read.