Leaders in Literature, Politics and Arts Share Their Favorite Books of 2020

Each year we ask more than 50 leaders and luminaries from literature, business, politics and the arts to name the best books they’ve read during the year. You could spend all day reading the full list—and all year reading the books.

The best part about rereading Chekhov at a moment of national crisis, as I did this year with “Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories,” was to be reminded that the best authors see the world not as it wants to be seen, but as it is. So often fiction diminishes that which is baffling about human behavior down to that which is logical in the confines of a story. Chekhov’s great talent was to reflect people as they are, even when they don’t make sense. The better author knows a hopeful lie often masks a more painful truth. This is probably why I was so deeply affected this year by Isabel Wilkerson’s towering, gorgeous “Caste,” which seeks to explain the hidden and complex system of inequalities at the foundation of American life. It’s this clear-eyed reporting on the truth of America rapt by its prevarications (among which one might now list equality and even democracy itself) that was so refreshing and powerful. And though we seem to be at a moment of change, the painful truth may be that we are more like the lovers in that beguiling final paragraph of “Lady With Lapdog” who realize they have still “a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”

— Mr. Jollett is the author of the bestselling memoir “Hollywood Park.”

Brit Bennett

I’ve been reading a lot about women artists this year, so I loved “Actress” by Anne Enright and “Feast Your Eyes” by Myla Goldberg. “Actress” follows an Irish theater legend who leaves behind a messy legacy after she commits an act of violence. “Feast Your Eyes” is centered on a midcentury photographer who takes a controversial picture of her daughter, and the daughter who tells the story of her late mother’s life. Both novels center on mother-daughter relationships complicated, in part, by the pressures of artistic ambition. And both books are about daughters reclaiming the artistic legacies of their brilliant but derided mothers. I also loved “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel, which was the first novel I was able to finish when the lockdown began in the spring. It’s a propulsive story about a Ponzi scheme that weaves in and out of the lives of the scammer, his co-conspirators and his victims.

— Ms. Bennett is the author, most recently, of “The Vanishing Half,” a novel.

Kim Cattrall

In turbulent times we seek comfort in the familiar, reading that plants you in vivid memories of time and place. As a teenager, I read a collection of short stories by the esteemed Canadian writer Alice Munro. Ms. Munro was the first writer I’d read to avail herself of my beloved Vancouver Island. I’d swum, biked, hiked and camped in the same woods, lakes and backroads she’d written of: I had been there. In 2020, Maggie O’Farrell’s dazzling and devastating novel “Hamnet,” for all its author’s self- proclaimed “idle speculation,” deeply resonates and recaptures that same pure interrelatedness. I’d already traveled to the 1600s with the aid of the National Trust and their expert docents at Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring of 1968. We arrived to hear the disappointing news that Shakespeare’s house of birth was closed that month, pending repairs to its 360-year-old roof, so decided on Anne Hathaway’s cottage and gardens instead. A pinnacle of Tudor design and landscaping, it includes a very English garden, an orchard with small vegetable and physic gardens. Years later, in the hands of this masterly storyteller, I am transported by Ms. O’Farrell’s alchemy. The swish of a mud-encrusted kirtle in the dew, the burden and salvation of a mother’s second sight and the inspired climax of witnessing immortality secured forever.

— Ms. Cattrall is an actress and producer who most recently starred in the Fox drama “Filthy Rich.”

Douglas Stuart

Such a lonely year sent me searching for stories about love and belonging. I found it with Bryan Washington’s “Memorial,” an intimate tale of a gay couple whose relationship is slowly dying while they also try to navigate fraught histories with their estranged parents. I was swept away to Vardø by Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s “The Mercies,” an evocative story of friendship and love between self-reliant and quietly defiant Norwegian women. I reread Quentin Crisp’s “The Naked Civil Servant,” a heart-expanding account of what it meant to be gender nonconforming in 1930s England. I was reminded what a radical act it can be to simply love and be yourself. I had the honor of meeting Scotland’s Makar, Jackie Kay, whose book “The Lamplighter” is a heart-breaking ballad about four enslaved women and also a necessary look at Britain’s silent history in the slave trade. Ms. Kay is incredibly warm and humane as a writer; every line is tender and suffused with love. As I write this, I’m desperate to return to reading Ava Homa’s moving tale of a Kurdish girl’s fight for freedom in “Daughters of Smoke and Fire.”

