The Extra-Long Highlights of My 2020-2021 Reading

I’ve previously shared highlights from my 2018 and 2019 reading. By the end of 2020, I was exhausted. So, while I had actually read quite a few books, I just made sure that I had a written log of them for my own reference and called it good. While I’m not necessarily feeling better now, I managed to pull together books from the two years. This isn’t a complete list. I’m sharing some highlights organized thematically. I expand a bit on how a book fits into a theme in the Nonfiction sections, whereas Fiction will be mostly lists. Links are to the publisher’s website if possible or Worldcat if not.

Our Jobs, Our Psyches, Our Selves

These first four books1 coalesce around the same phenomenon… the idea that we have to be better than our best, just to have minimal security in our lives. The authors trace the historical developments of the social, business, and moral forces that push us to internalize absurd levels of striving, identify who benefits from this individualization of our social scaffolds and safety nets2, and talk about what might be next.

  • Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price (2021, twice). If I told you to read any book in the last year? It was probably this one. Not only is rest good for us, Price asserts, laziness, as we conceive it, does not exist. I’m still working on unlearning my own drive to overwork and minimize my need for rest.
  • Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe (2021). It’s right there in the title. I listened to this audiobook while doing physical work on my new yard and while that is gonna lead to some heartbreak too, it meaningful to put time and love into the plants that will grow there.
  • Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen (2020). This one took me months and months to read because I’d make it through another chapter of the audiobook and then need to sit down for a while. It’s got everything from an analysis of work cultures and how these evolved over the last few generations to how our educations and childhoods led to most of us entering the workplace already a bit burned out. As an elderly Millennial, I both felt incredibly well-represented and also luckier than my younger peers, especially re: childhood freedom.
  • The Happiness Industry : How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies (2015). This book has everything &mdashl a hundred years of management theories, marketing, hedonic calculus, assessment-turned-surveillance state, and the complete individualization of our desire to be well, whole, or fulfilled. Need to be exceptional just to get something approaching a cost-of-living raise? There’s a (surveillance) app to help you become your better-than-best self.

Then…

  • Living the Quaker Way: Timeless Wisdom For a Better Life Today by Philip Gulley (2013), doesn’t quite belong in any of my sections, but perhaps it fits in here, because it’s about what it means to live a good life. Gulley structures it around five main commitments: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. While not Quaker myself, I regularly chat with some Friends and this book was written for both insiders and outsiders…

…and speaking of the good life, well-being… or the lack thereof, a pandemic seemed like the right time to read Sontag’s classic.

Moving from that into the body…

Where We Are and How We Got Here

  • Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek (2012). The mainstream American narrative about Jefferson is that he hated slavery but couldn’t figure out how to end it. Enter Wiencek carrying the receipts, quite literally, from Jefferson’s ledgers. He shows how Jefferson’s speeches and letters carefully crafted his legacy while business letters and other financial documents portray another side entirely. Wiencek’s work casts a light on narratives far broader than Jefferson’s story, ones we’re still living with today.
  • America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee (2019). Lee’s work was tragically timely with the additional upswing in already-rising xenophobia during the pandemic. Her book is a thorough one, starting with xenophobia against the Germans as well as the British settlers' desire to displace of indigenous people and become the “real natives.” Another book for learning aspects of American history that our textbooks hid.
  • Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by Jessica McDiarmid (2019). When I was a little girl, my mother told me about hitchiking and giving rides to other women, many indigenous, in the interior of British Columbia. She also told me that it was very dangerous because some man or men was killing them when she lived there (70s/80s). As an adult, I learned that it was much more than just one or two serial killers. McDiarmid walks the reader through decades of simultaneous overpolicing of and indifference toward Indigenous women and girls.
  • Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (2021). Stunning. From the rise of the Sackler dynasty to the specifics of the opioid crisis, Radden Keefe makes a convincing argument for why (most) Sackler wealth is tainted and what they owe to those whose lives they’ve devastated. Damning internal documents abound.
  • Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner (2019). I’ve read Weber a couple of times, so this caught my eye on the shelf at work. Tanner takes on the financialized capitalism of the last 40 years and writes about how Christianity can stand in opposition to it and in support of human flourishing. I don’t know whether or not I want to read it again. While Tanner and I disagree in a few ways on what Christianity has to offer, I appreciate that she comes from a fairly mainstream position and still seeks a theological path to oppose the cults of unchecked growth at the expense of human life, dignity, and thriving. I feel like there’s a lot more I can get out of it, but I would like to read more Anabaptist/Quaker/Catholic takes on the same thing.

