Five For Twenty

Because the only way out is through — an offering of book recommendations that aims to engross and fascinate minds amid the merciless year that is 2020…

by: Patrick Canning

Reading is, by definition, an active activity. Audiobooks notwithstanding, participation is an absolute requirement in consuming a book as your attention and effort are literally the engine of the experience. The only way out, is through.

The same can be said for difficult times. With so many stressors I don’t have the word count allowance to list them all, 2020 has turned out to be a challenging year for all of us, and we still have a ways to go. The good news is, books are here to help.

Reasons for reading are about as numerous as the books available. At times, we want to educate ourselves to better navigate the world around us. Other times, we seek only to escape from the abuses of reality, in an effort to rest, recharge, and try again tomorrow. Regardless of intention, the gifts hidden inside every book can be won only by turning the pages, decoding the letters, and applying liberal amounts of imagination.

So what should you read? The right answer is: whatever you damn well please. But in light of the year we’ve been having, I have a few recommendations. Here are five great options to get you through the rest of 2020:

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan 

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

Scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism are proving to be as stubborn as ever, sticking around in the face of easily available information. Sagan is his inclusive and enlightening self, laying out clearly and entertainingly why pseudoscience can be seductive, and why giving in to it is a dangerous thing. An ability to recognize logical fallacy and cognitive bias is crucial for critical thinking, which is a useful skill for, say, making an informed choice in a presidential election, interpreting societal change, or surviving a global pandemic.

 

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume 

“I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.”

I can’t imagine I’ve ever been this book’s target audience, given the fact I’ve never had to worry about choosing between religions or having my first period, but there’s something soothing about the “low-stakes” of Margaret’s world that provides a compelling, grounding reset to the regular chaos of adulthood. Blume’s writing is funny, honest, and essential as ever, even after 50 years and counting.

 

Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin 

“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

James Baldwin is one of those awe-inspiring writers gifted with an abundance of passion and eloquence, who seems to have the exact right take on a range of complex topics. Luckily enough, he has all the right words to clue the rest of us in too. Reckoning the often uncomfortable truths of Black history in America is not only crucial for much-needed empathy in the present day, but essential if we want to move forward. Baldwin has no problem delivering those truths.

 

Sherlock HolmesSir Arthur Conan Doyle 

“I cannot live without brainwork. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material?”

Why is Sherlock Holmes such a spectacular and enduring figure in literature? My theory is it’s because he’s the greatest superhero ever created. Holmes differs from any other caped do-gooder in that, after we’ve witnessed his acts of supernatural ability, the miraculous is then reverse-engineered back down to elementary clues that any of us could, and probably should, have seen. It’s Superman explaining how he flies (and how you can do it too). With top-tier writing and enough stories to satisfy the most voracious reader, Holmes and Watson are a reliable cure for even the sourest of moods.

 

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson 

“Geologists are never at a loss for paperweights.”

While the Margaret pick was an attempt to zoom in on simple problems, this book goes in the other direction, zooming out to include the infinitely complex and incredibly ancient. Curiously, it creates a similar, calming effect, if for no other reason than it illustrates that humanity has gotten through incredibly tough spots before. Some topics Bryson covers are horrifying, others are inspiring, but all are delivered with the perfect amount of levity and detail to introduce the reader to a more robust perspective on where we came from, and what it took to get to where we are now.

 

There you have it. Five books, each spectacular in their own right, ready and waiting to help you engage with, retreat from, or gain a new perspective on the world around you. Do the work, enjoy the ride, reap the rewards, and share them with others as best you can. Picking up a book may be a small and simple act, but it might just help tip the big scale back in favor of a sane and prosperous future. And if not, at least you can have some fun in the meantime.

 

Patrick Canning is an author who lives in Los Angeles. His latest novel, Hawthorn Woods (Aug. 4, 2020) is about a pretty Midwestern town harboring a lot of big ugly secrets. More at www.patrickcanningbooks.com.

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