— Mr. Stuart is the author of the novel “Shuggie Bain,” winner of this year’s Booker Prize.

Gina Raimondo

Americans want to work. People find purpose and fulfillment in their work. But not when full-time employees are unable to make ends meet. When endless hours of intense, physical labor aren’t enough for a single mother to lift herself and her daughter out of poverty, that’s proof of a broken system. “Maid,” by Stephanie Land, is both heart-wrenching and eye-opening—a harsh examination of the way our society fails to value unskilled work and the laborers who make up the backbone of our economy. “Maid” is Ms. Land’s own story but, sadly, it’s not unique. Thousands of women in this country—many of whom face racism and discrimination that Ms. Land does not—are similarly overworked and underpaid. It should be a wake-up call for all of us. As we rebuild from Covid, we have a moral responsibility to transform our economy and restore dignity to work.

— Ms. Raimondo is the governor of Rhode Island.

Damon Lindelof

Sure, “The Nickel Boys” won the Pulitzer, but I am all but certain the culture at large has been eagerly waiting for me to weigh in too. I offer this joke only to deflect my inexcusable dereliction in waiting so long to read this masterpiece, especially given my awe in the wake of Colson Whitehead’s previous endeavor, “The Underground Railroad.” That novel had a single, shocking paragraph in its final pages that quite literally knocked the wind out of me. I gasped, then sobbed . . . and when I put the book down, my hands were still shaking. Perhaps this is why I was so reluctant to crack Mr. Whitehead’s latest . . . I knew I would love it, but I also wanted to wait for when the time was just right. That turned out to be in the middle of the summer, when the streets echoed with the collective wail of outrage and grief over the decimation of black bodies. “The Nickel Boys” begins with the discovery of many such bodies, buried in a secret graveyard long ago, all boys with names that would never be shouted on the streets for they were worse than forgotten: they were erased. The story, we’re told, is fiction, by a narrator who, in a manner of speaking, is fiction himself. Yet every word, every person, place and thing feels real . . . and once again, I gasped. Then sobbed. And when I put the book down, my hands were still shaking.

— Mr. Lindelof is an award-winning writer-producer and the co-creator of television’s “Lost,” “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen.”

Rhiannon Giddens

This year I have been fascinated with the book “The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy.” It came out in 2013, but Christopher J. Smith’s premise is now more needed than ever—the idea that American culture is a mixture of many different things, and has been so from the beginning. The author uses one painter’s oeuvre as a framing device: W.S. Mount was active during the middle part of the 1800s, precisely the time that key elements of the American cultural character were being formed, particularly observing the mixing and mingling of Anglo-Celtic, Afro-Caribbean and African-American traditions. He was an incredibly observant illustrator, creating, with impeccable detail and faithfulness, portraits and sketches of music and dance from the diverse Long Island working-class community in which he lived. The book is a fascinating journey from the waterways and barns of 19th-century America to the parchment and canvases of Mount and his depictions of our ever-changing landscape. Mr. Smith combines those observations with deep historical and archival research, illuminating the vast multi-ethnic cultural exchange that lies at the heart of what it means to be American.

— Ms. Giddens is a Grammy award-winning musician and composer. Her most recent album is “There Is No Other.”

