What great non-2020 book did you read this year?

Illustration for article titled What great non-2020 book did you read this year?
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

As part of our year-end coverage, we’re once again asking this annual question of our staff and readership: What’s the best non-2020 book you read this year? 

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2 / 9

Motorman by David Ohle

Motorman by David Ohle

Over the years, Ben Marcus has developed something of a personal cottage industry for recommending experimental fiction. He’s written introductions or afterwords for Diane Williams’ Collected Stories, a reprint of Stanley Crawford’s Log Of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, and The Anchor Book Of New American Short Stories, which he edited. At this point, I’ll read any book that bears his name, and this year it was David Ohle’s slim cult novel Motorman. Originally published in 1972 and republished in 2004 by 3rd bed (and now available as a free download through Calamari Press), Motorman is most frequently described as a dystopian/sci-fi detective novel. The story certainly displays such genre markings: There are multiple suns visible from Earth, multiple moons, an isolated protagonist under hypersurveillance, and not-quite-human operatives prowling the city streets. The Pynchonian character names hint at the novel’s absurdist humor: a cardiac physician named Doctor Burnheart, a love interest called Cock Roberta. Yet Motorman’s concerns are far more intriguing than all that. Ohle’s concise, precise prose tightens and loosens around its reader, like someone slapping you in the face just as you’re falling into a dream. Marcus cites Flann O’Brien, Leonora Carrington, Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, and others as comparisons, but I had that wonderful, increasingly rare feeling while reading Motorman—that of never having encountered anything quite like it. [Laura Adamczyk]

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3 / 9

Sword Of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Sword Of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Earlier this year, I felt like it would be worthwhile to get into a multi-book fantasy series with complicated mythology that I could use to distract myself from, you know, everything. So, inspired by the video games and Netflix’s surprisingly good adaptation, I landed on Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books, and while the first one was good and I liked Sapkowski’s clever little twists on fairy tale tropes, I was not prepared for how funny and heartbreaking and generally brilliant the second book, Sword Of Destiny, would be. The rest of the saga loses something as it becomes more plot-focused, but that second book is so damn good that it justifies the entire multimedia Witcher franchise. [Sam Barsanti]

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4 / 9

Forty-One False Starts: Essays On Artists And Writers by Janet Malcolm

Forty-One False Starts: Essays On Artists And Writers by Janet Malcolm

While I began the volume in 2019, I spent most of the winter picking up and putting down Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays On Artists And Writers, a book I’d had laying on my to-read pile for at least five years and finally tackled. Along with being a reading strategy befitting such a title, reading it in fits and starts actually made for an excellent way to savor Malcolm’s knack for the profile piece: Each installment is so richly textured that I usually needed a few days to digest what she had written before digging into the next one. Unsurprisingly, she’s a fantastic assessor of subjects, keeping her voice and opinions present without foregrounding them in an ostentatious manner, even when deploying potentially too-precious conceits like the title piece. Something tells me I’ll be returning to it often over the years when I need a little inspiration. [Alex McLevy]

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5 / 9

Sitcom: A History In 24 Episodes From I Love Lucy To Community by Saul Austerlitz

Sitcom: A History In 24 Episodes From I Love Lucy To Community by Saul Austerlitz

While it’s been essential to escape to the world of fiction this year, I actually had my most enjoyable reading experience of the last 12 months when I finally picked up a nonfiction book that had been sitting on my shelf since Christmas 2018. Saul Austerlitz’s Sitcom: A History In 24 Episodes From I Love Lucy To Community is a mostly chronological overview of the evolution of the 30-minute comedy. There’s the natural progression of more complex storylines and technical developments, but Austerlitz (a pop culture historian who most recently published Generation Friends: An Inside Look At The Show That Defined A Television Era) also peppers the book’s 389 pages with thoughtful insights and through-lines that will make for great dinner party fodder when dinner parties are a thing we can have again. Sitcom is a perfect couch-side read to break up your bingeing of classic sitcoms. [Patrick Gomez]

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6 / 9

The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Hey, you know who’s a great writer? That Joan Didion. At the end of a 10-month period when my personal movements were restricted to however far my bike could take me, I greatly appreciated the travelogue of Didion’s ’60s and ’70s California contained within The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I began with the former (a Valentine’s Day gift selected from another website’s “recommended if you liked Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” list) and worked back to the latter, and its titular account of the worsening tremors at the epicenter of hippie culture clings tightly to my memory. If you can, go for the FSG Classics editions of each; the reproductions of the original jacket designs are as expertly arranged and evocative of a time and place as the words printed between them. [Erik Adams]

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7 / 9

The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire Of The Vanities Goes To Hollywood by Julie Salamon

The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire Of The Vanities Goes To Hollywood by Julie Salamon

I’ve never seen Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities, or read the incendiary Tom Wolfe book it’s based off of. But it will now live, forever, in my memory—in all its realized, unrealized, and self-imposed fucked-up glory—thanks to Julie Salamon’s rightly celebrated tell-all making-of of the infamous cinematic disaster. I picked up The Devil’s Candy after podcast impresario Jesse Thorn recommended it on The Flop House earlier this year, and immediately found it to be exactly as advertised: a swiftly moving account of Hollywood hubris, insecurity, and stunted ambition, all reported with a level of candor and access I’ve never seen the industry allow, before or since (possibly because so many of the people who appear in The Devil’s Candy, Bruce Willis especially, seemed to hate it). In her time on the movie’s set, Salamon managed to pick up pretty much every weird or awkward moment that happened as its budget steadily soared, from the fleeting triumphs, to the workings of DePalma’s they-love-me, they-love-me-not relationship with Hollywood, to a long description of Tom Hanks lovingly disassembling a bowl of snack mix. It’s a wonderful, funny, and very human account of a bad idea gone worse. [William Hughes]

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8 / 9

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness by Tana French

I am super-late to this party, but this is the year I finally got into Tana French by way of The Likeness. People had been telling me about her gritty Dublin-set mysteries for years, and I didn’t even start with number one (Into The Woods). I took The Likeness (number two) with me on my summer vacation and then proceeded to use up all my downtime reading it. In The Likeness, a young detective finds she’s a doppelgänger for a recent murder victim, so she poses as the dead girl and enters the latter’s eccentric group of friends to try to draw out the killer, and I couldn’t put it down until discovering who the culprit was. I’ve read two more of (the fortunately prolific) French’s books since. They’re perfect if you enjoy moody, atmospheric whodunits that will keep you guessing until the very end. Just make sure you have a decent amount of time on your hands. [Gwen Ihnat]

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9 / 9