Society Magazine

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020

Posted on the 30 December 2020 by Russellarbenfox
As always, in alphabetical order, by title.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Injustice, by Frederik deBoer, is an odd book. Fundamentally, it's an impassioned attack on the ways in which the ideal of public education has been warped by capitalist imperatives, and the liberal elites whose mastery of those imperatives perpetuate that warping, even as they tell themselves and others that their goal is to make education more egalitarian. DeBoer's launches his attack through what he sees as that same meritocracy's refusal to address the cognitive science, behavioral genetics, and other research which has shown just how limited formal education is in the face of one's inherited abilities...which, to deBoer, is an obvious argument for getting rid of our vain hope for an educational system that will equally reward every on the basis of talents, and instead aiming to reconceive education in a way that doesn't depend upon measuring merit. Others, obviously, see any argument built upon the reality of our unequal inherited talents as exceptionally dangerous to the principle of equality. DeBoer's book doesn't address these challenegs as well as it should, but through its many claims, it at least puts the topic on the table, and for that readers should be grateful. (More thoughts on the book here.)

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice From the Civil Rights Movement to Today is a fantastic book, though not nearly the history of the relationship between religious faith (or even, more specifically, just author Charles Marsh's own Protestant Christianity) and the civil rights movement which the cover seems to promise. It is, essentially, a work of Christian theology and devotion, using three examples from the early civil rights movement to sketch out the ideal of "the beloved community" which he centers as the primary motivating ideal of the best which that movement had to offer, and then looking at various other attempts at social reform and arguments about such from the perspective of that ideal. It is thus a fairly narrow book (the Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a democratic socialist, or a savvy political operator, makes no appearance here), lacking in the kind of political reflection which might help better situate the religious impulse towards justice in our more secular moment. But as a pastoral call to do the work of Jesus in reforming society, I can think of no other book I've read lately which can compare.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley, was published over a half-century ago, and was essentially forgoteten about, despite having been praised by some of the great literary figures of the day. His race obviously had a lot do with that, but also the author's refusal the play the role which it seemed that every right-thinking, progressive African-American writer at the time needed (and was expected) to follow. A Different Drummer tells a hard story, one that lyrically weaves a kind folk-tale of racial vengence and redemption into an otherwise very realistic story of the late 1950s south. The story is essentially a fantasy, and parts of it feels like an almost pastoral one--until an act of racist violence at the very end hammers home the anger which motivated the author. A short novel, but one that invokes a haunting, parallel America very well.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
I'll put together in this entry both The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women, which I read first, and Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, which I read immediately after it. Mormons like myself have no doctrinal reason to become familiar with early Christianity, given that ours is a restorationist tradition which has, for much of its history anyway, placed pretty much every Christian thinker who came after those included in the canon of the New Testament in the category of "apostate." I've thankfully escaped that mindset, but it is nonetheless the case that until this year, I'd restricted my devotional religious reading to the Biblical canon, the Mormon scriptures, and various translations and commentaries upon them, nothing else. Looking for something different, I pulled some old collections of the Apostolic Fathers and other early Christian writings off my shelf, and found them kind of fascinating. Wondering what I should do next, I asked some friends about advice for getting into the early Church Fathers, and several said: whatever else you do, read the Desert Mothers and Fathers! And so I did, and between these two books, my appreciation of Christian monasticism, my own membership in the Christian community, and my own sense of myself as a sin-wracked Christian, will never be the same. Strange, powerful, and spriritually transformative stuff.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
I'm not an authority on Terry Prachett's Discworld, and I can't say that those novels of his based in that fantasy world--though I've liked, or even loved, all of them--make me want to become a completist. Maybe it's his sense of humor, which generally makes me smile rather than laugh. I adored his Tiffany Aching novels (the conclusion of the series was one of my favorite novels in 2016), but for the most part the other Pratchett novels I've read--Small Gods, Guards! Guards!, or Night Watch--have entertained, not enveloped me. That's absolutely not the case with Going Postal, though. This wild ride of a book--a fantasy, a caper story, a romantic comedy, a commentary on the costs of industrialism, a satire on politics, and much more--hyped me up with every twist and turn; it completely got me all caught up in the world of Moist von Lipwig, and had me laughing all the way. I don't often fall in love with genre characters, but I can't wait to read more about this guy.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
Nany Rosenblum's thoughtful Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America has been on my shelf for years, and given my interest in localism, urban politics, and political theory, it's embarrassing that I didn't read it until this year. Rosenblum's analysis of the dynamics of neighborliness, and the categories she came up to enable us to analyze those dynamics and makes judgments about to relate neighborliness to all the other formulations of citizenship, are all simply brilliant. It gave me a moral language for thinking the idea of a community that isn't really--the neighborhood as a place of "decent folk" who recognize and respect and reciprocate to one another, but who also "live and let live"; they don't generate through their shared, proximate existence the kind of civic virtues, much less communal affection, which so much writing on social capital depends invokes, but it helps me see that there are vitures there all the same. Definitely a new member of my own private canon of studies in urban political theory. (More thoughts about the book and its claims here.)

