A 2020 Book Review: What 200 Books Taught Me About Reading, The World, And My Self

Back in June, I bought myself a Kobo ebook device. In typical Kat fashion, I figured the best way to justify the purchase was to read so many books that any guilt I felt was spread across the spines of multiple (e)books*.


Not pictured above: the aforementioned ebook. While I love it, it's just not as pretty as proper, full life, flesh and blood, papery physical ones.


A goal was set: 100 books. Then, it was stretched: 200 books. The reading helped me fill the same-y days of social distancing with a sprinkle of well-needed magic. I read while eating, read before sleeping, I even read while exercising (crunches, planks, and leg lifts work surprisingly well for the multi-tasking bookworm). I supplemented this diet with audiobooks: while braving a walk to the grocery store, while cooking, while editing photos. My inner bookworm was very, very pleased to emerge from hibernation and dive into the feast laid before her.


So, what did I learn about myself over the course of this many paged adventure?



Sometimes, you just need to force yourself to keep reading


A few books that I read this year - notably, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, gave me some initial difficulties. In the case of the latter two, it was due to the way language has changed since the 1920s, 1990s, and today. For the former two, I suspect it was because these two were Book Club reads outside of my typical genre. But in each case, I am grateful that I soldiered on, as I derived an immense amount of value out of all four.

A few things I've found to help me continue when I'm having difficulty diving in:

  • Find something that acts as a mental "palette cleanser". In between chapters, or at set intervals, put the book down, conduct some mental palette cleansing, and reenter the reading experience with a refreshed mind. I find that a Rubik's Cube works well for me

  • Get a copy of the audiobook. Sometimes a book will be more appealing to you in audio vs written form. Another trick I'll use is to read the book alongside the audiobook recording. This ensures that my mind doesn't wander while reading, as I'm engaging more of my senses, and forced to keep a more steady pace.



... but Sometimes, you need to allow yourself to put the book down


With that said, you need to know when a book just isn't for you, and give yourself permission to move on.


Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking has over 100k ratings on Goodreads, a 4.03 rating, and is the first of fifteen (and counting) books in the highly successful "The Hollows" series. All signs point toward it being a remarkably good read, but alas, it was not my cup of tea. Despite being a good 2/3 through and still deriving little pleasure from the experience, I soldiered on. I've since allowed myself to put these kinds of books down.


Sometimes, you're not in the right head space for a certain type of book. Sometimes, you just don't have the time to give the book the space it needs to be properly digested. Sometimes, a book just isn't for you.


And that's perfectly ok. There are plenty of fish in the sea. In fact, your "To Read List" is hella long... go find a new, different, book stat and get to work on catching up!!!



KNOW YOUR Genre preferences... THEN BREAK 'EM


This year, I fully fell into my love for non-fiction, especially those with a focus on memoir, popular science, and social commentary. On the flip side, I've discovered one genre that doesn't quite tickle my fancy: narrative historical non-fiction. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and Radium Girls by Kate Moore, are both fascinating and well researched books within this genre. I finished both, but not without some struggle. For me, the struggle is derived from the excess of little details - the occupation of a minor character's wife's sister's son, while interesting given that this is a real life human being we're talking about, is alas not especially relevant to the story itself. Being bogged down with these details tires me over a long period of reading.


The fastest genre for me to read? Romance. Some people indulge in the occasional dose of trashy TV, I like my romance novels. I've read so many of them by now that the tropes, the wording, the characters are so familiar to me that my eyes can often breeze across the page.


With that said, it's also quite refreshing to read outside of your genre niche. One of my favourite books from last year, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, is a historical fiction read - a diverging from my typical genres of choice! (Shoutout to my Book Club gals for making me read this one!)



CHOOSE YOUR audiobooks, AND THE WAY YOU LISTEN TO THEM, wisely


It's rare that I'll listen to an audiobook at its default pace. In fact, if you get me to try, you'll likely find me anxious and fidgety, eager to hear a more conversational speed. (Have I mentioned that I talk fast?) My default is 1.5x speed, but I've gone as high as 3.0x speed, depending on the narrator, the subject, and how focused I am. Sometimes, my roommate will overhear the gibberish coming from my phone and exclaim "can you even understand what they're saying?!". I can. It helps to wear earphones/headphones rather than listening through a speaker. Also, it helps to be a really really really fast talker like me. Sometimes, after listening to an especially speedily read narration, I'll find myself talking even faster in real life!


