Books 2020: A diary of a plague year

For reals, y’all: 2020 as we know it began the third week of March, specifically the 18th when the lights went out all over Miami-Dade County. This will forever remain a partial list. The reopening of public libraries in May for curbside pickup and in June for in-person service helped.

Kicking off with Brenda Wineapple’s splendid account of the years before the Civil War and during Reconstruction, which I finished on a plane from Miami to Raleigh-Durham, my plague reading embraced miscellany. I was always eclectic but the list below is my most ridiculous. From a Metternich biography and War and Peace to Robert Draper’s well-reported philippic on the most incompetent American president before Donald J. Trump and his worst folly to George Steiner and a history of Samuel Johnson’s literary London, I read to the rhythm of my ever-quickening steps on Westchester’s ever-scorching asphalt. I discovered Thomas Bernhard, The Black Jacobins, and the late John Le Carré. At the end I stared Ali Smith’s seasons quartet, the first of which provided an excerpt that the Scottish novelist could’ve written in 2020 instead of 2016. I finally got to The Power Broker. Frederick Brown’s two histories of how the French elite thoughtfully and devotedly lost its marbles during the Dreyfus era constituted my favorite December finds (proto-fascist Georges Boulanger and Maurice Barrès as his unofficial publicist were new to me as personages).

A (*) represents a book I’ve read at least once.


Brenda Wineapple – Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877
* Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Jean Stafford – The Catherine Wheel
Ann Beattie – My Life, Starring Dana Falcon
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace
Wolfram Siemann and Daniel Steuer – Metternich: Strategist and Visionary


* E.M. Forster – A Passage to India
* Virginia Woolf – Between the Acts
Elizabeth Gilbert – City of Girls
Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory
George Steiner – In Bluebeard’s Castle
Barbara Pym – Less Than Angels
Shakespeare – Love’s Labour Lost


Thoms Bernhard – Correction
Rudyard Kipling – Kim
Georges Simenon – The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By
Thomas Bernhard – Mysteries
W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz
Andrew Delbanco – The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War
Tim Alberta – American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump


Angela Davis – Blues Legacies and Black Feminism
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
Elizabeth Taylor – Blaming
Robert W. Merry – A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
Colson Whitehead – The Nickle Boys
Jean Renoir – Renoir, My Father
Blake Gopnick – Warhol
Edward Mendelson – Later Auden


* Henry James – The Golden Bowl
Søren Kierkegaard – Fear and Trembling
Wendy Moffat – A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster
Leo Damrosch – The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
Ottessa Moshfegh – Death in Her Hands
Elizabeth Taylor – A Game of Hide and Seek
Georges Simenon – Maigret at the Coroner’s
Nancy Mitford – Frederick the Great


Colm Toibin – Story of the Night
William Faulkner – Intruder in the Dust
Conor Cruise O’Brien – The Great Melody
Thomas Bernhard – Old Masters
Robert Caro – The Power Broker
Rick Perlstein – Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980


David Thomson – Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire
Nancy Mitford – Madame de Pompadour
Silvia Townsend Warner – Lolly Willowes
Tim McGrath – James Monroe: A Life
Antonio di Benedetto – Zama
C.L.R. James – The Black Jacobins
Stefan Zweig – Burning Secret
Robert Draper – To Start a War


Jose Saramago – The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
* Stendhal – The Red and the Black
Andre Aciman – Find Me
Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation
Elizabeth Hardwick – Seduction and Betrayal
Ian McEwan – The Innocent
Michael Hiltzik – The New Deal: A Modern History
Denis Johnson – Train Dreams
Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow


Vincent Bevins – The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World
Michaelangelo Matos – Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year
Julian E. Zelizer – Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party
Marilynne Robinson – Jack
Muriel Spark – The Finishing School
Eddie Glaude –Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
Elizabeth Taylor – The Sleeping Beauty
David S. Reynolds – Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson


Wendell Berry – The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford
Evelyn Waugh – Black Mischief
* Thomas Hardy – The Mayor of Castorbridge
Elizabeth Bowen – The Last September
Frederick Brown – The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940
David S. Brown – The Last American Aristocrat : The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser – The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
Frederick Brown – For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus
John Le Carré – A Perfect Spy
John Le Carré – Agent Running in the Field
Ali Smith – Autumn

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