The Books That Moved Me in 2020

Abena Anim-Somuah
9 min readDec 30, 2020

Since I was 3, books have been a constant. I was the kid who read with the flashlight hours after bedtime, sat heads down, and cross-legged through dinner parties, church services, and recitals getting lost in the fictional worlds created by my favourite authors.

In a year full of uncertainty and loss, reading was one of the few things that brought back a certain comfort akin to my loyal security blanket. On days filled with Zoom meetings and incessant pings, retreating into a book was the best reset and easiest space from a less than an ideal year.

Through the years, I’ve kept track of my reads in a myriad of places like worn-out Moleskines, Goodreads reading challenges, out of date Excel spreadsheets, and even Instagram stories. Inspired by my dear friend Katie, I wanted to start curating what I consume in a more permanent place. Here are some books that I found incredible in a year that wasn’t super incredible.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

I truly couldn’t put this book down! I even had to set timers on my phone while reading this so that I wouldn’t stay up all night. Bernardine Evaristo takes 12 Black women and non-binary people at different points in history from the Windrush era to present-day London. With each story, Evaristo tackles an issue relating to making the most out of a patriarchal society. Figuring out your footing as a mixed-race child or trying to find success as a lesbian playwright are just some of the things that the subjects tackle while putting on a brave face. It’s especially exciting how Evaristo manages to connect all the storylines together creating this illustrative world proving that we all have much more in common than we think.

21 Things That You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph

June was a month that opened the world's eyes to the atrocities that systemic racism has inflicted on Black people. With the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, and George Floyd, a lot of us turned to literature and resources to find meaning in a system that didn’t make sense. While learning about the history of Black people around the world, I realized that I didn’t know much about another group that has been persecuted in Canada’s history.

This book was an eye-opening take into the Indian Act, a law passed in 1876 that governs all aspects of Indigenous life. This law has wreaked havoc on the livelihood of Indigenous families ranging from children being separated and placed in residential schools to isolating families onto reservations and not supporting them. In the past few years, the Canadian government has made a commitment to righting their wrongs by establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Act. Highly recommend reading this book if you’re interested in a book that intersects history and policy, particularly from a point of understanding race relations.

Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp

One of my favourite travel traditions is to visit The Four Seasons for dinner or a drink. It’s a tradition that my dad started with me when I was a teenager and I always make the effort to stop at one to feel familiar in a new city. Isadore Sharp, the force behind the Four Seasons, has taken his personal values and transformed them into a hospitality philosophy that has become the global gold standard. Not only is the Four Seasons known for its exceptional service, but it was also the hotel that pioneered thicker towels, fitness centers, and the mini toiletry bottles that are now standard in every hotel.

There were so many instances through Sharp’s career that would have caused any ambitious entrepreneur to give up their lofty dream but nevertheless, he persisted and took each failure or obstacle as an important lesson. Throughout the book, Sharp drops golden gems that are great tools for navigating the hotel business or just getting through life.

Some standouts include:

Ethics is the religion that unites and motivates people.

Four pillars of the business model: quality, service, culture, and brand

The only thing that you can control is your attitude.

The Kitchen: A Journey Through Time by John Ota

Maybe it was because this was one of the first books that I read at the beginning of lockdown or maybe it’s because John Ota is a wholesome man but I have never cried as much as I did reading the kitchen. Ota takes us on a culinary and historical journey across multiple kitchens in North America. From the Southwestern kitchen where Georgia O’Keeffe made meals after arduous hours of painting to the illustrious kitchen at Elvis Presley’s Graceland filled with modern gadgets and gizmos.

I especially loved the letters that John wrote back to his wife after every visit to a kitchen offering succinct details on the architecture but also pointing the things that his wife would have loved has she been there. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is passionate about food, curious about architecture, or just wants a read to bring out the warm fuzzies!

