The Books That Broke Through the Noise of 2020

The Books That Broke Through the Noise of 2020
Photo: Billion Photos, Shutterstock

In the early days of the pandemic, my social media feeds were filled with people boasting about all the reading they were getting done during quarantine, which only made me wonder when they were finding time to nurse their anxieties and care for their suddenly omnipresent children. Certainly for as many of us who plowed through more books than ever this year, there are those who haven’t read anything more complex than a Netflix episode summary in…quite some time.

If books had to do a lot to wrest our attention away from the burning world of 2020, then consider these recommendations from the Lifehacker staff, which managed to do exactly that. These books weren’t all released this year, but they were read this year, and that certainly should tell you something.

10 Days That Shook the World, by John Reed

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I don’t know, I guess I just felt like reading about revolution this year, and Reed’s account of the October revolution in 1917 is just plain fun.

Revolution is not neat. It’s messy and chaotic, and the direction of it can change in a moment. Even though I knew the “ending” of the book (because it’s history), I still found myself totally engrossed from beginning to end. — Claire Lower, senior food editor

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD

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I started therapy in January 2020, which was, in retrospect, quite incredible timing, considering the next month hit me with a layoff and the one after that…well, you know. January was also an ideal time to have read The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, a pioneering researcher into post-traumatic stress disorder.

In walking us through decades of case studies with his patients — many of them war veterans, victims of sexual abuse, and abused children — Van Der Kolk unpacks a very convincing theory that traumatic experiences live in the brain and body, and that addressing the source of trauma through various therapies, rather than simply treating the symptoms with drugs, is the path forward. Even if you don’t buy all of that, it’s hard to argue with the conclusions he draws about how trauma begets trauma, and how we can work to break the cycle — particularly useful lessons for 2020. — Joel Cunningham, managing editor

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

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I am so sick of living in a country where such a large number of people don’t believe in pandemics, vaccines, science, elections…you name it.

I have no problem with people disagreeing on politics, but we’ve reached such a fever state of stupidity in 2020 that I wonder if we’ll ever be able to come together and advance ourselves forward as a nation or, to be frank, as human beings. Reading this memoir gives me the slightest bit of hope. Even if it’s a fool’s hope, as Gandalf might say, it’s better than wallowing. — David Murphy, senior technology editor

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullers & Asha Bandele

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This year taught me many unfortunate things, but at the top of the list was the depth with which systemic racism is still so ingrained in this country. And even the fact that I was surprised at all is a big problem.

I needed to better educate myself, so I started with this memoir, written by the cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement, who details her firsthand experience with prejudice and persecution from law enforcement. It is both infuriating and inspiring, and I highly recommend it. — Meghan Walbert, parenting editor

Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric, by Ted Mann & Thomas Gryta

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After rolling my eyes a bit reading Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ No Rules Rules book on Netflix’s corporate culture (radical candor! unlimited expenses!), Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric stood out as a cautionary tale about company culture becoming self-important and a tad deluded.

GE is not Netflix, but this book underscores the idea that the true value of company culture is discovered when a business is challenged, not when it’s a Silicon Valley darling that people already want to work for. — Mike Winters, personal finance writer

Deacon King Kong, by James McBride

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I picked up the galley version of this book from our office (back when we went into it) on a whim, and was so blown away by it — this wild, colourful, cinematic tale.

James McBride brilliantly interweaves the lives of multiple characters from very different backgrounds in a 1960s Brooklyn neighbourhood following a bizarre crime committed by the endearingly drunk old man named Sportcoat. The result is a story so vivid, funny, and touching that it will leave you wishing for 1,000 more books just like it. It is an absolute treasure. — Micaela Heck, podcast producer

We Were All Someone Else Yesterday, by Omar Holmon

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One of the best tricks a writer can pull is finding deceptive ways to talk about heavy topics without making it obvious what they’re doing, and poet Omar Holmon hits that balance perfectly in We Were All Someone Else Yesterday.

These works blend nerd culture and nostalgia with the writer’s experience with racism and loss, and made me laugh in-between the points when it forced me to take long pauses to stop and think. I don’t read a ton of poetry, but when I do, I want it full of pop culture references. — Jordan Calhoun, deputy editor

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, by Noga Arikha

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The medical theory of the “four humours” has fascinated me for years. From ancient Greece through basically the 1800s, European doctors thought that our bodies ran on a balance of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If you’ve ever heard of bloodletting, or melancholy, or hysteria, or “feed a cold, starve a fever,” those ideas spring from this paradigm.

Passions and Tempers gives a full history of where the four humours theory came from, how it came to be held as unquestionable truth, and how it eventually, century by century, started to break down. As Arikha writes: “This book concerns itself primarily with our capacity to make mistakes even when our questions are right: its premise is that all theories about how the world works are revealing, in the way that children’s questions about the world are revealing.” — Beth Skwarecki, senior health editor

This Isn’t Happening, by Steven Hyden

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Normally when I read a book, it’s all I talk about for months. This book would have certainly alienated all my friends in conversation, but luckily I didn’t see any of them this year. That’s why I have to take this chance to highly recommend This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century.

Released for the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s landmark LP, this book dives deep into the band’s history and the influence of the internet on indie music culture (and when I say deep, I mean there is an entire chapter about the original Pitchfork review of the album). If you have tired of all the 2020 “best of” lists, then this is the book for you. — Joel Kahn, senior video producer

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

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I am not typically a science-fiction reader, and thus I am late to the N.K. Jemisin party — but luckily for me it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Jemisin is a multiple Hugo-Award-winning writer whose latest book, The City We Became, is the first of her new Great Cities series. It’s a series that asks, as NPR put it, “What if a city had a soul? What if it could come alive, embodied in a human avatar?” In the case of this first book, the city in question is New York, which happens to be where I have lived for most of my life. And in New York’s case, the city’s human avatar is in peril, so five people, each representing one of the boroughs, come together to help him — and fight the evil invading their home. It’s a great, immersive work, both an escape from the current situation and weirdly reflective of where we are — fighting a mostly invisible, impossibly large enemy. — Alice Bradley, editor-in-chief

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