12 of my Favourite Books I Read in 2020

As frequent readers of my Goodreads will know, 2020 was a great year for my reading. I went from reading 33 books in 2019 — my previous record, and something that I was proud of at the time — to a likely 115 this year (although there are 2 I wouldn’t count and 2 I reread so it’s closer to 111 unique, book-length books). I thought I’d cap my year off by presenting my favourite from each month, largely because I wanted to write something but not put too much effort into researching it. This semester was very long.

January — Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam

The first couple of months were fairly dry for me and so I expected them to be the easiest to choose from. It turns out though that I only read bangers in January. Ten Cities that Made an Empire, The Four Loves, and All Quiet on the Western Front are probably in the top quarter of the whole 114, and Sowell’s Basic Economics isn’t bad either.

February — Dynasties and Interludes by Lawrence LeDuc et. al.

February was a little more barren than January; the only other text I considered here was the Nicomachean Ethics. While Aristotle’s work is probably my favourite between the two, I had to give Dynasties the nod because it’s more interesting if I write about something you haven’t heard of. This book is the best primer on Canadian political history I’ve read, covering the electoral strategy and decisions made by every administration since 1867. I particularly enjoyed their account of the Diefenbaker years, as I think his coalition is the most improbable and most interesting of the bunch (though sadly they believe him to be a mere interlude and not a dynasty). Worth checking out if you ever wanted to learn about Canadian history.

March — The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

What can I say, I’m a fanboy. I could hardly put this one down once I started and so I ended up finishing it in one day. Its existence alone is testimony to Christ’s victory, since Lewis feels so secure in mocking the devil that he’s willing to write a book doing so. Its real usefulness though, and I think Lewis’s aim, is to examine the reader and show him where he is acting as the demons want. Maybe I’ll reread it when I’m preparing for confession sometime as I’m sure it would make a good examination of conscience.

April — The Confessions by Augustine

It was a choice between this and the Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine for me. While I love the Essay now and would probably rank it ahead of the Confessions, 8 months ago I did not know enough about Newman or theology to appreciate it fully.

May — The Major Works of Anselm of Canterbury

I was very ambitious in my theological reading at this time, it turns out. A month can do a lot to you though, and I got a lot more out of reading Anselm for the first time than I did Newman (though Newman had the last laugh since I wrote 2 papers on him and have been reading his major works as I go). Anselm is called the Magnificent Doctor, and reading his works really lets you appreciate why that is. It took me a while to get something like the Ontological Argument, but once I got it I kept thinking about it for a whole week afterwards.

June — Radical Tories by Charles Taylor (journalist, not philosopher)

Edging out a few excellent contenders is a book that sparked a major interest for me in Canadian intellectual history. Taylor was dissatisfied with the movement conservatism of his day (plus ça change) and so he decided to interview every Tory intellectual he could track down to try to find an alternative. What he found was that uniquely Canadian conservatism of Stephen Leacock, George Grant, Donald Creighton, and others. What I found in reading it was Canada’s connection to the premodern world and a long reading list that I have been working my way through (I’m currently reading Creighton’s 1200 page biography of John A. Macdonald, who is the centre of Toryism in Canada).

July — Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

Leacock was one of Taylor’s Radical Tories, and though this book is not explicitly political, it is the right place to start if you are trying to understand Ontario Conservatism. There is a meme that goes around about being homesick for a place that doesn’t exist anymore and that’s how I feel reading this book. I live in Kanata, which is former small town Ontario; in fact there are still plots of farmland being bought up around me and packaged off to build condos and suburban homes. Leacock’s Mariposa is a place I’ve never been and will never know because we bulldozed it to build the Real Canadian Superstore. And yet, enough of it filters through the asphault of the 417 for me to recognize it for what it is: home.

August — Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan

Finally decided to see what all the McLuhan buzz was about and I wasn’t disappointed. The Medium is the Message.

September — The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I wanted to write Sybil for the meme but I couldn’t justify it ahead of an actual masterpiece. For about a week (this is a 1,000 page book) I was in Dostoyevsky’s Russia taking in the sights and sounds and coming to know the four men around whom the plot is centered. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so spiritually satisfying (aside from where Dostoyevsky says the Jesuits are plotting to turn Russia into a socialist country) — you probably don’t need me to tell you that this is an incredibly Orthodox book, but it’s an Orthodoxy that is forced onto the back foot and responding to a modernizing Russia as Alexei is forced to respond to his nihilist brother. I am not going to do the book justice if I continue so I’ll end it here. Don’t be put off by the length; sometimes long books are worth the slog.

October — A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

Speaking of long books, Charles Taylor the philosopher has a treat of one in A Secular Age. I would say that this is a work of history first and foremost: it plots the decadence of Christianity in the West since the Reformation and shows all of the developments along the way that made us more secular. Taylor then moves into his appraisal of the modern world with all of the dissatisfaction he’s known for (he calls modernity a ‘malaise’). I will probably revisit this one next year too.

November — Loss and Gain by John Henry Newman

Joyce called Newman the finest writer of English prose there ever was, and this book, more than any of his other works, is what makes me believe him. Loss and Gain might just be my favourite novel. It’s many things: a semi-autobiographical account of Newman’s conversion; (although Reding is not meant to be read as him) a satire of religious partisanship; an exploration of Newman’s Oxford; and a taunt against the Anglican establishment who chased Newman out of the public square after Tract 90. Above all though, it is one of only two books on this list that managed to choke me up a little. When Reding kneels in front of the Passionists and asked to be received into the Church you feel like you’ve been on the journey with him, and alongside him you will give glory to God.

December — A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The runner up in December was Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities. Intellectually that has affected me more, but it doesn’t come close to what Dickens does emotionally. It’s a testament to his abilites as a writer that I knew exactly how this was going to end from minute one and yet I was still almost moved to tears by Scrooge’s conversion.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.