How Books Got Me Through 2020

Happy Holidays, fellow nerds! This is the second in a series of posts wrapping up a different year in a different way. Between now and the start of 2021, I’ll be recapping my year in media not through traditional “Best of” lists but instead through snapshots of how my relationships with TV, books, and movies reflected my journey through 2020. If you’re looking for great “Best of 2020” content, I highly recommend heading over to Marvelous Geeks and TVexamined for their lists and listening to the 2-part podcast I recorded with the wonderful women behind those two sites, where we recapped our TV favorites from this year. And if you’re in the mood for more book discussion, Mary wrote a fabulous guest post for NGN earlier this month about her favorite books of 2020.

I read 22 books this year.

(Technically, it’s more like 21.99 books at the time I’m writing this, but let’s round up for the sake of simplicity.)

For me, that’s a huge number. It’s almost double the number of books I read in 2019.

And yet I still found myself slightly nervous about sharing it. I found myself writing long-winded explanations about why I don’t read more—defenses mostly centered on a job in publishing and a past as an English major who read so many books in college she burned herself out for the next decade.

I found myself comparing my reading habits to those of everyone around me—and coming up short.

That’s when I knew I had to write about it.

Because that’s been my experience through much of 2020. Comparing myself to everyone around me—and coming up short.

I didn’t become an expert chef (or even a particularly functional one). I didn’t learn a new language or meditate every day or take up running. I didn’t write more blog posts or start a new hobby or even spend that much more time outside appreciating nature.

I didn’t become a more voracious reader or a reader of more respectable literature.

And for most of this year, I beat myself up about all of it.

But then, I thought about those 21.99 books. And like they have for my entire life, the books guided me to the exact lesson I needed.

Your story doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to be good enough. You should never feel bad about or downplay something that makes you happy. You should embrace it. And if you have the strength, you should share it.

And if the way I shared books with loved ones, talked about them with friends, and got excited to read them with my morning coffee was any indication, every single one of those precious 21.99 books I read this year made me happy.

And now I want to share it.

I started the year on a bit of a literary fiction kick with titles like Circe by Madeline Miller and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Both of those were stories of love that defied expectation and happiness that came in places that the characters’ worlds didn’t understand or accept.

Then, COVID-19 happened, and gone was any semblance of perceived respectability in most of my choices of reading material. Much like my reality TV obsession, literary fluff of all forms became a security blanket—providing me with the happy endings, exotic places, and relationships that still seem so far away. And in every book I turned to, in every love story I eagerly devoured, I kept running into the same themes, themes that were slightly brighter reflections of those I found in what I read before the world turned upside-down.

Your happiness is your own. Whatever makes you happy is good enough.

Those themes were found in the delightful romance of Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston as Alex and Henry navigate falling in love and standing in their truth as the sons of an American president and the British royal family. They were found in the American Royals series by Katharine McGee, which had me captivated by a fictional American royal family and the ways they define love and happiness on their own terms. They were found in The Idea of You by Robinne Lee—a stunningly sexy story starring a middle-aged mother who gets her groove back with a twentysomething boy band member. And they were found in Beach Read by Emily Henry—a story as much about writing what makes you happy as it is about finding someone who makes you happy.

But perhaps my favorite example of those themes was The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, which stole my heart with a fantastical story of a lonely man just getting by whose world (and heart) is opened up by a chosen family of young magical beings and the man who watches over them. Linus’s journey to true happiness—and the rejection of anyone else’s ideas of what he should be accomplishing with his life—filled me with a warmth and inspiration only the best books can bring. There’s a reason I’ve recommended it to my friends and even to my mother this year. Its lesson of embracing the life that makes you happy—no matter what it might look like to others—is one that I think we all need a reminder of every so often.

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I read a lot of books this year that wouldn’t make most people’s Top 10 lists. I read enemies-to-lovers tales (The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa), Old Hollywood historical fiction (A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott), and a charming college romance told from the points of view of everyone else but the main couple (A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall). But every single story carries with it a memory—an experience. I started the year reading on planes and in coffee shops and ended it reading on my couch and at the breakfast table. Each of those moments—those little rituals—helped me believe in happy endings at a time when they feel so distant.

The two boys kiss. The found family is safe. The old lovers reunite. Hillary Clinton is president (in the pages of Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, at least).

Everything works out in the end. I can’t think of something I needed to believe in more in 2020.

I may not have read more than 21.99 books this year. But the books I did read made me happy.

And they taught me that’s more than enough.

17 thoughts on “How Books Got Me Through 2020

  1. Preach, girl. I was ready to do physical harm to the next person who mentioned that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. No, I did not write an epic or even a short story. I managed to go through some closets. I did not learn a language. For those of you who did those things — awesome!

    I binged books. BINGED, my friends. Slammed through Nalini Singh. Gorged on Bec McMaster. So many Golden Age mysteries. All the Ilona Andrews and Lindsay Buroker. I wanted happy endings. All the happy endings . . . and found families and snappy dialogue.

