• agnesrobang

Looking Back at my 2020 Reads

We are two weeks into 2021! Though much of my 2021 life seems to be going according to plan (e.g. being productive at work, working out regularly, getting enough sleep every night), it has sadly been lacking in one aspect – reading.

In an attempt to get back into the spirit of reading (and writing!), I am going to take a step back to reflect on my 2020 reads and discuss 3 noteworthy (maybe even life-changing?) books. 2020 was incredibly exciting for the reading part of my brain because it was the first time since 2016 that I was able to very consciously dedicate large amounts of brainpower and uninterrupted time to reading. The lockdown and my year off from school certainly helped limit the interruptions to my reading. I usually use a random number generator to select books off of my shelf, but this year, I grew to better appreciate selecting specific books for specific times and even reading books of a similar theme or the same author in sequence. This allows me to grasp a better feel of a topic I might be keen on learning or an author whose style I am trying to analyze.

Perhaps even more importantly, this year I started to write book reviews. I felt that I was not doing justice to the amazing books I was reading because the details and ideas and emotions felt throughout the reading process were fleeting, and most of what touch me whilst reading are not committed to memory. I am making an effort to be a more conscious reader in my selection of books, in the reading and analyzing, and in my personal documentation of my thoughts and feelings that stem from my reading. Apart from these reviews, I keep a tiny quote notebook with my favorite quotes from the books I read. I love this little notebook because I can very quickly browse through these quotes and immediately get a feel for the book and the message/s it is trying to convey.

Now, let’s go into the 3 books that have touched me (but didn’t get their own solo review!) in 2020:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I read this book as the Black Lives Matter movement was starting to boom. I admit that I have very much to learn about African-Americans and their experiences in the past, present, and future. What I learned in my high school history classes were statistics and timelines on paper, very detached from real stories and real emotion. Slowly, from reading more about the history from primary and secondary sources, reading and speaking with others about their experiences and thoughts, joining discussion groups, and personally visiting historic sites such as the plantations, my understanding of Black lives throughout history is gaining more shape and color.

What unceasingly strikes me, especially with this book, is how history has such a strong force on the push and pull of the present. An American Marriage is a fiction work, but I would not be surprised if the narrative was the real-life stories of some people today. The core of this novel is a love story, where our leading man is wrongfully sentenced for a crime he did not commit.

I found myself incredibly sensitive to some of the events that were described in this novel. It was so beautiful that it hurt, and conversely, it hurt so much in a beautiful way. At the same time, it reminded me of the fragility and importance of life. The novel had some political tones and I felt and understood these to be very powerful. I am personally trying my best to be a good ally to the Black community and sincerely hope that they achieve the fulfilling lives that they deserve.

Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele

The idea of stereotypes has always been very fascinating to me, and especially after my two years as an international student being surrounded by the most diverse group of people I’ve ever been around in my life. Ever since I read the back cover of this book, I knew it would be a read that I would learn a lot from, and I am glad the random number generator chose this book for me to read at what I feel was the exact right moment in my life.

This book is incredibly rich in descriptions about several psychology studies, how they were ideated, how the experiments were performed, and their results. I learned that much of stereotypes is based on our personal unconscious biases that have formed over time. It’s true that globalization is helping people all around the world become more accommodating of people from different backgrounds, but this book helped me understand how, despite a more accommodating worldview, it is still different to eliminate these unconscious biases and just how exceptionally powerful these can be in influencing our thoughts and decisions. I suppose that is the problem with unconscious biases – they’re unconscious, so we don't realize they are there. Now that I better understand unconscious bias, I am very thoroughly convinced in the power of special focus groups, study groups, and affirmative action for people of color.

On a more personal note, I read this book when I felt stuck and unsure of my personal abilities and a potential future career. I believe that I had a pretty mediocre first two years of college, and try as I might, I did not feel that I was doing my best academically. Before I read the book, I had myself thoroughly convinced that perhaps I reached the limit of my scientific ability and that maybe I should explore other tangent fields instead of aspiring to be the mechanical and aerospace engineer I was striving to be.

Reading the book shocked me because I found myself in the descriptions on the pages. I recognized my own personal anxiety about my intellectual abilities and doubts about whether I was in a place where I felt that I belonged and could succeed. I recognized my own personal mistakes. For example, a mix of my lack of confidence in self and my defiance to bend my personal work and study ethic made me inflexible to the idea of studying in groups, when, in fact, science shows that this could have greatly helped me be more efficient in studying and parsing through large amounts of new information.

In summary, reading this book convinced me to consciously remember unconscious biases in every thought or judgment that I deal with and the potential that these unconscious biases have. to sway judgment Another takeaway I had was to have more confidence in myself and in others. Everybody around me regardless of gender, race, and background is achieving amazing things, and they also have the potential to reach even higher heights. It is best to have faith in people and what they can do.

I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

I Am The Messenger is a novel about a seemingly pathetic individual Ed Kennedy. Ed Kennedy is a cab driver that faked his age to get a job. His friends are much like him. They’re not all taxi drivers, but they are the type that society has a hard time imagining a bright future for. Ed plays cards often with his friends, and suddenly he starts getting individual playing cards in the mail. On the cards are addresses or riddles, and Ed goes to these places and finds people that he helps.

The book is somewhat a bildungsroman and at times a reflection on life. I picked up this book as a light intermission read between two heavier books, and I loved it so much that I read the book in a day. The message of the book is quite simple – that a single person, no matter how seemingly pathetic or inconsequential, can make big changes in their community from small actions that come out of the goodness of their heart. It was such a feel-good book and will definitely be a book that I will think about especially at times when I feel most powerless.

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