2020: My Year in Reading


I read 41 books this past year, which is one more than the least amount I’ve read of any year since I started tracking (2014 only had 40). Honestly, this is more than I thought it would be because… well, because 2020. This was not an easy or normal year. 22 titles were assigned to me by Booklist to review.

2020 is the first year in the past six that I didn’t track my reading in depth. I kept a list of titles but I didn’t record start or end dates, or the number of days spent on each book. I explained why I chose not to keep a detailed reading list anymore in a previous post.

Now it’s time to assess: Was this a good choice?

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Thoughts on Anger, My Depression, and Politics

I’ve spent much of my adult life thinking about anger. When my major depression hit for the first time in college, it manifested in two primary ways: almost complete numbness interspersed with explosions of anger. I developed a bad temper. I’d fly into rages for very little reason, over the tiniest of things. I did incredible damage to my relationships, hurt my friends and loved ones, but I couldn’t make myself stop.

This lasted on-and-off through most of my 20s. And there have been a couple resurgences since then.

Looking back, it’s obvious my temper was a projection: I was angry at what was happening to me and my inability to fix it. I was angry that my anger was completely useless against my own mind. I couldn’t control any of what was happening in my head. My depression rendered me powerless.

Anger felt powerful. I couldn’t control my depression but anger showed I could still have some impact, some agency, in the world, even if that impact was destruction and pain. It was all a lie: I had no control over any of it, but the lie felt better than sliding entirely into numbness. I had to grasp at something because the only other alternative was to give up.

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The Moral Obligation of Literacy & Access

In my years working as a librarian in the Digital Branch at the Kansas City Public Library, one thing I witnessed over and over again was the need to pair digital access with teaching digital literacy. It didn’t do any good to give patrons access to tools they didn’t know how to use. People need to develop digital literacy in order to use the tools we provide access to.

To resort to metaphor:

When someone is lost, it doesn’t help to hand them a map if they don’t know how to read it.

Then I read Reader Come Home by Maryanne Wolf and came across this passage:

[T]he study was to investigate the effects of providing books and digital access in libraries to underserved children and families. The results ran counter to every hoped-for outcome: simply providing access to digital tools to underserved children could actually have deleterious effects, if there was no participation by parents. The children in that study did significantly worse on tests of literacy than other children did, and the disparities between groups increased after technological devices were introduced. … This study highlights a pivotal and persistent mistake in the use of digital technology for education. The positive effects of digital learning cannot be reduced to issues of access or exposure.

It actually does harm to provide access without guidance. It’s worse than simply not helping. It would be less harmful to not provide access at all.

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Empathy, Prejudice & Structural Inequity

I’ve written often about the importance of reading for the development of empathy. I believe developing empathy is essential to address the deep divides and problems we face in our society.

But I also know you can’t fix structural inequity and intolerance by addressing individuals. If your strategy to overcome prejudice is to change the minds of prejudiced people, then you’re going to fail.

These convictions contradict each other. But I’m certain both are correct and necessary.

In his speech for the Book Award Celebration at the 2020 ALA Virtual Conference, Jerry Craft said:

“We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves.”

This perfectly encapsulates my division over this issue.

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The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice

This post by Jasmine Guillory is wise, wonderful, and true. Stop now and read it if you haven’t already.

Reading Anti-Racist Nonfiction Is a Start. But Don’t Underestimate the Power of Black Fiction
(Time, posted online on June 30, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020)

Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.

It brings to mind a story that has become core to who I am and how I see the world:

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F*ck the Books

Now that I have your attention with my intentionally confrontational, click-baity post title…

Last month (May 2020), my library reopened our book returns in preparation for limited reintroduction of material circulation in our community. The course of the pandemic in our service area was on a trend that indicated it would be safe to do so. The best data we have suggests we need to let returned materials sit for 72 hours before processing them back into the collection, onto the shelves, and into patrons’ hands.

Which is why a few of our branches have giant piles of books dumped on the floor:

Pile of books on a library floor

(From this news item: “Johnson County libraries busy after restarting dropoffs, holds and pickups,” Carey Wickersham. Fox 4, Nexstar Media Group, Inc. https://fox4kc.com/tracking-coronavirus/johnson-county-libraries-busy-after-restarting-dropoffs-holds-and-pickups/. Accessed June 18, 2020.)

