A rare bright side of the endless lockdowns is that I read more in 2020 than I have for a few years. I started off the year with a firm resolution to work through my bookshelves and read all the ones I owned but had never actually opened. This started off well for the first couple of months, but when the first lockdown hit I changed plan, needing to read anything that was completely absorbing. Spring was filled with a rather indiscriminate selection of recent titles grabbed from the library in a panic the day before it shut. Over the second half of the year, I spent most of my time reading fantastical literature, veering between myth retellings and magical realism. I also read many short stories this year; some days I didn’t feel I had the energy or attention span to tackle a novel, and short stories slotted in here perfectly. I didn’t keep a list of these though – maybe something to change for next year.
Nature writing and outdoor/mountaineering literature were scattered in at regular intervals, and I was really struck by the high quality of this year’s published titles. It’s brilliant to see so much talent emerging, and to see writers who’ve been consistent for years still producing incredible books.
Looking back over the list, it certainly feels like I’ve done well this year with the standard of books I read – I would happily re-read almost all of them! I’ve also felt very lucky in how many titles I was able to access from my local library. Although I’ve really missed browsing the shelves, I’ve found a quick search through their online catalogue surprisingly calming when I need an easy escape for a few minutes; planning my next few reads is always a welcome distraction!
I refuse to pick a favourite, so here are the four books I enjoyed most this year, arbitrarily split into four categories just so I could justify talking about them all.
Best Nature Writing: Underland by Robert MacFarlane. I enjoyed this so much that I read in twice in the space of a few months, and then spent the rest of the year frantically recommending it to everyone I knew. This reads stranger and more magical than some fantasy books I’ve read; a twisting and inexplicable dive into areas stranger and more remote than I could have imagined. I found the journey into deep time deeply reassuring somehow, so far removed from the frantic pace of this year, and reading it alongside Emergence Magazine’s fantastic book club during the first lockdown was such a comfort.
Reading MacFarlane’s writing is always a joy – not only for his incredible and lyrical portrayal of the beauty of the natural world, but also for the way he captures the people he encounters, always compassionate and generous, always showing the good.
Best Mountaineering Literature: Winter 8000 by Bernadette McDonald. This is the history of winter ascents of the 8000ers, and it’s utterly compelling. McDonald does an incredible job of highlighting the sheer difficulty of surviving in these conditions, and the single-mindedness and drive of those who choose to go despite – or perhaps because of – the risk. I also really enjoyed journeying through lots of different expeditions rather than a long narrative focusing on just one climb, and watching expeditions change over the years: better equipment, better forecasts, more pressure from social media… definitely a must-read for anyone interested in mountaineering history.
Best Short Story Collection: Diving Belles by Lucy Wood. This is a delightful read and I thoroughly enjoyed every story in here. The stories are delicate snapshots of folklore and the uncanny, intertwined with the every day. The standout one for me was Lights in Other People’s Houses which I still think about pretty regularly (still trying to put my finger on exactly what happened...), although I also loved Countless Stones and Notes from the House Spirits.
Best Fiction: Circe by Madeline Miller. I finally got around to reading this after seeing pretty much everyone talking about it, and it was brilliant to discover every word of hype was deserved. It’s lovely to find a book that settles with a character and follows her for so long; I loved watching Circe change and grow over the years (and decades), and very much enjoyed the host of characters from Greek legends flitting in and out of the story. I ordered Song of Achilles within minutes of finishing this (also brilliant but I was completely unprepared for how devastating it is!).
Best re-read: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Best comfort read: The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
Other books I just really loved and wanted to mention: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty.
And, of course, Piranesi by Susana Clarke, which was a strong contender for my favourite fiction read, and possibly only lost out because I finished it very recently and my head is still lost somewhere in it. An incredible novel.
Predominantly climbing/outdoors literature, mountaineering history and nature writing.