Best of 2020: Reading is fundamental

Is there anything better than slinging out “Best Of” lists? How often do we have a platform from which to proselytize for one’s favorite films, books, movies and so forth? At The Metropole, we asked our editors if they wanted take the opportunity to hype those things that got them through this very difficult year. Since we’re a history blog that naturally leans heavily on the written word, we’ll start with books. Selections need not have been published this year–we simply asked for readings that made an impression. Keep you eyes peeled for several other “Best Of” lists to following, including Best Podcast, Best Film, Best Self-Care, Best TV Binge, and Best Purchase Made to Cope.

Best book (not history)

Avigail Oren: I just finished Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies and sighed with relief because I’d finally found my favorite novel of the year. Like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (or the work of Karl Ove Knaussgard, I’ve heard, but confess I’ve never read), it leaves the reader wondering where the author’s experiences begin and end, what is real and what is fiction. You put yourself in the sure hands of the protagonist, who tells you story after story about his Pakistani parents, their immigration to the US in the late 1960s, his childhood in the Milwaukee suburbs, his most influential college instructor and years as a broke playwright living in Harlem. You never know what will come next. There’s no real plot to speak of, but every story Akhtar spools out—be it about his father’s brief stint as a cardiology consultant to Donald Trump, his friendship with a hedge fund manager who makes him rich, or his mother’s death from cancer—has dramatic tension and yields insights that eventually come together at the novel’s satisfying conclusion with Akhtar’s answer to the question: can we ever truly feel at home in an adopted land?

Matt Guariglia: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.

Charlotte Rosen: I am famously in trouble with my friends for not reading enough fiction, SMH. However, I am currently reading John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire which is blowing my mind. I’m reading it slowly and deliberately because I want to make sure I savor each word. 

Dylan Gottlieb: Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. You might ask: isn’t this a kid’s picture book? You’d be right. Still, this book is spare, witty, and darkly macabre. And it makes my kid laugh every single time.

Eric Michael Rhodes: Does biography work for this category? If so, Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.

Ian Toller-Clark: I don’t read much not-history… At the beginning of the pandemic though, I started rereading Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series. It was a pleasant distraction!

Ryan Reft: I reread Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. It’s as great as I remembered it, but somehow even better when you listen to Polo G’s debut album Die a Legend. Sure, it’s not the whole Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz thing, but it’s not nothing. For something a bit more recent, I finally got around to reading The Beastie Boys Book, released a few years ago by the two surviving members of the group, Mike D (Mike Diamond) and AdRock (Adam Horowitz). It manages to function as a snapshot of late 1970s and early 1980s NYC and 1990s Los Angeles, while also a sweetly melancholic remembrance of MCA (Adam Yauch). The Spike Jonze Apple TV documentary that came out earlier this year about the Beastie Boys is more or less a streamlined but less interesting version of the book. Be sure to check out the numerous guest writers that appear, such as Colson Whitehead. Somehow I worked both books into a piece for the always excellent Tropics of Meta, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Ethel C. Taylor, “Why not books? for birthdays, weddings, graduations, holidays,” between 1920 and 1930, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Best Book (history)

Troy Hallsell: I really enjoyed Frederick Brown’s The City is More than Human: An Animal History of Seattle (2016). It is a great mix of urban, environmental, and policy history (my personal interest trifecta). It also helped me to understand why my cat dictates what happens in my house.

Matt Guariglia: Unwanted: Italian and Jewish Mobilization against Restrictive Immigration Laws, 1882-1965 by Maddalena Marinari.

Charlotte Rosen: I finally read Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson, which, I mean, everyone’s just gotta read. In addition to being a lodestar for understanding how capitalism relates to white supremacy (and for understanding why all capitalism is racial capitalism!), Robinson’s method is also thoroughly historical in a really satisfying and compelling way. 

Dylan Gottlieb: Jeremy Zallen, American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865. A history of labor disguised as a history of technology, Zallen reveals the dreadful human cost of illumination during the first Industrial Revolution. No march of progress here: it’s page after page of turpentine, whale blubber, and pig shit. Read it and I guarantee that you’ll never look at a matchbook the same way again.

Eric Michael Rhodes: You know when a senior academic echoes your MA thesis in a much more persuasive, concise, and riveting way? Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit did that for me.

Ian Toller-Clark: This is a tough one! I have enjoyed new and old books by Clayton HowardGeraldo CadavaA.K. Sandoval-StrauszKeeanga-Yamahtta TaylorSarah MilovMatt LassiterGuian McKee, and Lily Geismer. The best book for me though was Cathy Stock’s Nuclear Country: The Origins of the Rural New Right. This is an important history of how the collapse of small-farming and the militarization of the United States has transformed political culture. For urban historians, I think Stock’s work can also remind us how predominantly rural states, like North and South Dakota, contain metropolitan communities worth studying.

Ryan Reft: You can’t delve into Los Angeles history without crossing paths with Mike Davis; he’s the metronome by which all of the city’s history has been measured since the controversial, perhaps flawed, but eminently masterful City of Quartz in the early 1990s. His new book, co-written by the very capable Jon Weiner, Set the Night on Fire, a history of LA County social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the kind of late career work that brings it all full circle with the kind of nuance that comes with age and experience.

Avigail Oren: Ghetto: The History of a Word by Daniel B. Schwartz is, on a line level, the second-most beautifully written history that I’ve ever read. And it’s argument is just as good.

Featured image (at top): Edward A. Wilson, Books for the Holiday, 1927, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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