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
Socialism: Past and Future, by Michael Harrington, is another book I should have read years ago. Harrington's importance as a socialist thinker and organizer is obviously well known--how could I be a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America and not know that? But until I read this book--which he completed just before his death--I didn't know about Harrington's thoughtful, in some ways conventional but in other ways quite heterodox, takes on Marxism, party politics, the role of the state, the real meaning of "socialization," and ultimately the almost "republican" character of a truly democratized--and thus socialized--society. After reading this book, I'm even more willing to defend the DSA against those who see the organization as compromised with its association with the Democratic Party; the fact is, its founder fully understood that in a free country you're going to have a plurality of organization forms, operating on a plurality of levels, reaching out to and organizing overlapping groups of people in a plurality of ways, and that's just plain wise. Scholars of Marx himself or other major figures and trends in European socialism probably have plenty of reason to critize Harrington's synthesis of ideas, but I found it deeply persuasive, and even inspiring, all the same.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, is a tremendous read. It's easily the most powerful book on the Vietnam War experience I've ever read, but it's also much more than that. "Meta-fiction" doesn't stratch the surface; "postmodern" doesn't seem like the right fit, but maybe that describes the book as well as anything. Anyway, O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, is obviously telling his own story, but he's also inventing stories, and commenting on the invention of stories, and wondering about the ethics of inventing stories, both in terms of his own relationship to his art and, even more powerfully, in terms of how others who read and are moved by these stories relate to their own sanity. Please don't think that the result is a ponderous literary text; these are beautiful, sometimes funny and sometimes spooky, always brutal stories of Vietnam and war and death and youth and love and madness that cut to the bone--it's only afterward that you see the play in language and narration and intentionality (and if you don't see it, then O'Brien himself points it out to you). A great, great book.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020
Last year, before I began my current journey I mentioned above through early Christianity, I completed a re-read of The Book of Mormon, this time using a scholarly reproduction of the earliest available text. That read really opened my eyes to analytic and even theological possibilities within my own religious tradition that I'd long associated solely with the Bible (I wrote about some of my discoveries here). After I'd finished that read, I grabbed off my shelf Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide, a decade-old book whose arguments about reading The Book of Mormon from what I guess you could call a documentary perspective, looking at the book's own self-presentation regarding its assembly, have likely long since been absorbed by co-religionists of mine who are serious about these questions. So I'm late in getting a book read, once again? Well, that's nothing new. I really loved it, particularly the first two sections, as Grant Hardy skillfully, carefully, helps us figure out what the actual text of the Book of Mormon can tell us about the worldview and aims and opinions of Nephi and Mormon, which according to the book's own account are the two ancient prophets most centrally involved in its production and preservation over the centuries (the book's final section, on the prophet-editor Moroni, didn't strike as quite as interesting or persuasive). It's not a book that anyone who isn't willing to give the book's own claims seriously is likely to be able to get through without thinking its all just a massive work of fan-fiction, but for someone like myself, it was a great treat.


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