2020: A Year’s Reading

Taking part in communal reads on Twitter turned out to be one antidote to the isolation of lockdown. The first was Robert Musil’s hefty modernist novel The Man Without Qualities, which is incomplete, and totally loses balance when a new character is introduced after 725 pages. I loved it, from start to abrupt halt on page 1130. I went on to communal read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, The Tunnel by William Gass, Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (already one of my favourite books), and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The Tunnel was a battle made easier by having others to share it with. I didn’t get on with The Turn of the Screw at all. 

In January, I listened to the audiobook of John le Carré’s Agent Running in the Field, affectingly narrated by the author.  In March I read Jan Morris short but poignant A Writer’s House in Wales. And as I write, I’m midway through Barry Lopez’s Horizon, which I’d been intending to read for months.  We lost all three of these great writers at the end of 2020, just when we needed them most. 

We also lost Alison Lurie in December. Although American, her novels seem to fit more comfortably into the British tradition, with echoes of David Lodge’s campus comedies. But that’s to sell her short – her voice is strong and distinctive. Similarly, Ivy Compton-Burnett ploughed her own furrow. In later photographs she looks terrifyingly severe, yet her work is laced with humour, and is utterly unmistakeable. 

I’d read plenty of Philip Roth before and after his death in 2018. With Blake Bailey’s anticipated biography due in 2021, I set myself the task of filling in the gaps. Many of the gaps turned out to be Essential Roth. I was particularly blown away by The Counterlife and Nemesis

As in previous years, I tried to tick off a classic or two every month. Moby-Dick was one of the highlights; far from the fusty tome I expected. I was already so familiar with the book, I’d wondered if it was worth devoting the time to. Of course it was. Similarly, I thought I already had Kafka pretty much covered, despite never having read him. Kafkaesque turned out to be much a more nuanced concept than I’d presumed. I went on to read Benjamin Balint’s engaging account of the prolonged battle over Kafka’s legacy. Truly Kafkaesque. 

Of the 2020 publications I read, I especially enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s immersive Hamnet, and Cary Davies’s The Mission House. Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies, which begins with a group of friends travelling  to Manchester in the 1980s for a gig, especially connected with me – I did exactly that in 1985. I even went to one of the venues featured, and like O’Hagan’s characters I made no provision for accommodation.

It’s difficult to single out one book from the 161 I read this year. Many are still settling, and it’s too soon to arrange them in any kind of order. However, the book that surprised me the most was probably Jan Mooallem’s This is Chance! I’ve been to Alaska several times (below, on the Mendenhall Glacier in 1995), and so I was already well aware of the devastating 1964 Anchorage earthquake –  at 9.2, the second largest ever recorded. Mooallem’s inspired choice was to frame the story in structural elements borrowed from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which was being staged at an Anchorage theatre at the time), and to focus on one person in particular, Genie Chance, a local radio reporter.  In doing so, he pushes the bounds of non-fiction. It’s my book of the year.


AB – Audiobook

R – Reread


  1. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
  2. Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski
  3. Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette
  4. Think, Write, Speak by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
  6. Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré (AB)
  7. Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg
  8. John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds by Eileen Warburton
  9. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (AB)
  10. Lies of Silence by Brian Moore
  11. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (AB)
  12. Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier
  13. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (AB)
  14. The Military Orchid by Jocelyn Brooke
  15. My Struggle 4: Dancing in the Dark by Karl Ove Knausgaard (AB)
  16. Detective Story by Imre Kertesz


  1. Elephantoms by Lyall Watson
  2. My Struggle 3: Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard (AB)
  3. Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton (R)
  4. The Peregrine by JA Baker (AB)
  5. Weather by Jenny Offill
  6. Middle England by Jonathan Coe (AB)
  7. The Flag by Robert Shaw
  8. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (AB)
  9. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (R)
  10. A Certain Curve of Horn by John Frederick Walker
  11. Independence Square by AD Miller
  12. The Snow was Dirty by Georges Simenon (AB)


  1. Ahab’s Rolling Sea by Richard J King
  2. Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd (AB)
  3. The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
  4. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (AB)
  5. You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr
  6. Homo Faber by Max Frisch
  7. My Struggle 6: The End by Karl Ove Knausgaard (AB)
  8. Scenes from a Childhood by Jon Fosse
  9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  10. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris
  11. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  12. The Last Resort by Alison Lurie


