Times Critics Discuss 2020 in Books, From ‘Pandemic Blur’ to Favorite Discoveries

Each year around now, The New York Times’s daily book critics — Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai — choose their favorite books from among those they reviewed over the previous 12 months. But they also read far more than can fit on such lists, and so they’ve come together to discuss the rest of their thoughts about 2020. Below, they talk about reading and doing their jobs under strange new conditions, authors who inspired and disappointed them, and more. — John Williams, Daily Books Editor and Staff Writer

This wasn’t remotely a normal year. How did the circumstances of 2020 change your reading lives, both professionally and recreationally?

JENNIFER SZALAI Professionally, it made the question of why I was reviewing something in any given week feel heavy, almost existential — which I realize sounds ridiculous, but it really did. Not to mention that the publication dates of books, at least during the first few months of the pandemic, were suddenly moved around and actual hard copies weren’t easy to come by. Reviewing something from a digital copy doesn’t quite feel the same. It makes it too easy to lose my bearings.

As for my recreational reading this year, there was way too little of it. I imagine other parents of young kids may have felt similarly. I recently heard an interview with the therapist and author Esther Perel, who said that the demarcations we previously took for granted — now we’re working, now we’re picking up our children from school, now we’re carving out some time for ourselves — have all collapsed. It’s a pandemic blur.

PARUL SEHGAL I’m with you, Jen. The questions of what to review and how to frame a review felt heavy — especially in the spring. I was very conscious of the fact that readers were no less spent; no less pinched for time or enervated by illness and uncertainty as my own family. What sorts of books could be useful? What sort of tone could ever be appropriate? My approach changed. I felt drawn to different sorts of books, different aspects of familiar writers. Studies on elder care and memoirs of the early days of the AIDS epidemic felt freshly, painfully relevant. I reviewed a new translation of Chekhov’s stories and saw for the first time how deeply his work is suffused by his own experience of a pandemic.

Like most parents of small children, I’d say the notion of recreation has been unfathomably exotic over the last nine months. In fugitive moments, I reread Samuel Delany and the all-but-forgotten Larry Mitchell (his story collection “My Life as a Mole,” about gay life in the ’70s, is sadly out of print). It’s been such a homebound year, and I’ve become tiresomely responsible. I miss the drift of the city, the strangeness, the surprise.

DWIGHT GARNER I had to look at myself on Zoom a lot, and that wasn’t pleasant.

It was a year when the best-seller lists often directly reflected what was going on in the country, from the halls of government to protests in the streets. How much of your own personal reading these days — or ever — is “pegged to the news,” to use a reductive phrase?

GARNER I made a pledge: No Trump books unless I’m paid to read them. When I wasn’t on the clock, I escaped. I enjoyed rereading Harry Crews’s “Car,” about a man who eats an entire Ford Maverick. I finally read the entirety of Jonathan Gold’s “Counter Intelligence,” about eating in the “real” Los Angeles, and I now realize the immensity of our loss when he died. God, he was funny. He describes the patrons in one upscale joint (he rarely went into those) as “a vivid cross-section of people who wouldn’t have talked to you in high school.” With Covid decimating restaurants, you fear he is describing an incredible lost world. I also read, among other things, the undervalued novels of Mary Lee Settle, Audre Lorde’s smart and moving “Cancer Journals” and Maud Ellmann’s “The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment.”

SZALAI I do tend to read a lot of political books, even outside of what I review, but I have to say that this year has severely tested my patience for extracurricular reading about the Trump administration. The latest tweet, the latest outrage, another impetuous firing, another bumbling betrayal — the human brain can only bear so much of this stuff.

Some of the personal reading I did included books that happened to shed light on our current moment, but they turned out to be older and therefore not beholden to it. Collections of essays by Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin, John Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America.” Barry’s book, about the 1918 flu pandemic, was maybe as newsy as it got.

SEHGAL Novels are news, style is news. (Sometimes even more so than the surfeit of unutterably dull Trump books, each more repetitive than the last.) I have never read anything quite like the brilliantly pessimistic fiction of the Croatian writer Dasa Drndic; her treatment of historical amnesia, of political despair and shame, felt blazingly new. When it comes to watching writers metabolize “this moment,” I was impressed by Megha Majumdar’s novel “A Burning,” on rising extremism in India. I was also moved by novelists grappling with how to write most effectively about climate change — Emily Raboteau, Lydia Millet, Amitav Ghosh and Jenny Offill come to mind.

What were some of the books published this year that you didn’t review but admired?

SEHGAL I had my head turned a thousand times. Brian Dillon’s stylish celebration of close reading, “Suppose a Sentence,” has taken up permanent residence on my night stand. I keep loaning out copies of Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” and having to order replacements. As an obsessive rereader, I feel like Vivian Gornick wrote “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader” with only me in mind. Namwali Serpell’s “Stranger Faces” is breathtakingly smart and original. Garth Greenwell’s “Cleanness” contains some of the most sublime writing on desire I’ve read in years. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s monograph “Fly in League With the Night” featured my favorite character of the year: the inscrutable woman with the cropped hair and abundant secrets from the painting “No Such Luxury.” I’ll never tire of looking at her.

GARNER Kevin Young’s anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song” is a must. I miss Christopher Hitchens (his memoir, “Hitch-22,” is a near-perfect audiobook) and thus pounced on Martin Amis’s new novel, “Inside Story,” which I liked very much. Two other books I admired, out of Appalachia: Christa Parravani’s memoir “Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood” and Emma Copley Eisenberg’s “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia.”