    Why do we look down on literature that makes us happy? You can have complex characters and plots and happy endings. Stories can challenge us and still make us happy. Right now I want reading that lifts me up or wraps me up in a warm blanket of comfort. Right now, if something doesn’t “spark joy” I am Marie Kondo-ing it out of my life.

    Thanks for sharing the books that made you happy, Katie. 21.99 sounds like a lovely number to me.

      • For Nalini Singh, I’d start with Psy-Changeling Slave to Sensation. There’s an arc that goes throughout the series, but the books do stand alone. (Although, I read the first one because I saw it continually rec’d and then glommed the rest of the series.) For Ilona Andrews, that’s harder. I’ve enjoyed Kate Daniels, Inn Keeper, and Hidden Legacy. The first Kate Daniels is only 2.99 as an e-book, so that might make the decision for you. For both authors, check out their websites — there’s lots of extras you’ll want to read.

        (If you want to know how I’ve spent the pandemic — it’s glued to my e-reader. I plowed through all those series, plus bunches of mysteries.)

        Bec McMaster and Lindsay Buroker are indie authors and you can find some of their series starters cheap or free. McMaster does steampunk and fantasy — lots of found family. Buroker is a lighter more fun read with lots of snark and protags who don’t always fit the typical heroic mold. Her most recent features an asthmatic heroine who is snarky and kick-ass.

        Ok, I’m going to stop now before I get too out of control. (Reading is my happy place. You will pry my e-reader from my cold, dead hands. And you’ll probably have trouble even then.)

        • Thank you!!

          Lindsey Buroker sounds exactly like my type of author, I will definitely be adding her to my list.

          I have also been glued to my e-reader this year so I know the feeling well. It is a constant struggle between actually reading things I already own and wanting to try new things, the library has been a life saver (and a budget saver).

    • Thank YOU for sharing the stories that made you happy too! I totally agree with your philosophy—literature that makes us happy, that makes us feel good, is just as valid and important (and I’d argue even more important right now) than the sad, dour stuff people like to pretend is more respectable. Give me a good romance any day over realistic fiction with a sad ending.

      I also am 100% behind you on losing it the next time someone brings up Shakespeare and the plague. To all who accomplished amazing things or found new niches this year, congrats! But just getting by this year is more than okay too. I always come back to the Zora Neale Hurston quote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” If this year answered questions for people, that’s wonderful. But for me, it asked a whole lot more. And that’s how life works—it’s all about honoring that balance.

  2. It makes me so happy that you loved The House in the Cerulean Sea as much as I did and then proceeded to give it to so many other people to love and appreciate.

    I’ve always read voraciously but never on anything that other people would have deemed worthwhile. It was only when I started looking up book discussions online that I began to feel like it was a problem that needed to be fixed, so I decided to slowly work my way through all those “Books You Need To Read Before You Die” lists and while I found some things I really enjoyed, it didn’t necessarily make me happy as a reader. It was only by getting rid of that mentality and focusing on things that made me happy that I really got my intense love of reading back and I’m happy this year gave you that lesson.

    You loved books this year in a way that I don’t feel like you have in a while and that will always be the most important thing. You had so many that really made a big impact on you or that brought you some joy when you most needed it and that is exactly what books should do.

    I also really love that it was a year of us sharing books with each other! We had so little media that we got to share and talk about this year but books got to be one of those things we could be simultaneously excited about and it was great. (BTW, have we talked about The Worst Best Man and I just completely blanked on it?)

    • Sometimes I think those “books you must read . . .” lists are put together by folks who are determined to make the rest of suffer through the books because they had to. I am getting REALLY tired of folks who believe that art has to be dark to be good.

    • “You loved books this year in a way that I don’t feel like you have in a while and that will always be the most important thing.” — This is 100% accurate, and I loved that you noticed that. And sharing books this year with you was so much fun! But we did not talk about The Worst Best Man, and I think that was because I read it right in the middle of my Schitt’s Creek binge, so I was taking up all your time talking about that. 😉 But I LOVED it. It highlighted a culture I don’t know a lot about (and made me want to try all kinds of new foods), and it was super sexy. I want it to be made into a fluffy rom com ASAP.

      I also need to echo your disdain for those Books to Read Before You Die lists. I think being an English major helped rid me of the notion that those books are any better than any others pretty quickly. (I was the weird English major who hates Shakespeare—well, most Shakespeare…Othello and his comedies can stay.) But sometimes I do still get the sense that a small number of people I know are judging me for the things I haven’t read, which is a mindset I wish more people got rid of the way you did. Just let people read things that make them remember why they love reading! And for most of us, that’s never going to be War and Peace. 😉

    • “I’ve always read voraciously but never on anything that other people would have deemed worthwhile. It was only when I started looking up book discussions online that I began to feel like it was a problem that needed to be fixed, so I decided to slowly work my way through all those “Books You Need To Read Before You Die” lists and while I found some things I really enjoyed, it didn’t necessarily make me happy as a reader. It was only by getting rid of that mentality and focusing on things that made me happy that I really got my intense love of reading back and I’m happy this year gave you that lesson.”