  1. The Inheritors by William Golding (AB)
  2. The Bass Saxophone by Josef Skvorecky
  3. Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns
  4. Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (AB)
  5. A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
  6. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (AB)
  7. The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
  8. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (AB)
  9. Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov (R) (AB)
  10. Journal of a Disappointed Man by WNP Barbellion
  11. Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo
  12. The World According to Garp by John Irving (R) (AB)
  13. Yesterday Came Suddenly: An Autobiography by Francis King
  14. The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol (R) (AB)
  15. A Heritage and its History by Ivy Compton-Burnett
  16. The Counterlife by Philip Roth (AB)


  1. Fifty-Two Stories by Anton Chekhov
  2. The Needle by Francis King
  3. Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (AB)
  4. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (AB)
  5. The Doll by Ismail Kadare
  6. Avalanche by Julia Leigh
  7. The Edge of Darkness by John Prebble
  8. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (AB)
  9. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (R) (AB)
  10. Disquiet by Julia Leigh
  11. Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth (AB)
  12. Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido
  13. Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth (AB)
  14. Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont
  15. The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth (AB)
  16. The Trial (Restored Text) by Franz Kafka (AB)
  17. The Natural by Bernard Malamud (AB)
  18. The Castle (Restored Text) by Franz Kafka (AB)
  19. Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen


  1. Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor
  2. The Humbling by Philip Roth (AB)
  3. Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint
  4. They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell (AB)
  5. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  6. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (AB)
  7. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (AB)
  8. Nemesis by Philip Roth (AB)
  9. Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen
  10. The Great American Novel by Philip Roth (AB)
  11. Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
  12. The Tunnel by William Gass
  13. Indignation by Philip Roth (AB)
  14. Actress by Anne Enright (AB)


  1. True Grit by Charles Portis
  2. The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse (AB)
  3. The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke
  4. Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (R)
  5. A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson
  6. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  7. Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh (AB)
  8. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (AB)
  9. The Glory Game by Hunter Davies
  10. Operation Shylock by Philip Roth
  11. The Smell of Football by Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone
  12. Trilobites & Other Stories by Breece D’J Pancake


  1. Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson
  2. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin
  3. Apeirogon by Colum McCann (AB)
  4. A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea
  5. Apartment by Teddy Wayne
  6. Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith (AB)
  7. Silence by Shusaku Endo
  8. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (AB)
  9. Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino
  10. Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson
  11. The Mission House by Carys Davies
  12. Summer by Ali Smith


  1. Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones
  2. Echo on the Bay by Masatsugu Ono
  3. Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard (AB)
  4. Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall
  5. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (AB)
  6. Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
  7. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (AB)
  8. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (AB)
  9. The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
  10. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (AB)


  1. The Facts by Philip Roth (AB)
  2. Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (AB)
  3. New York Stories by John O’Hara (AB)
  4. Elders and Betters by Ivy Compton-Burnett
  5. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (AB)
  6. Interior, Chinatown by Charles Yu (AB)
  7. BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara (AB)
  8. The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (AB)
  9. The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy
  10. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (AB)
  11. Ex Libris by Michiko Kakutani
  12. Love by Roddy Doyle (AB)
  13. Snow by John Banville (AB)


  1. How’s the Pain? By Pascal Garnier
  2. The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies (AB)
  3. At Night the Blood is Black by David Diop
  4. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (AB)
  5. Prefecture D by Hideo Yokoyama
  6. Friend by Paek Nam-Nyong
  7. A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines (AB)
  8. The Manticore by Robertson Davies (AB)
  9. World of Wonders by Robertson Davies (AB)
  10. Stillicide by Cynan Jones
  11. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (AB)
  12. A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet


  1. A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma (AB)
  2. Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son by Adam Hochschild
  3. The Dying Animal by Philip Roth (AB)
  4. Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri
  5. Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley (AB)
  6. This is Chance! By Jon Mooallem
  7. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (R) (AB)
  8. The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada
  9. My Life as a Man by Philip Roth (AB)
  10. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
  11. A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (AB)
  12. Horizon by Barry Lopez (AB)
  13. Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene by Richard Greene