SZALAI I thought Kim Ghattas’s “Black Wave” was fascinating and so elegantly done — a readable history of Saudi Arabia and Iran over the last few decades that also carefully elucidates the regional politics of the Middle East. Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland” was terrific, a fitting capstone to his quartet about American conservatism. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s “The Undocumented Americans” explores the most difficult and least talked about parts of people’s lives, including her own. I inhaled Danez Smith’s “Homie” after Parul, in her review, recounted her desire for new adjectives to describe the startling originality of what she’d just read.

Did anyone in particular disappoint you?

SZALAI I don’t really want to call out anyone for special opprobrium in a year that’s undoubtedly been tough for everyone — but I’ll make an exception for John Bolton, whose highly anticipated book managed to be maddening, boring, damning, self-serving and evasive, all at once.

GARNER Here I will prove, once again, that I am not nearly as good a person as Jennifer is. “Disappoint” is the wrong word, but two of our best young novelists — Catherine Lacey and Ottessa Moshfegh — delivered new books this year that were knuckle balls, books with which some readers (this one, at any rate) found it hard to connect. You sense them tentatively moving into new territories, expanding their visions, and I look forward to whatever each does next. I finally closely read a Colum McCann novel, “Apeirogon,” this year, and could not believe how much it was not for me.

SEHGAL [Also looks shamefaced.] I disliked a fair number of books this year — look: I was conscripted to review “American Dirt” and the new Charles Murray! Disappointment is different, though; one hardly expects Murray to start singing a different song. If I was let down, it was by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new version of Chekhov’s stories. I admired their version of “Anna Karenina,” and found this translation to be strangely stilted.

What’s the book on each of your lists of 10 favorites that most surprised you, in terms of how much you enjoyed it or why you enjoyed it?

GARNER Philippe Lançon, who wrote criticism for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was in its offices on the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, when two gunmen claiming allegiance to ISIS forced themselves inside and slaughtered 12 people. Eleven others were wounded, including Lançon, who essentially had the lower part of his face shot off. His memoir, “Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo,” is extraordinary. It’s about his long road to recovery, but it’s also about his life and loves and his wide-open senses. Lançon is learned, plain-spoken and has a way with a phrase. About a girlfriend, he writes: “I watched her leave for the airport, and said to myself that nothing resembled an ambulance more than a taxicab.”

SEHGAL “The Discomfort of Evening,” by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated by Michele Hutchison, is one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read — just relentless violence, loss and confusion. And yet I went to it every day with an odd feeling of gratitude. As I wrote in the review, it was the relief of not being condescended to. So much culture coverage this year emphasized comfort or escapist reading. I was surprised by how much I wanted the opposite — something very stark and truthful on the nature of grief.

SZALAI I loved Marcia Chatelain’s “Franchise,” an examination of McDonald’s and its long, complicated history with Black communities across the country. Even though the book is a rigorous work of scholarship, it’s also wonderfully readable. Chatelain looks at big, systemic issues like nutrition, racism, labor unrest and Black capitalism through the lives of people who often faced difficult choices. Sometimes the interests of individuals and the corporation aligned; sometimes they were clearly at odds. A lot of the time it was a bit of both, and Chatelain navigates that fraught space with clarity and compassion.

What are some books you each reviewed, beyond the 10 you each chose, that almost made your lists?

SEHGAL I’m bereft that the following books couldn’t make my list; each of them is so singular, beautiful and instructive: Wayne Koestenbaum’s glorious essay collection “Figure It Out”; Helen Macdonald’s “Vesper Flights”; Hugh Raffles’s “The Book of Unconformities,” on grief and geology (and one of the strangest books published this year).

GARNER I admired three biographies this year that didn’t make my final list: Philip Gefter’s life of Richard Avedon, Madison Smartt Bell’s of Robert Stone and Ian Zack’s of Odetta. In terms of fiction: Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories,” Ali Smith’s quartet-ending “Summer,” Lawrence Wright’s prescient pandemic novel, “The End of October,” and Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty.” For nonfiction, here are three I hated to cut: Ben Katchor’s “The Dairy Restaurant,” Chris Atkins’s prison memoir “A Bit of a Stretch” and Fang Fang’s “Wuhan Diary.”

SZALAI I complain about making this list every year, and one of the reasons for my crankiness has to do with the great books that can’t fit on the list. To name a few: Talia Lavin’s “Culture Warlords,” Barton Gellman’s “Dark Mirror,” Martha Jones’s “Vanguard,” Volker Ullrich’s second (and final) installment of his enormous Hitler biography. I also found so much to enjoy in Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life,” a book about all the amazing things that fungi can do, that I purchased a bag of mycelium so that I could grow some mushrooms at home. If that isn’t a book recommendation, I don’t know what is.

It’s been a very tough year for independent bookstores. Care to call out a favorite of yours for some praise and support as the holidays approach?

SEHGAL I used to live in Montreal, and The Word remains my platonic ideal of a bookshop: cramped, dimly lit, idiosyncratically curated. I’m also sending love to my beloved Bahrisons in New Delhi’s Khan Market. I can’t count the times I’ve almost lost my life navigating those vertiginous stacks. Long may it thrive.

GARNER Yes! Taylor Books, on a leafy street in downtown Charleston, W.Va. It’s a well-stocked and well-run store that tends the state’s literary flame and serves first-rate coffee. There aren’t a lot of bookstores in West Virginia. This beautiful one is just keeping afloat during Covid. You could do worse things than to order your next book — and a coffee mug — from here.

SZALAI A shout out to Community Bookstore and Terrace Books in my corner of Brooklyn — thank you!

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