      THIS right here is everything. Especially the part about being happy as a reader. As someone who LOVED reading for the act of it, reading a book I didn’t enjoy didn’t ever make sense to me. I have friends and people in my life who read for the purpose of knowledge and information – I was always a person who read for pleasure. It was why when work and life (and now very tired eyes) chipped away at my ability to do it I was so sad and devastated. I love seeing and knowing people gravitate to books because of love and pleasure. Not nearly enough of that in the world.

  3. I love this post, Katie! I think a lot of us had the same feeling of being “behind” this year as we saw all the things everyone else got up to while we’re all stuck at home, and it’s been difficult to shake that off at times. I’m so happy it sounds like you’ve found your way to being content with your own pace and your own path. After all, as long as it brings us happiness, it doesn’t really matter how many books we read in a year, and I love that the books you read this year gave you the comfort of happy endings and a reminder that oftentimes things do end up okay.

    I definitely struggled to read this year, and while I started a number of books, I only managed to finish one back in February. I think the stress of the year sapped a lot of my reading brain, but I’m hoping I can find it again in 2021.

    I love that you and Heather both adored The House in the Cerulean Sea, and I am very much looking forward to diving into it someday. The books you’ve mentioned in this post all sound really interesting, and if you don’t mind talking about them I’d love to hear more about Circe, Beach Read, and The Worst Best Man.

    • The feeling of being “behind” was so strong for me for so much of this year, and I’m sure it’ll crop up again in the new year. But I think I’m learning to appreciate my own journey and my own happiness, which is not always a straight path—and I hope I can make other people feel better about it all too.

      And I could talk about those three books you mentioned forever, so here goes! Circe is retelling of the story of a Greek enchantress who was featured in The Odyssey, and it focuses on her power as a woman in both the world of gods and world of mortals—and what happens when she chooses her love for men over her place among immortals. It was an emotional roller coaster in the best way, and it was a really interesting story of female power in worlds that don’t know what to do with it. (It’s also apparently being adapted for HBO!). And Beach Read is a story about two rival authors and former college classmates (a romance novelist and a literary fiction writer) who find themselves living next to each other in a small community of beach homes one summer. After learning they’re both dealing with writer’s block, they make a pact to try writing in each other’s genre, and along the way, they have very hot sexy times….and possibly fall in love. 😉 It’s a really great exploration of why romance novels and stories with happy endings are so beautiful. It’s meta in the best way. And The Worst Best Man is about a Brazilian-American wedding planner who was left at the altar but ends up finding herself working with the best man who seemingly encouraged her fiance to jilt her. I absolutely loved how warm (and often hot) this book was and what it said about family and culture along with its love story.

      • Thanks for all the info!! These books all sound really fun in different ways and I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to read them all in 2021. I’ve always been into mythology and of course stories about female power are my jam, so Circe sounds fascinating! I picked up Beach Read at my local bookstore recently since I can’t resist a good book about books/writing and a romance is always a plus lol, so I’m really looking forward to that. And The Worst Best Man sounds like such a great premise for a book, so I will definitely have to read that sometime!

  4. I owe my love for Beach Read entirely to you and so does everyone who took our rec and read it. That book spoke to my heart in such a visceral way and I can’t thank you enough for recommending it. This is a beautiful piece, friend and I can’t wait to check out The House in the Cerulean Sea as soon as I’m back in the game reading. I got to read a lot more this year thanks to Covid, but English major problems then immediately got burnt out. But it’s a process and everything about this piece is exceptional.

    • I’m so glad you loved Beach Read as much as I did! I’m also so excited for you to discover The House in the Cerulean Sea whenever you’re ready for it. I know the burnout is real when you’re an English major, so take your time—it’ll always be there!

  5. Pingback: How Movies Got Me Through 2020 | Nerdy Girl Notes

  6. Audible (after tries and failures) has brought books back into my life in a real way. Not in the voracious ways it once did but in the pleasure ways that I emotional attach to the act of reading. The biggest hurdle is narrator for me now. But the fun of that is when I discover a narrator I love I become loyal to them and will explore books I might never have picked up otherwise. My love of Richard Armitage’s narration opened me up to CJ Tudor’s work and The Other People was devastatingly good and I was riveted from start to conclusion.

    I finally sat down and listened to Sapiens which was extraordinary in and of itself, but had a gravity this year that made me really reflect differently on how I navigate and absorb societal response, reaction and change. But if we want to talk about joy, and don’t we always, The Jane Austen Society was my book of perfection. In a year of isolation this story centering on a love of Austen and the connections made through the desire to preserve her legacy was a simple story on its face, but a layered and wonderfully restorative tale of how our solace and happiness are embedded in our ability to be true to ourselves. I listened to it twice.

    And clearly after this week, I will be picking up The Duke and I next.

    • I really need to get into audiobooks! I feel like I’m someone who keeps trying to get into podcasts and has struggled with that, but maybe audiobooks could be a good alternative. Give me an attractive voice telling the story, and I’ll probably be sold. 😉

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