As for my audiobook genre of choice? Memoir, preferably when narrated by the author themselves (Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, High School by Tegan and Sara Quinn, Acid for the Children by Flea, An Astronaut's Life to Guide on Earth by Christ Hadfield, Eat A Peach by David Chang), and historical non fiction (The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan, Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed, Pale Rider by Laura Spinney... come to think of it, I probably would have enjoyed Radium Girls more as an audiobook). I stay away from fiction audiobooks, as I prefer to give my imagination the space and brainpower to envision the scenarios without worrying about processing audio stimulus. I also prefer books rather than audiobooks for science/business reads with concepts I'd like to unpack at my own speed, or anything with an emphasis on beautiful wording.


Sometimes, I'll start a book as an audiobook, then switch to the book part way. Such was the case with the wonderful memoir Sigh Gone by Phuc Tran - though the audiobook was narrated by the author himself, the writing and concepts were so powerful that I wanted to revisit and dwell on the words for longer.



having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card


Let it be known: I LOVE LOVE LOVE that community creating, information spreading, shelter giving, clean bathroom donning, sacred bastion known as the LIBRARY.


How can I count the ways I love thee? Well, for starters, the first book I borrowed from the library this year was none other than The Library Book by Susan Orlean. While social distancing may result in the public library's services being limited, one service in particular is thriving and I am incredibly thankful for that: its online collection.


But not only does the library provide a means of accessing books without breaking the bank (or the law!), it also allows readers to inject a little bit of manmade urgency into their reading experience -


Like many a book loving human, my list of "Want To Read" books is long and grows significantly faster than its "Have Already Read" counterpart. With the curse of choice, comes the plague of indecision. If you're like me, you may then become paralyzed by the options, and since you don't know where to begin, you just.... don't. I've found the library to be the best cure for this. I'll put a bunch of books on hold, read them in the order which they become available... and subsequently freak out when my holds become available all at once, or that book loan I've been so excited to read is expiring and I haven't finished it yet. There's nothing like a little bit of artificial anxiety to optimize efficiency right?! Eep.



Childhood favourites - like fine wine or a poorly aged port?


This year, I revisited a few old friends from my childhood - reads like Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen and The Thief Lord by Cornela Funke that were an OBSESSION in my youth.


If I were reading them for the first time today, I definitely would not appreciate them quite as much, but when I put myself back into my youthful shoes, I understand and remember why I loved them. For Flipped - it was the presence of a strong female character unafraid to be unabashedly herself (not to mention her unrequited crush finally realized the error in his ways... and then her rejecting him!). For The Thief Lord - it was the sense of autonomy, adventure, and fantasy tucked just beneath the surface of the very magical, but very real city of Venice.


One book that holds just as much magic to me now as it did back when I first read it is Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. Good ol' Kevin is the endlessly curious, creative, clever unashamed nerd that I will forever strive to emulate.


I try to keep that youthful pair of shoes on hand when I sample pieces of new YA fiction - works that have none of my existing childhood nostalgia to anchor themselves to. Though these books weren't written with my current age demographic in mind, I'll put on those worn out pair of shoes, and dive right in. In cases like Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhai Lai, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, or The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I'll wish they had existed in my youth.


There are, of course, exceptions. Despite being widely lauded, and even adapted onto the big screen by Hollywood, neither my current or reassumed childhood self could find joy in The Maze Runner by James Dashner.



Good story vs good writing


There are two primary reasons as to why I might love a book


  1. The content is engaging. If fiction, the characters, world building, premise are fascinating. If non-fiction, the concepts they describe and teach are inspiring and endlessly interesting.

  2. The writing is beautiful. Words are masterfully used not merely as a means of disseminating information, but seem to be a character onto themselves - painting, weaving, and expertly delivering emotion, humour, clarity.

I'm grateful to have both of these kinds of books in my life, and even more grateful to have encountered both in abundance over the course of the year. However, there's an especially soft place in my heart for books that manage to do both exceptionally well.


