Best Books of 2020: Old Favorites

Happy New Year! I mentioned a few days ago that I completed my 2020 Reading Challenge on the Goodreads website. I’d set my goal at 130 books read during the year, and I reached that goal, with just a few days left in the year. I may still finish another book today, so the number could still go up to 131.

I’ve been asked which was my favorite of every book I read this year. Favorite, singular? Just one? I’ve never understood how a person can choose one favorite out of a large number of books. In honor of New Year’s Eve today, I decided to go through the 130 titles and choose five favorites of all the books I read in 2020. And then I realized I couldn’t do that either. No way I could choose only five total. At the very least, I realized I needed separate categories for books I re-read this year and books I read for the first time this year.

In other words, this could have been a very long post. So I’m listing here my favorite re-reads of 2020. These are books I’ve read in the past that I read again this year. In fact, I’ve read these five many, many times over the years. They are in alphabetical order by title.

TOP 5 RE-READS OF 2020 (in alphabetical order)

  • The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
  • Island in the Sea of Time, by S.M. Stirling
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
  • The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

So, what do they have in common? First, they’re all fiction. My list of all books read this year includes plenty of nonfiction, too. And I’m sure some nonfiction will appear on my list of favorite new books read in 2020. But these, the old favorites, are all fiction. I think I am less likely to re-read nonfiction, even nonfiction that I found fascinating, informative, or fun. I suppose I read nonfiction for information. Once I’ve absorbed the information, there is generally less reason to read it again. With fiction, on the other hand — fiction that I find worthy of re-reading — I feel I get more out of a book each time. I’m not saying I never re-read books about history, science, or biography, but I know I’m more likely to re-read fiction.

What else do they have in common? Strangely, I’ve just noticed that all of them features islands as prominent settings. That’s a bit weird. I don’t have a particular penchant for books about islands; at least, I don’t consciously seek them out. Still, that’s where these novels are set.

  • The Golden Compass takes place in an alternate version of Oxford (the British Isles) and Svalbard, a group of islands north of Scandinavia.
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins is about an indigenous girl who is left alone for many years on a small island off the coast of California, after the other villagers leave on a ship to be relocated to the mainland.
  • The plot of Island in the Sea of Time centers around Nantucket Island and its 20th-century inhabitants being plunged back into the world of the Bronze Age.
  • The Mists of Avalon is a King Arthur retelling from the point of view of the female characters, which means it’s set in various locations around the British Isles, and on the mythical, magical island of Avalon.
  • And A Wizard of Earthsea takes place on the islands of a fictional archipelago known as Earthsea, with some of the islands known for wizards, dragons, and other fantasy elements.

Clearly, another common thread among these five novels is speculative fiction. Three of the books are fantasy. Island in the Sea of Time is alternate history, which is a subset of science fiction. Only one, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is realistic fiction — specifically, historical fiction. I do tend to read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. And historical fiction, too. So the genres represented here are not surprising.

None of them are recent releases; all were published from the 1960s through the 1990s. The oldest, Island of the Blue Dolphins, came out in 1960. The others, in chronological order: A Wizard of Earthsea 1968, The Mists of Avalon 1982, The Golden Compass 1996 (though it came out a year earlier in the U.K., under the title Northern Lights), and Island in the Sea of Time 1998. I don’t consciously seek out older books; I also read many much newer ones this year. I guess the fact that these are all longtime favorites of mine meant they would skew older.

Of these five books, Island of the Blue Dolphins is shortest, at 192 pages. The Mists of Avalon is longest, at 876 pages. (Your mileage will vary with different editions.)

In all of 2020, the month of April was my most productive month for reading. I read 17 books in April. I see that I read fewer books, in general, before the covid19 lockdown began in March (not surprisingly, since I’ve been mostly stuck at home since then). And I read fewer books during the months that our house was thrown into chaos by the weirdness of the school year, first with getting my son through the end of a surreal senior year of high school and graduated, then with helping him move into his college dorm, and then driving him back and forth to the university several times, when covid cases skyrocketed and the school sent students home. Twice. Not surprisingly, I found more time to read during the less drama-filled times of a year that was, well, particularly dramatic.

In any case, in another post, I’ll explore my favorite books of the ones I read in 2020 that were new to me.

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