Anne Tyler

Nowadays, I’m feeling there is just too much event in life. That’s why I find myself looking for books that focus less on what happens than on how it’s described. Imagine my happiness, then, in discovering Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Parakeet,” a novel about a bride with the worst case of cold feet I’ve ever heard of, told in language that’s endlessly surprising. Ann Napolitano’s “Dear Edward” does feature one event—the cataclysm that sets the story in motion. The author makes inspired choices about what to reveal and when, and the result is a deeply moving study of how a young boy learns to endure tragedy. Finally, there is Elizabeth Berg’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” her memoir about dealing with her parents’ old age. It is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and the language is unfailingly kind. In fact, that’s what I’m asking of books these days: kindness. All three of these have kindness in abundance.

— Ms. Tyler is the author, most recently, of “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” a novel.

Rahm Emanuel

History has turned Martin Luther King and Malcolm X into antagonists. But as Peniel E. Joseph reveals in “The Sword and the Shield,” the two men exerted enormous influence on each other, their various appeals strengthened by the other’s critiques. They epitomized a central tension within the Civil Rights Movement: Should an oppressed population join its enemies in building the beloved community, or was integration a misleading fantasy? By 1968, in the face of the layered resistance he witnessed in the north, King made the controversial decision to steer his focus onto endemic poverty and the quagmire in Vietnam. Borrowing from Malcolm X, he abandoned the pretense that social justice could be separated from economic justice. By the time of King’s assassination, his view of America’s path forward was much more in line with Malcolm X’s than legend would have us believe.

— Mr. Emanuel served as mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019.

Yaa Gyasi

I’m thankful for all the books that kept me company this year. They felt like antidotes to the endless scroll of newsfeeds, the 50 tabs open on my computer at all times, each leading to tales of more horror. If there has been horror in the books I’ve read, there has been beauty too, and always the gift of slow, deep attention. In January I read “Homie” by Danez Smith, and its poems filled me with pure joy. It is a book as inventive, funny, sad, warm and sharp as any I’ve ever read. I cry easily in real life but, strangely, not that often while reading, so it was really special to spend a weekend of weeping with Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive,” a devastating, powerfully and beautifully written memoir about domestic violence and witness. I also read “Beyond the Gender Binary,” Alok Vaid-Menon’s book for young adults. How life-changing and expanding a book like this would have been for me and my friends when we were teens. I’m glad we can read it now. The novel “A Burning” by Megha Majumdar was wise and unnerving in its exploration of how extremism takes root. Finally, I can’t end this list without mentioning “Memorial” by Bryan Washington, which I pre-ordered after reading his excellent story collection “Lot” in the early days of lockdown. Mr. Washington’s magnificent books bookend 2020 for me, in a way. I’m happy to have been lost in them.

— Ms. Gyasi is the author, most recently, of the novel “Transcendent Kingdom.”

Blake Bailey

During this nasty, nasty year, I looked for intelligent escapism in my reading, and one of the books that filled the bill was “In the Land of Men” by Adrienne Miller, who became fiction editor of Esquire in 1997, at age 25. The book’s title refers to the ethos of men’s magazines in the waning days of print journalism, where Ms. Miller thrived because she was smart and capable but also because she cultivated (by her own account) “a spirit of irony, leniency, and good humor” in the face of what amounted to institutionalized sexism. Ms. Miller’s good humor is nowhere more in evidence as when she reflects on her romantic attachment to David Foster Wallace, one of Esquire’s most distinguished contributors and, at his worst, a beastly swine toward women. “You may know more words than she does,” Wallace remarked to Ms. Miller re one of her successors, “but she’s better at cleaning my underwear.” And yet Wallace was also the wistful humanist whose famous 2005 address “This Is Water” advised Kenyon graduates, well, not to be like David Foster Wallace: fatally entombed in their own brains (“the terrible master”). With a kind of deploring bemusement, and love, Ms. Miller gives us Wallace more or less in the round, and even manages to be funny about it—no mean feat.

— Mr. Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography” will be published in April.

