My Top Reads of 2020

It’s that time of the year again (if not a little past) for the “best of” lists. There is nothing particularly “2020” about my choices. Other than a few graphic novels, I believe I only read a single book published this year. The influence of the year itself on my readings habits is limited to my social setting: I finished my undergraduate and started my graduate degree. But only one of these books comes out of my studies (Reinventing China, which is technically outside of my field of study). Here are the most important books I read in 2020. 

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross

Just shy of 800 pages, Wagnerism (2020) by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross is the longest book I finished this year. And damn. It’s the definition of an important read for any citizen of the contemporary world, let alone an aspiring culture critic like myself. Ross argues that the music of Richard Wagner exerted an unparalleled influence on art and politics beyond the realm of music—and he is convincing. As someone unable to clap and sing in church at the same time, I was nervous for this read but Ross carefully summarizes the mains works of Wagner (alongside the biographical information) before moving to the man’s influence. These chapters alone could have earned Wagnerism a spot on this list. And simultaneously, I’m unsure knowing a lick of music theory would have supplemented the book’s thesis in the slightest. That’s not what Wagnerism is about. 

The final 50 pages feel rushed—Wagner’s influence of film almost becomes a footnote, yet it’s clear from Ross’s argument and intention that this is anything but the case. In fact, his continuous and direct influence on the modern world almost wholly stems from film. It feels as if Ross simply wasn’t as interested in modern and American Wagnerism as he was in the earlier and European Wagnernism. Or perhaps the publisher wanted a book under 800 pages and this was the easiest section to slim. But a third option is possible: Ross’s summary of Wagner’s influence on these last few pages isn’t unconvincing even if shortened, and he has given the reader all the tools to identify modern Tristens and Isoldes, leitmotifs, etc… —and he certainly leaves no impressions that the movement(s) of Wagnerism is finished. The natural interpretation of these rushed chapters on the modern world can only be taken as a passing of the torch from writer to reader. Now I see Wagner everywhere. 

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

There’s no excusable reason for my putting off Lord of the Rings until I was 23 years old, but I’m thankful to read this story at my age and with my reading experience. A younger version of myself would have been bored by Tom Bombadil’s mysteriousness and seeming irrelevance to the plot, would have been unable to see the sacramentality of the Elvish lembas, would have been blinded by the real-world setting of the Great European Wars, and would have skipped over all the quirky songs. 

Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick

The way Remnick genuinely respects Gorbachev, just two years after his resignation, was ahead of the curve even in the West. But, his authentic picture can be a little misleading. It’s not so much the blueprints for the collapse of the Communists as it is the prose version of an American journalist’s notes living in Moscow at the time of the fall. He pays no attention to Western influence, the Chernobyl disaster, or even the Cold War. His account almost assumes a Soviet country completely isolated from the rest of the world—an ironic portrayal for Washington Post journalist. Instead, unadulterated by American influence, Remnick’s version of the collapse shows a bunch of fools, drunks, and drunken fools mistakenly running a country into the dirt. And, for what that is, he still gives a damn good account. His journalistic leg work is unparalleled, interviewing everyone: Gorbachev, KGB officials, dissidents, hardliners, miners, poets—he has given every Soviet citizen a fair end of the shake. Sure, his new journalism tone comes off a bit declarative and opinioned at times with phrases like “the world’s last regime,” ignoring the fact that regimes still persist; but, he never hides his biases, and for that, it’s easy to see why he is one of the best in the business. Both a communist tankie and a devout Reganite can find something to appreciate in this grand historical account. 

(Excerpt from my review on Goodreads.)

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Graham Greene has been my true guide to the Catholic Church. His books teach me more than any RCIA class ever could and The End of the Affair is one of his very best. It’s bookmarked by two of the most well-written passages I read this entire year: Benedrix’s conflicted diary entry about love and hate being the same passion, and the final revelation about Sarah Miles’ death-bed conversion. The way these two passages end up melting into each other is simply amazing. If you’ve never read Greene, this is the best place to start.

Reinventing China: A Generation and Its Films by Paul ClarkSure, it’s an oddball on this list: Clark is a relatively unknown film critic, it’s by no means a staple even in its field, and the subject—the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers (notably, Zhang Yimou)—isn’t exactly a sexy topic. Nonetheless, it’s an important gem of a book because it’s probably the best gateway to one of the greatest generations of filmmakers. Clark’s simplistic style and explanatory method make Reinventing China accessible to anyone, even those who have never seen a Chinese language film. Moreover, he situates the generation at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution (he calls them “Mao’s children” at one point), categorizes technical and thematic trends, and points to their latter influence—the sum of this work, in effect, makes the Fifth Generation feel almost as monumental to the cinematic world as the New Wave.

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