You may recall I already posted my best non-fiction books and best fiction books of 2020. But, unlike on previous lists, I didn’t pick a very best book of the year because in my gut I felt it had not yet arrived. Now I have a top three, all of which came after I posted my original list. Here are my top three picks for the year:
David S. Reynolds. Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times. At some point I vowed never to read another Lincoln biography, but this one won me over with its readability and also grasp of the broader cultural and political context. You may know Reynolds from his excellent Walt Whitman book — could there be a better background to write on Lincoln? Conceptual throughout. At 932 pp. every page of this one is instructive, even if you feel sated in Lincoln as I did.
Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. This is like the Lincoln biography — I was convinced I didn’t want to read a thousand pages about her (though I am a fan). And yet I keep on reading, now at about the halfway mark and I will finish with joy. This is one of the best and most gripping biographies I have read, covering growing up as a brilliant young woman in the 1950s, poetry back then, dating and gender relations amongst the elite at that time, how mental health problems were dealt with, and much more.
Jan Swafford, Mozart: the Reign of Love. Self-recommending. A wonderful biographer covers one of the most important humans, to produce the best Mozart biography of all time. You may recall I also had high praise for Swafford’s Beethoven biography from 2014.
Those are my top three books of the year. I think you can make a good case for Joe Henrich’s WEIRD book having the most important ideas of the year in it, but, perhaps because I already had read much of the material in article form, I didn’t love it as a book the way I do these.
Finally, I will note that the “best books lists” of other institutions have grown much worse, even over the last year. A good list has never been more valuable, and please note my recommendations are never done to fill a quota, “achieve balance,” right previous wrongs, or whatever. They are what I think are the best books. Scary how rare that has become.