And because I'm a sucker for a well placed infographic:



the importance of BIPOC Experiences - understanding myself and others


This year, I've made a conscious effort to read more stories about and by BIPOC individuals. Of the books I read in 2020, 44 of them, or 22% had key BIPOC representation. Of this, roughly half were of Black representation, and roughly half of Asian representation.


I've especially appreciated reading books that shine a light on racial tensions for Black Canadians and Americans (The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cuthors and They Said This Would Be Fun by Eternity Martis). These books, when set against the backdrop of the actions and activism of 2020, were even more powerful for me in terms of unpacking my own racial biases, trying to better understand the experiences of those different than me, and educating myself about the problems and solutions within our current reality.


This year, for the FIRST TIME EVER, I read a book featuring a Filipino-American protagonist - Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. This was an incredibly powerful experience for me, especially as much of the main character's experiences upon visiting the motherland mirrored my own. In 2021, I hope to delve into more Filipino literature!


I also ended up reading a lot about the experience of Vietnamese-Americans who came to the US after the war (On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Sigh Gone by Phuc Tran, Inside Out & Back Again), and hope to explore more stories about Vietnam, as well as from other Asian cultures.


Another important read for me this year was Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. There's much to be said, and much that has been left unsaid about the Asian American/Canadian experience. I still think about this book a lot.



GOING (Book) ClubBING WITH THE GALS


Once a week, for the past few months, I've hopped on a video call with five friends to go clubbing. Book Clubbing!


Not only has this been a wonderful way to reconnect with friends and make new ones (especially during these connection and conversation starved times!), it's also been a stellar way to branch out my reading choices, exercise critical thinking, and see how other peoples' experiences impact their perception of a novel.


In the case of Pachinko (which I mentioned earlier as a book that was a bit slow coming out of the gates for me, but bloomed into one of my favourite fiction novels ever), the gang's "peer pressure" also enabled me to sally on forward. Go team!


Some of my other favourite Book Club reads include The Power by Naomi Alderman, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, and The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.



Binging vs savouring


Some books I binged in 2020 include my belovedly basic romance novels (Managed by Kristen Callihan, Dating You Hating You by Christina Lauren, My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella), and comedic audiobook memoirs (Dear Girls by Ali Wong, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer, Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld.


Some books I savoured in 2020 include popular science entries (Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Walkable City by Jeff Speck, Superforecasting by Philip E Tetlock, How to Bake Pi by Eugenia Cheng, The Body by Bill Bryson, Range by David Epstein), and self help offerings (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson, Untamed by Glennon Doyle).


But.... some books that were "meant" to be binged, I instead savoured (eg my 2nd reading of the year for Managed by Kristen Callihan, and perennial fluffy favourite The Hating Game by Sally Thorne).


And some books that were "meant" to be savoured I instead binged. For instance, Why We're Polarized by Ezra Klein was endlessly interesting, and timely given year's political debacles in the US. Know My Name by Chanel Miller left me an emotional wreck, but I could not put it down. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez made me infuriatingly angry, such that I just NEEDED to keep reading.


You see, in my opinion, it's not about the speed at which you read something, it's the extent to which you process, think, and concentrate on it. If I read a book fast, it's not necessarily because I'm skimming it, it's usually because I'm just so engrossed in the topics at hand. Alternately, reading a book slowly is not necessarily an indication of greater impact and absorption. In fact, sometimes when I read a book slowly, I find myself having to re-read sections to reacquaint myself with the characters or concepts being discussed.


Though I read a lot this year, I did my best to be a conscious reader. With every read, I highlight and revisit passages that resonate with me (another benefit of the ebook - I wouldn't DREAM of defiling a book with a pen eek), contemplate the overarching themes, and finally, assign a 'rating' on Goodreads and sometimes a short review.



Here's to reclaiming my inner bookworm, achieving goals, and learning (a lot of) things along the way!


*If you're wondering, the cost of my Kobo worked out to be $0.83 per book. Not too shabby... but, as per his writing in Misbehaving, Richard Thaler would urge me not to succumb to the Sunk Cost fallacy.


CHECK OUT my favourite reads of 2020 here.