Images like this one were presented in the media as my library reopened our book returns. It caused a minor furor online: people were offended we would treat books so callously. There were outraged comments on Twitter. Even the article this image is taken from can’t seem to avoid a slightly judgmental tone:

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Vocational Awe

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about vocational awe. There’s been significant research done on this in multiple fields and it’s a legitimate issue. Our work as librarians is important and worth working hard to deliver. It’s right and good for us to take pride in our commitment. Our desire to serve motivates us to do the best work we can for the sake of others. We can make the world a better place. Our respect for our work, our desire for doing it, empowers us. It gives us deep satisfaction and helps people in our communities. That’s a good thing.

But our desire to serve makes us vulnerable, too. People can leverage it to manipulate us in ways we shouldn’t allow. I’ve been guilt tripped into doing work I shouldn’t have had to do, without sufficient compensation, because I wanted to be helpful. Our desire to do good can be used against us. It happens and it’s a problem. Our work is important but not enough for us to risk our health or well-being. It’s not important enough for us to work so hard for insufficient compensation.

We all deserve appropriate pay for our work, a healthy work-life balance, and safe working conditions. But it can be a challenge for those of us driven by a desire to serve to draw and hold appropriate lines when our communities depend on the services we provide. We should be proud and celebrate what we do! But we shouldn’t get lost in it.

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On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind

The opinions and positions expressed on this blog are always my own and should never be assumed to express the opinions or positions of my employer nor any other party other than myself.

I want to talk about something that happened where I work and how it changed my perspective. I want to talk about some lessons learned.

My employer, the Johnson County Library in Johnson County, Kansas, has furloughed 58% of our staff. We did this as part of a wider furlough strategy undertaken by the Johnson County Government.

I support this course of action. I think this was the right decision both for our staff and for the library as an organization. No one has lost their jobs. Everyone remains employed and retains their health insurance and other benefits. All furloughed staff are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Many of you read and responded positively to a tweet thread I posted last month near the beginning of this pandemic, in which I very strongly expressed my opposition to any form of unpaid leave or layoffs for staff. The fact that I now support furloughing JCL staff probably screams of hypocrisy.

I want to explain why I changed my mind. For all my grandstanding on principle and my moral certainty, this is a complex situation which makes practical action messier than I want to admit. I’m a big fan of lessons learned and I learned some difficult ones through this.

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The Case for Reading Fiction

I love this article from the Harvard Business Review! It’s another article documenting the neurological, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. There have been several such over the past few years.

The Case for Reading Fiction” by Christine Seifert
Published by Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020

I love that we’re beginning to accept reading fiction as something that’s good for us on a deeper level than just entertainment and escapism (not that entertainment and escapism aren’t valuable in-and-of themselves!) Complex fiction builds empathy, connection, social intelligence, and theory of mind. It boosts creativity, both for new ideas and for problem solving. It improves our ability to grapple more productively with the complexity of the world we live in.

I love that businesses are beginning to realize the value of having employees who are educated beyond the requirements of job training.

And it’s not just reading fiction which presents these benefits: it can come from powerful storytelling in any format. Oral stories, theater, movies and television, music, visual arts. All of it, so long as it’s complex and nuanced. Stories are how we know who we are, how we’re both the same and different from one another, and how we relate to our world.

But this article also frustrates me. This is where I turn into a curmudgeon and tell you all:

I told you so!

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2019: My Year in Reading

All of the data that follows was collected by me throughout the year using a combination of Google Sheets and Google Calendar. This year, I analyzed my reading using both the start and finished dates for each title: for example, I totaled how many books I started reading each month and also how many I finished each month. I calculated separate averages for both and found the overall totals work out the same either way. Average days to read titles are based on the number of days actually spent reading each title, and not necessarily the full span from starting date to finished date.

A complete list of all the books I read in 2019 is at the bottom of this post.


For a list of my favorite books I read this year, go here >

I participated in #LibFaves19 on Twitter. See my selections here >

I didn’t create a “Least Favorites” list this year. I started to but then realized I enjoyed even my least favorite books too much to justify such a list. It was a good year for reading!

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