The Top Literature and Culture Books of 2020

Beowulf, Breaking Bread with the Dead, and More!

CJ Green / 12.28.20

Though it was a bad year for many things, it was a pretty good one for readers. Tons of fascinating books came out — and we may have even had a little more time to enjoy them. Below, find poetry, fiction, cultural commentary, and more. The only thing off the table was theology, a full list of which is coming soon, from Todd Brewer (per the usual). In alphabetical order:

And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School, by Judith Warner. In Warner’s view, parents’ own middle school experiences color how they respond to their children’s. Accordingly, “Compassion is the salve of the middle school parent’s soul.”

Beowulf, translated by Maria Dahvana Headley. This translation invites readers to “see again” the familiar monsters of this ancient tale. What we find might be more human than not.

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, by Alan Jacobs. Mocking-friend Alan Jacobs returns with a treatise designed to help us live less anxiously in the present.

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen. After years of consuming nonstop criticism about millennials, many of us felt palpable relief while reading AHP’s empathetic investigation of how we became so cynical and burned out. This book reads like a disputation against the religion of workism — which, by the way, remains as demanding as ever, even in corona-tide.

Craigslist Confessional: A Collection of Secrets from Anonymous Strangers, by Helena Dea Bala. This series of transcribed stories reveals the private worlds of ordinary people. But perhaps more importantly, it is a striking testament to the power of listening. (Look for Helena’s contribution to our upcoming issue of the magazine …)

The Elegy Beta: And Other Poems, by Mischa Willett. From critically acclaimed poet Mischa Willett, The Elegy Beta‘s impressionistic meditations are elegant, sharp, and frequently funny. This is Mockingbird’s first and only book of poetry. Find sample poems here.

The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, by Charlotte Donlon. Today loneliness has reached epidemic proportions. Donlon, a Mockingbird contributor, writes with honesty and compassion about a taboo subject.

The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast: New and Selected Stories, by John L’Heureux. This one came out in December of 2019, but I’m fudging because it’s very good. An ex-Jesuit writes of mystery, irony, and grace.

How to Be Depressed, by George Scialabba. To one of life’s more sluggish afflictions, this acclaimed writer brings verve and practical tips: “Don’t hesitate to ask friends for material help: to shop for you, to cook, to drive you to doctor’s appointments, to come over and watch television with you, or just be there while you clean the house or do your laundry or pay bills, if you find those things too hard to do by yourself.” As a companion, check out Matthew Sitman’s essay-review for Commonweal.

Intimations: Six Essays, by Zadie Smith. These hasty dispatches maintain a tone of reflective calm in a time of frantic hot-takes. Smith considers the early days of COVID with some serious empathy.

The Lost Writings of Franz Kafka. These writings were actually not much more lost than most of Kafka’s work and even Kafka himself, who was once called “the most lost of them all.” Many of his scribblings were never finished, nor were they intended for mass consumption. The fantastic albeit cryptic parables in this collection are hard to come by elsewhere. One is entitled “The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time.” Indeed it will.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoirs, by Natasha Tretheway. A story of grief and confronting trauma through art. According to Jason Thompson, Memorial Drive “represents an attempt to unearth the past with clarity and insight, adding prose and metaphor to speak to her younger self in the second person.”

No Time for the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, by Michael J. Fox. The Back to the Future star writes about finding optimism while living with Parkinson’s. In an interview with Men’s Health, he reflected, “The tools that worked for quitting drinking work even better for [living with Parkinson’s], which are: acceptance and surrender … Not like, ‘I give up, I quit,’ but you just say, ‘Okay, I cede you the big points.’”

The Only Good Indians: A Novel, by Stephen Graham Jones. A literary horror story of memory, guilt, and vengeance. In the words of Ian Olson, “it is triggering in the most spiritually illuminating way.”

Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life, by John Kaag. This warm introduction to pragmatism is, if not Christian, certainly pragmatic. It’s a philosophy for normal people who might also be a little bit depressed.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton. You might think of this book like Seculosity‘s weirder distant cousin. As David Zahl put it in his review for Christianity Today, Burton’s report on “remixed spirituality” is equal parts fascinating and dismaying.

Survival Is a Style: Poems, by Christian Wiman. In his latest extravagant collection, Wiman invites to us to read faith into poetry that “so obviously lacks it.”

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, by Michael Sandel. In short, meritocracy is a thing that does not, cannot, square with grace. Sandel argues that vulnerability and mutual recognition should be the basis for a renewed sense of belonging and community.

A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good, by Daniel Darling. Carefully observed and pastorally sensitive, this is a guide through the rocky landscape of online discourse. You can hear more from Darling on the Way Home Podcast.