Material Consumption and Socio/Technical Commentary

These books traverse themes of material culture, consumption, and technology:

  • Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America by Giles Slade (2007). Slade takes us on a journey through the twentieth century United States from GM’s Sloan intentionally creating dissatisfaction to arguments that it was necessary to throw things away for the sake of the economy to intentionally shoddy design that keeps costs low(er) and turnover high.
  • World Wide Waste: How digital is killing our planet — And what we can do about it by Gerry McGovern (2020). Ever wondered about the environmental footprint of storing the ten thousand emails you’ve “archived” when added to those of all your neighbors? Is your tweet powered by coal? What about when I read it? This book is a lot but also worth reading. And, whether ironically or not, it is published as blog posts.
  • Living It Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury by James B. Twitchell (2002). Focused around product creation, advertising, and the ways in which luxury consumption is part of almost all our lives. Perhaps it’s a bit religious. Perhaps it stops being luxury. I admit I read it in good part for the pictures (advertisements).
  • Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas (2007). If everybody’s somebody then no one’s anybody? I was most interested the role of branded accessories and the elements of material construction that change with outsourcing (or don’t change! There are still very nice things that are outsourced and the companies prioritize good materials/ensure workers have enough time to make the item using a thorough process, which Thomas also explores a little).
  • Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet—and Why We’re Following by Gabrielle Bluestone (2021). What the difference between Fyre Festival and modern “captains of industry”? …maybe just how well they pull things off. While hype is a bit different in the world of libraries, it got me thinking about that too.
  • Lurking: How a Person Became a User by Joanne McNeil (2020). McNeil traces the ways in which people have existed on the internet from early messaging systems to *gesticulates* today. More than a “things were better before platforms,” McNeil gives us social/technical history along with stories of friendship and connection along the way.
  • Kill It with Fire: Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones) by Marianne Bellotti (2021). While the kind of aging computer systems I work with aren’t exactly what Bellotti describes, I was immediately drawn to the title and summary. No, she’s not telling you to burn down your 20-year-old ILS … she might even advise keeping it! Instead, she discusses trends in system design and development: “time is a flat circle,” and shares principles for where to maintain, where to modernize, and whether to migrate.

Memoir

Of the memoirs I read, these three stayed with me the most vividly. I feel like any attempt at summarizing or identifying themes would be a disservice to the authors:

I read more than these, but these are the two I found most interesting:

  • Thunderstruck by Erik Larson (2006). Much like his Devil in the White City, Larson combines a major phenomenon (Marconi’s radio / the first transatlantic signals) with a crime (Hawley Harvey Crippen’s murder of his wife). I got my Technician’s ham radio license at the end of 2020 and read this in early 2021 while studying for my General (I am now Amateur Extra), so I was mostly reading for the radio stuff. Hearing about Marconi’s trials and failures helped me better understand the subject and what it meant for my own adventures on the waves today.
  • A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul (2021). Birds — often so dang small and yet *gestures* they do so much and fly so far. At times fascinating (BIRD FACTS!) and at times scary (because of human-made climate and land changes), what comes through most is Weidensaul’s passion and curiosity, which I’m glad he shared with the rest of us.

Fiction

I find fiction highly subjective – some of these I loved every part of, some I’m including because they left me with vivid images or words, some kept me on edge, and some had parts that really frustrated me but compensated in beautiful or meaningful ways that mean I’d still recommend them.

Short Stories

I’ve been grateful for short stories during the pandemic. I got off to a good start with both Hurston and Carrington’s collections, which came home with me before we shut up shop in March 2020. I then found the du Maurier around the house (borrowed it from a friend years ago and yes I know I’ll get it back to you).

I also listened to/read all the Nebula and Hugo short story nominees for 2019 (in 2020) and 2020 (in 2021) and listened to a lot of Uncanny Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, and NightLight Podcast… and speaking of…

Horror and Weird

And that’s a subset of 2020 and 2021. I feel lucky that I was able to read so much (and more that isn’t listed). Everything went slower and was harder. There were definitely periods where I read the entire run of 90s-era murder mysteries and such because that was the only thing my brain could handle and I needed them specifically as distraction from everything else. Or I’d take four months and several renewals to finish a single book. My bookshelf is still full of aspirational reads I borrowed from work and I’ve picked up and put down too many to list here.

For 2022, I’ve got a spreadsheet.


  1. Along with Rainesford Stauffer’s An Ordinary Age which will be on the 2022 list ↩︎

  2. I continue to think about the last chapter(s) Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, which go into exactly this – how this individualization has let to the explosion of for-profit schools and how more traditional colleges/universities are complicit (and harm themselves/those they serve in doing so) ↩︎

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Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Sally W. Kalin Early Career Librarian for Technological Innovations

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.