2020 Reading in Review

A favourites list of books I read this year and deeply enjoyed

Up until September of 2020, I was not in school, and was very happy to have more time to read. I enjoyed being able to come home from work and pick up a good book, and thought I would share some of my favourites.

As you may or may not know, I have a bit of a historical beef with my library that for some reason seems to be the literal plot of a Seinfeld episode. Many years ago, I took out Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer because I was an edgy teenager looking for controversy. If you don’t believe me, I still have the fine notices:

(I do not remember reading about Paris 1919, but ok)

I have about $45 to pay in fines, so I can’t take any books out nor can I get a new library card. I haven’t paid them because I am practically certain that I returned Tropic of Cancer (yes, I know this is also in the Seinfeld episode. But I really remember returning it!) So on principle, I haven’t caved and have basically had to find other inexpensive means of reading books either by biting the bullet and purchasing them or finding an e-book online. That said, I really did find a selection of wonderful books.

I also partook in two reading groups where some of the books were provided by Professor Jacob T. Levy and the Research Group on Constitutional Studies. Shoutout to Prof. Levy for his kind support. The reading groups were:

  1. Black Political Thought Reading Group. A friend of mine put together a syllabus of wonderful Black radical thinkers like Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, and more

  2. Montaigne’s Essays and Pascal’s Pensees because we love angsty Frenchmen.

Anyway, let’s cut to Mila’s Book Club list of 2020. I will be giving my favourites in fiction, social theory, reading/discussion group, health, critique, and biography.

1. Favourite Fiction:

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I’m giving this book credit for being the only book to bring me to tears this year. This book is a very tragic yet rich look into the lives of people whom, in the author’s words, were “punished” for having too much fun. It follows the life of a man working undercover in the drug world for the police, but he becomes deeply addicted to the drug and develops a new set of serious issues. It also follows his struggling friend group. It’s hard to describe why I found this book so compelling, but I thought it was brilliantly laid out. You can’t really take one meaning from it, either.

2. Favourite Social Theory Read:

Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

It finally happened where I found a book that somehow described everything I was feeling about politics at once. So much so that it inspired one of my pieces on this blog this year. There were two parts of this book that really hit me although the whole thing is wonderful. First, Fisher discusses gestural anti-capitalism, where he describes how capitalism makes space within itself for anti-capitalist aesthetics that will ultimately be capitalized on as well. This got me thinking a lot about Teen Vogue’s new performative leftist streak and was just generally very prescient. The second thing I found very compelling was the discussion on mental illness, which is what I wrote above in my aforementioned piece. Fisher talks about how the cost of our current system appearing to work is very high and part of that cost is what’s practically an epidemic of anxiety related illness. What makes the system appear to work is treating mental illness as a medicalized divergence from a normal state of mind rather than treating mental illness as correspondent to the way our current system operates. Honestly, go read it right now… it’s only 80 pages!

3. Favourite discussion group read:

Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton

This was a book I found to be very prescient, particularly through its indictment of American institutional politics and the deceitful ways the parties have tried to convey themselves to be on the side of Black Americans. Ture and Hamilton also characterize Black Americans as being in a colonized position, speaking of how they have been conscripted to fight white men’s wars. Another prescient piece of commentary is the authors’ discussion of young whites enthusiasm for social movements as a vessel for feeling alive rather than through an interest in the politics of liberation which, as all the summer selfies at Black Lives Matter protests have shown us, is sadly a reality. I’ve been a big fan of Ture’s speeches, and thought this book was very sharp and relevant to problems we see ongoing today.

4. Favourite Health:

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté

This book, as well as Benjamin Perrin’s Overdose were my two local books of the year, meaning that they concerned issues that happen twenty minutes from where I live in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. I wrote a little bit about my thoughts on Vancouver’s addiction crisis after reading this book so I won’t harp on too much. But what I thought was so fantastic about this book was how humanizing yet realistic it was. Dr. Maté is able to strike a balance between showing how addicts are often traumatized and suffering people that deserve compassion and empathy, without discounting the uglier sides of addiction. The book does not infantilize addicts through its compassion by treating them as just traumatized people, but is also realistic about how those close to addicts can be hurt by their actions. Additionally, the book provides a rational and accessible explanation for addiction that’s free of moralism and focused on describing how peoples’ social and material circumstances pertain to how they suffer from addiction. I think this book is a must-read for people who live in Vancouver.

5. Favourite critique

Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement by Anuradha Ghandy

This is the year I felt really put-off by feminism in the mainstream, as I have also written about on this blog. This book really salvaged feminism for me, though Ghandy’s type of feminism is not really present in current day Western feminism. This book critiques the currents of feminism we are most familiar with over here, i.e. liberal feminism and radical feminism, while providing its own account of feminism that is oriented towards emancipatory and universalist politics unlike this current stream of more particularist feminism that we see over here. I respected this book a lot for being clear and principled.

6. Favourite Biography

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by by Jon Lee Anderson, José Hernández (Illustrations), and Leena Nivala (Translator)

I don’t know about you, but it was impossible to learn about Che Guevara from the internet. Every discussion about him is heated, moralistic, and emotional and rarely concerned with historical events in a way that’s somewhat disconnected from modern political agendas. I didn’t want a hysterical perspective that was just demonization, and I also didn’t want something that is uncritical or deifying. I thought this book did a great job of simply providing the facts (what a concept!) and many of the described events were fascinating to learn about.

This book really kept me on my toes. It’s an indisputable fact that Che is a remarkable figure whether you like him or not. The fact that he provokes such visceral reactions in people is a testament to how intensely - and sometimes rigidly - went by his values and lived for revolution every minute of his life. This book does a good job of exposing that.

The book also does a great job of demystifying Che’s character. Rather than resorting to hyperbole, Anderson genuinely and articulately lays out some of Che’s more unpalatable traits while also tying it back to what makes him such a key figure in 20th century history. It shows how Che’s uncompromising drive and values took him very far and genuinely did good things for people, but how it also caused him to do some bad things. It does give context as well which makes the ethical question not: “is violence wrong?” But “what are the parameters of ethical action when fighting for justice?”

Che is revealed to be a harsh moralist that also follows a doctrine of “by any means necessary”, making it natural for him to provoke strong reactions to him by others. The book does a good job of showing this by showing his very austere ways of living. While I am not the type to find it necessary for socialists to live like monks, Che really took his critiques of excess wealth and sympathy for the poor to heart in constructing his life for him and his family, discouraging things like luxury items, nice homes, and other common excesses. This takes him beyond socialism and into a kind of moralism about rich and poor - rather than simply critiquing property relations. Che is evidently not the type to sympathize with the “but you participate in society” meme - he really feels like all socialists should not indulge in any excesses that are obtained through means of wealth, even if you are not wealthy to begin with. No owning 3 houses!

Ultimately Che was flawed and hyper fixated on his morals in ways that sometimes harmed people or created a climate of paranoia. But learning about major historical figures should never be about whether you morally love or hate them; it should be about obtaining knowledge. This balanced and non moralistic biography succeeded in all the right places.

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The full list of the books I read this year are here.

Thanks everyone for subscribing to this blog, and I hope you have a wonderful new year <3

- Mila