The most broken record you could here today is that 2020 has been a very awful year. It has been an utterly awful year on all counts. However, like Victor Hugo rightly said, “It is from books that wise men derive consolation in the troubles of life.”
One may not be as wise as those the wise poet referred to but surely books have been a sure consolation in these strange times. This consolation has come in diverse manners. Either in reaffirming that which was previously known or in transporting one to a far and distant land captured by the twin imagination of the author and the reader. The consolation has also come by widening one’s horizon with new ideas. 2020 has been a year where one has grabbed every consolation that one can lay claim to. It has been such a year. One of such personal consolation has been the fact that I have an unimaginably excellent employer who facilitated the process of working from home and even paid me a little more for working from while many lost their jobs or had their benefits slashed. Strangely, I found myself being so much more productive while working from home (the almost 4 hours I regularly spent in Lagos traffic was now used deployed to work) and I could take breaks from in between tasks to finish a chapter or read a few pages of whatever current read I was enjoying at the time. This translated to me being able to finish my 2020 TBR list long before the year ended and a random mini Encore list long before the last week of 2020.
I am a firm believer that books have no expiry date and it is a belief that suits my random selection of TBR lists. I never have the fear of missing out with any widely-acclaimed book. Whatever joy is derived in reading it will still be mine when I read it even if a decade after it tops the bestseller lists and wins the literary prizes. For this reason, my reads are rarely books written in the year I read them. Therefore, my best reads are often books others raved about years before. I believe that every reading experience is unique and that not even spoilers can spoil that unique experience. Even rereads are experiences uniquely different from previous reads. Almost every year, I have noticed that my reading list is often divided into specific broad categories – fiction, football, faith, behavioural economics, memoirs and general non-fiction. In 2020, my random TBLR list contained no behavioural economics pick and I did not read any memoir this year. So the broad categories for 2020 are fiction, football, faith and general fiction. Just like 2019, I really enjoyed my reading list in 2020. It was a bit surreal as I often find that location and setting often play a part in the reading experience. Reading Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa while on a road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town to watch the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2018 is not the same thing as reading How to Listen to Jazz while stuck at home during a pandemic in 2020. External factors have a large bearing on how we approach any book and are determinant factors in the totality of the reading experience we derive by the time we get to the last page of any book. Despite the strange times we currently habit, I have enjoyed every book I read this year and the following choices are no indictment on the other excellent books I chose and read in 2020. Picking these have been a hard choice (while excluding the excellent picks I read as part of the Encore list) and even after settling on these and taking a pic of the choices, I still had an internal debate on the calls I made but being too lazy to pull out books from the shelf and change my choices, I stuck to these. Additionally, like I did last year, I have chosen an excerpt that resonated most with me each of the categories. The excerpt chosen is not necessarily from the best book in that category.
Fiction – Homegoing
I read a couple of exciting fictional work this year – Kintu, Homegoing, No Place to Call Homeand Mr. Loverman among others. While all excellently well-told stories and I also mentioned the few minor issues I had with each of them, I settled for Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut work of excellent historical fiction. While historical fictions of such proportion are often hard to follow (the reason why they often have a family tree in the opening pages), the balancing factor of Homegoing is that it has no poor sentence in its over 300 pages. The imagination created in the history depicted is vivid, rich and most accessible. The story of the Effia and Esi’s lineage across eight generations is tightly bound and illuminated with rich simple prose.
There were lots of interesting excerpts in this category and any one of them would have been a worthy selection. I was torn between one of the gems in The Kite Runner and the one below from Mr. Loverman. However, I have gone for the one below simply because I find that paragraph poignant and thought-provoking. I remember reading it back a few times over and introspectively vowing to be a better parent. The world is unfair enough, may we not add to the burden of our offsprings. May home be where their confidence is reinforced not damaged.