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

I really wasn’t expecting to like this book because I picked it up at the suggestion of a cute guy at a bookstore and I know nothing about surfing. However, this was one of the most delightful reads that got me through quarantine. While I struggled with the surfing imagery, I loved envisioning Finnegan’s travels around the world learning from locals while taking on challenging waves. I especially enjoyed the chapter where he becomes a teacher in South Africa at the height of apartheid where he comes to terms with his privilege and finding his purpose. If you never took that gap year after college and don’t think you will, this book will definitely cure that FOMO.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Anne Friedman

I’ve been listening to Friedman and Sow’s podcast Call your Girlfriend for the past four years so I was incredibly excited to see their lives presented in literary form! Having such a public friendship that yielded a cult following and podcast empire, Aminatou and Anne were going through interpersonal challenges and decided to invest in couples therapy to rediscover their friendship.

Through this phase, they reached out to therapists, psychologists, and their own friends to gain an understanding of the importance of friendship in society. As someone who struggled to make friends growing up, I’ve really come to value my adult friendships and see these people as key pillars in my life. This book affirmed how important it is to invest in friendships in the same manner that society encourages to invest in romantic relationships.

Speaking of friends, my genius pal Gaby Goldberg wrote an amazing piece on modern friendship in the age of the internet that made me go back to this book!

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I’m obsessed with grocery stores. Anytime I visit a new place, I visit the local grocery store to get a sense of how people and how they eat. Benjamin Lorr does a fascinating job describing the intricacies of the grocery world by highlighting the titans of the industry, likeJoe Coulombe of Trader Joe’s fame, and the standards that they have set for receiving our food. Lorr goes undercover at several points in the food chain introducing us to the exploited workers breaking their backs to get the world fed.

Highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in FoodTech or wanting to learn more about the mechanisms of supply chains.

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen

As someone who is fairly ambitious and doesn't know how to really no, I’ve been the victim of burnout on a few occasions. I know other friends experience this as well so I’ve been joking that experiencing burnout as a millennial is like catching a cold. Anne Helen Petersen wrote an exceptional long-form piece in 2019 which was the catalyst for the book.

This was a fascinating read about the political and social shifts that have brought us here. While written from a mostly white, female, and American perspective, Petersen does a great job acknowledging that perspective but also peppers the book with anecdotes from all walks of life on how burnout has affected millennials. From millennial parenting to our relationship with technology, there is this propensity to be doing the most and being productive in all facets of our lives because we need to make do with a system that isn’t built to make us shine.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

This was one of the funniest books that I’ve read. I remember reading this book in a park and laughing so loud that it caused a group sitting next to me to check and see if I was ok. At a time when I was feeling lonely and longing to see my friends, I found a friend in Samantha Irby.

In these pages, I felt like I was catching up with a new friend over drinks telling me about the crazy adventures of going broke, coming to terms with her sexuality, and the adventures of being the cool stepmother. Samantha’s vulnerability exudes this level of confidence that encouraged me to be more open with sharing my faults and embracing the idea that perfection is overrated.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Last but certainly not least, this not so famous guy wrote this book at this not so famous job that he had! Jokes jokes! I was a little apprehensive to put this book on the list because I feel like everyone is reading it but I’ve been so moved by Obama’s words that I will be adding this book to my personal canon. I really enjoyed how Obama described the people that he interacted with during his administration. From the speechwriters and staff who supported him to the diplomats and world leaders that loathed him, you can tell Barry is an observant man who pays attention to the qualities that make people unique.

Additionally, Barack is a man who appreciates the power that books have on shaping our worldviews. Throughout the book, Barack couples his experiences in college with compelling Russian novels that took up his time and his time in the Oval Office by returning to the history books chronicling the decisions of those who were once in his shoes. I won’t be surprised if this book sparks a fire in a new generation of young people ready to make change through politics.

Thanks for reading along! I would love to hear what books moved you this year. If you do pick up these reads, please purchase them from your local bookstore or snag them from the library. Here’s hoping that reading can bring us the same comfort and joy in 2021!

If you ever want a book recommendation, shoot me a DM on Twitter!