In 2020, the books I read were my calendar

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Scott Stein/CNET

It’s been hard keeping track of time. Ever since… sometime, I’ve lost track of days. This is a colder time. The earlier times were also cold. In the middle it was warm. Many things have happened. I don’t see people. I work from home. My kids are at home. I cook a lot. I write things. I try to remember to drink water. And my memory often goes blurry. What helps me, in some small way, is reading books and writing down what I’ve read.

I started this little habit about five years ago. I keep a Notes file, list the books, and each one I get to makes me feel better. I only get to around 18 a year, max. That’s not a ton. But it’s better than nothing. Like anything else, it happens one page at a time. I’m distracted a lot, and my kids yell, and there are dishes and work deadlines and video games and shows I zone out to. But these books, they felt like a lifeline.

What did I read this year? I don’t know, stuff. I picked from books I’d meant to read for decades. Books I just bought. Books that have been on my mind. Digital ones, physical ones. One attempt at an audio book. One’s a video game, but I’m counting it as a book. Maybe you’ll read a few, too. In a year where I feel like I’ve disappeared, and my purpose in life has been rewritten, books can help set a new pace. Cast a line. Shine a light. And maybe, for a while, make you feel normal. (Or comfort you that abnormal is eternal.)

I alternated between physical books and ebooks. Some books are better to hold. I have an old Kindle Paperwhite, and I treated myself a Kindle Oasis on sale this year just because I read all the time. I don’t regret it.

I missed many great books, and bought tons of books I also meant to read. This isn’t a great list, or a list you should follow. But these are the ones that helped me pass through the labyrinth of 2020. What I’m really saying is, books helped mark out space and time for me. If you’re feeling lost, hopefully books can help you as much in 2021 as they’ve helped me in 2020.

The winter

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Scott Stein/CNET

The Art of Failure by Jesper Juul

I read this ebook at the same time as You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, slowly, over months. I bought it as part of a Humble Bundle on game design ebooks years ago, inspired by the game design book selections I always saw at the Game Developers Conference. The Art of Failure is a meditation on how failure as a mechanism builds good games. It also made me think about the need for failure in life as a learning process.

Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz

I (like, coins and cards and Penn & Teller magic), and it’s . I collect books on magic like an addiction. Especially theoretical books. Strong Magic is a dense book on presentation notes, style and structure for magicians. It’s about the importance of nuance. It has a ton of references to magic effects and techniques, many of which I don’t know. But it’s a reminder of how attention to detail in presentation can impact the way we perceive reality.

Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer

This is a video game, technically. But it’s really a visual novel. I never played Kentucky Route Zero until it arrived on the Nintendo Switch, and it became a world I fell into. I played it on the train, many months ago. I stayed up late at night. It’s a tale of capitalism, loss, journeys, crumbling America. It’s Lynchian. I still think about it.

On Spice by Caitlin PenzeyMoog

The pandemic has involved me not going to any stores or restaurants for nine months. I get home deliveries, and I cook constantly. I’ve been obsessed with food and food history for Aquarienzubehör a while (see Harold McGee, below), but On Spice, written by a member of the Penzeys spice company family (I have one of their pepper mills), is both a comforting memoir and a guide to spice nuances you might not have known about.

Impro by Keith Johnstone

Who are we to each other? What do we become when we see each other on Zoom, or in VR? The more , the more I’ve thought about improv, status games and how we interact. This classic on theater and improvisation has been in my library for decades, too: I bought it back when I was a grad student in playwriting last century. Its ideas of transformation through theater games feels mystical and strange. And somehow more important than ever.

The summer

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

I love strange short stories: George Saunders, Kelly Link, Karen Russell. I’d never read Lem, a science fiction legend who reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut. The Cyberiad’s weird little semicomic compendium of robots adventuring across allegorical lands, telling fable-like tales of the universe, felt ancient and futuristic at the same time. Its hints at human cruelty and political injustice felt appropriate. It was an escape, and a reckoning.

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

I used to have fun going to immersive theater, before everything caved in and events disappeared. My favorite immersive theater site, No Proscenium, had a holiday gift guide recommending books that immersive theater-minded people like, and this slim volume popped up. I bought my copy years ago and never read it till now. Carse’s philosophy (he’s a religion professor) explores the difference between the structures of the games we make for ourselves in politics, art and society, and then explores the ways those game rules can shatter in a larger infinite game of life. That’s an improper translation, but if you ever wanted a way of reconsidering the ways that life’s structures can hem you in, maybe pick it up. (Other books since this one have run with the idea of finite/infinite games, and Carse’s ideas aren’t always perfect, but it stuck in my mind for most of the early fall.)

The fall

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Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Science fiction has become reality. The world has become permanently absurd. As the election season loomed, I couldn’t focus. I felt alienated. I turned to fiction. Doctorow has been a great writer for years, and I loved his 2017 book Walkway (read it, and listen to our podcast with him). His 2019 book feels like a chronicle of 2020’s nightmares. Tech enslaving immigrants with DRM. Superheroes trying to battle police violence. People radicalized by vampiric health insurance into becoming terrorists. The rich trying to escape pandemics in superbunkers. It’s all so close to home it feels like it’s knocking on my door. (Doctorow has a newer book, too, Attack Surface, but I’m happy with my choice.)

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In November, I still felt like I was in a self-made labyrinth. Clarke’s new book about a man lost in an impossible neverending house reminded me of House of Leaves from back in the spring. But this is gentler, and colder. It’s more about the mazes we trap ourselves in in our own minds, as the main character realizes he’s begun to forget his own journey. Clarke’s previous book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is a celebrated book I’ve never read. I took on the shorter Piranesi instead, and felt it wrap around me like a game, a haunted poem, a reminder of my lost days. I find it hard to remember what I did this year, now that every week feels the same. For me, it felt like the beginning of therapy.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

I’m not a Middle-earth guy. I never read Lord of the Rings. But I started reading The Hobbit to my son over many nights, now that we both play D&D together online, and watch Adventure Time on TV over and over. Quests, and hope, take on new meaning now that we’re mostly at home every single day. We explore an old world and look for treasure. I’m happy for the journey.

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee

My favorite food book is The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Enough people I know have told me to read this book, that I’m finally reading it. At my rate, I’ll be done by mid-2021.

Weird anthology of fiction earlier this year. Jeff VanderMeer was our last in-person podcast guest a year ago. A Peculiar Peril is a strange kid’s adventure epic. I’ve been meaning to read it with my kid. Post-Hobbit, it might be next.






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