Football – Suddenly A Footballer
I read 3 excellent football books this year – the autobiographies of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juan Mata and the surprisingly interesting The European Game. Out of these three exciting reads, I have chosen Juan Mata’s Suddenly A Footballer. Mata is one of those premiership footballers that is adored by all fans, irrespective of the opposition. Rival fans have nothing negative against him. I expected a bland memoir. I was pleasantly disappointed. There were no salacious details like I found inI am Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Juan is way too polite and considerate of others to divulge any such info (I half expected him to rip into Mourinho for how he discarded him at Chelsea). Instead, I discovered a thoughtful football man in the pages of the memoir. His thoughts on how to play the game, his reading of footballing tactics, the place of good fortune balanced with hard work in his journey to the top and his appreciation of family were not just warm but far from bland to read. I found it refreshingly different.
There were a few exciting excerpts I found in the football books I read this year. I have opted for one from my chosen book.
Faith – Surprised By Hope
2020 was another year where I read a couple of impactful faith-based books. Books that challenged, edified and strengthened my Christian faith. I had a very hard choice choosing between the challenging and daring Cross Vision and the seemingly radical Surprised By Hope. I finally opted for the latter, mostly because I randomly picked it for the Encore list and read it for the 2nd time this year and the message resonated again. In Surprised By Hope, Tom Wright the British theologian takes a radically refreshing and rewarding look at the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection embodies a hope that is surprisingly not about believers and going to heaven after they depart this sinful corrupted world but a hope that is about recreation and restoration of this earth that began when Christ rose from the dead and will be culminated when he returns to inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. An inauguration that will complete the restoration of creation. The hope is surprising because it radically changes the resurrection story from one of “life after death” but “life after life after death”. Surprised By Hope traces the obsession of modern Christians with the subject of life after death and an escape from the earth to a platonic influence that denigrates matter as evil. With the relevant exposition of scripture and a detailed study of the early church, Tom Wright convinces that what we do on earth matters (1 Cor. 15:58) and that the resurrection of Jesus as a type of first fruit is a forerunner what will happen to all believers when the earth is restored. The major take away is that the earth matters and how we steward it now matters and it matters so much that God is not going to suction believers out of the earth and into heaven but will com down himself and restore all things and usher in a new heaven and a new earth. We are the advance parties whose vocation is to gradually enforce his will and kingdom on earth in the here and now.
For the excerpt, I have gone for one of the excellent gems in Cross Vision.
Non-Fiction – The Attention Merchants and Bad Science
I have done the odd thing of choosing two books here and I plead that you indulge me and hear me out. I obviously had no idea what the year had in stock when I picked my 2020 TBR list at the end of 2019. I chose Bad Science randomly and hoped to enjoy it. It turned out to be the aptest book of the year. It is a well-written polemic that addresses pseudo-science that is most relevant in a world where fake news attempts to make a mockery of the science behind the pandemic that is currently ravaging the world and a world where it is difficult to tell which anti-vaxxer is a victim of conspiracy theories and which is refuting the science with zero proof based on political leanings. In a world where it takes one tweet by an unqualified person to disparage and cast aspersion on scientific developments, Bad Science helps the reader to ask the right questions for starters, whether it be vaccines or homoeopathy or vitamin pills. Very well written and easily accessible.
In any other year, I would have not chosen Bad Science and stuck with The Attention Merchants but this year the latter has had to share the spotlight with the former as a sign that these are unusual times, indeed! The Attention Merchants is an excellently written history of how our attention became a currency that had been traded in the past by government as a channel of propaganda and in the present by digital merchants who are selling us everything under the sun. Our eyeballs have become currencies that are traded on the internet superhighway and often without our consent. This well-written (but slightly American-centric) book encapsulates not just the history of how we got here but also what dangers the future portends for a world where our attention is bought and sold without our consent. A very well-argued and well-written book too.
For this section, I have gone for one of the many excellent and illuminating excerpts I found in The Attention Merchants
Those are my best reads of 2020. Here is to a more bookish 2021!