An Yu

It’s rare to come across a book like “Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri. I spent most of this year living in temporary places, renting homes a month at a time while trying to move back to Beijing amidst border closures and lockdowns. Perhaps because of that, I ended up reading many dreamy, melancholic tales of people drifting through life. Don’t be mistaken: this book is far more than that. “Tokyo Ueno Station,” told from the perspective of a ghost, might appear to be more about death than life, but it seems like Ms. Yu is telling us that they are one and the same. Upon death, Kazu, the novel’s narrator, doesn’t find himself in heaven or hell, but in the same place he spent his days living as a homeless man. As he observes the crowds, he recounts the events of his life: fishing and farming, building stadiums for the 1964 Olympic Games, losing his family and then his home. Ms. Yu’s poetic prose (in the English of Morgan Giles) weaves together a haunting and devastating story about those who have helped to build up modern Japan only to be ignored by it. In less than 200 pages, Ms. Yu tells us a lot about fate, history, society—and, of course, life itself.

— Ms. Yu is the author of the novel “Braised Pork.”

Helen Macdonald

I read a lot of excellent books during lockdown solitude. Among them was Phil Klay’s novel “Missionaries.” Just as devastating as “Redeployment,” Mr. Klay’s collection of short stories from 2014, “Missionaries’’ is a bloody, deeply political, properly heartbreaking triumph that tracks the fates of a cast of characters across conflict zones from Afghanistan to Colombia and Yemen. I also reread Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 essay collection “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Her notion of the importance of reciprocity in our relationship to nature is a world-changing one. What might it be like, she asks, to feel that the Earth loves you in return? Most recently, I was blown away by P. Djèlí Clark’s fantasy novella “Ring Shout,” set in an alternative America in which the Ku Klux Klan are actual demons, battled by a team of teen resistance fighters led by the narrator and her otherworldly sword. The book is urgent and extraordinarily powerful.

— Ms. Macdonald is the author, most recently, of “Vesper Flights.”

Erik Larson

I’ve always been a sucker for James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-gothic detective novels, starring Det. Dave Robicheaux, but this year’s “A Private Cathedral” may be my favorite. It shimmers with bayou lightning and humidity, but this one also incorporates a delicious extra element of mystery—something supernatural, perhaps. Decidedly less eerie and a lot more comforting is Emma Straub’s “All Adults Here,” in which a family’s secrets—abortion, infidelity, gender flux—come burbling forth in funny and moving ways. Never mind that what sets the action in motion is a woman being struck and killed by an empty school bus, the kind of unlucky moment that does tend to make one think. Speaking of luck, it’s what Maria Konnikova explores in “The Biggest Bluff,” an exploration of the science and psychology of luck framed around her quest to become a world-class poker player. Luck, she assures us, is at root merely statistical variance. Probability. As a nervous flier, I found this particularly unsettling. “Probability has amnesia,” Ms. Konnikova writes: “each future outcome is completely independent of the past.” Meaning, you can just forget that comforting old delusion that if an airliner crashes, the one you’re on will be fine.

— Mr. Larson is the author, most recently, of “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.”

Benjamin Moser

There are big stories—like climate change or the rise of populism—that can be broken down into a bunch of little stories, but they’re really just one story. The best new book I read this year was Vincent Bevins’s “The Jakarta Method”—a public service that pulls together discrete threads in order to create a radical new history of the United States abroad. Mr. Bevins connects events, including the coup in Brazil in 1964 and the violence in Indonesia in 1965, to a conspiratorial American obsession with anticommunism. Anyone who thinks that getting rid of Trump will restore the nation to a pristine antediluvian state ought to read this first—and then turn to Chris Kraus’s “Summer of Hate,” a stunning novel from 2012 that dramatizes the conflicts we’ve come to identify with Trump: the border, the carceral state and that great American unmentionable, class. It takes place in the age of Obama. It’s a love story.

— Mr. Moser is the author, most recently, of “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

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