Submitted by Mark Woodard

There is no denying it: 2020 was a pretty bleak year. The pandemic, social injustice and a prolonged election cycle all combined to flatten our spirits and keep us isolated.

At least it was a good time to read… and read some more. Maybe you had time to finally read War and Peace (probably not), or maybe you decided to binge read a great mystery series. Whatever made you re-embrace the written word, make no mistake… Pandemic Reading was a real thing.

What We Read
The top books checked out at the Gwinnett County Public Library in 2020 were Blindside and The River Murders, two thrillers by the ubiquitous James Patterson. Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Mary L. Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough were the top nonfiction library check outs.

The 2020 bestseller lists were filled with the usual suspects: David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, Terry McMillan, Stephen King, Ken Follett, and Louise Penny. A Time for Mercy, John Grisham’s return to the legal thriller, was probably the biggest seller of the year.

Then there was American Dirt, the Oprah-endorsed novel that was a strong – and controversial – seller; a novel about Mexican migration by Jeanne Cummins, a non-Mexican author (who identifies as “white”). The book was well-reviewed but also generated accusations of cultural appropriation – raising yet again this fundamental question: who is allowed to tell whose stories?

Another top novel in 2020 was nearly two years old: Where the Crawdads Sing, a 2018 book that simply would not budge from the number one slot. The year also saw the return of two grand dames of fantasy fiction: Suzanne Collins returned with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the latest in The Hunger Games series, and J.K. Rowling published The Ickabog, another popular fantasy novel for kids.

The Obamas graced the list most of the year – Becoming, Michelle Obama’s 2018 blockbuster still ruled the charts, and the former President hit the bestseller list at the end of the year with the highly anticipated, well-reviewed first installment of his autobiography, A Promised Land.

Other popular non-fiction titles included Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, Untamed by Glennon Doyle, and The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larsen.

Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Matthew McConaughey, Madeleine Albright and Jessica Simpson published their life stories and readers responded enthusiastically.

Books on racial equality were timely reads, at one point dominating the bestseller charts. Perhaps you read How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi or So You Want to Talk About Race (2018) by Ijeoma Oluo or Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You (2020) by Jason Reynolds and Kendi..

President Trump was a persistent subject on bookshelves this year, with books written by journalists and former Trump associates (Rage by Bob Woodward, The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton and Disloyal by Michael Cohen.) They managed to sell quickly – and then just as quickly disappeared.

Cultural Trends
Book clubs had to familiarize themselves with Zoom or Google Hangout – and learn how to use the “unmute” button – if they wanted to stay active in 2020. Book awards were still popular, if virtual: The Nickel Boys won Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Atlanta poet (and Gwinnett Library guest) Jericho Brown won the prize for poetry, and American poet Louise Gluck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other critical favorites included The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

What We Watched
Popular books that debuted on the big screen (or, more likely, your favorite streaming service) included Hillbilly Elegy, Call of the Wild, P.S. I Still Love You, The Invisible Man, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Then there was The Queen’s Gambit, a previously little known 1983 book by Walter Tevis, that was adapted into a very popular Netflix series. And HBO presented a documentary production of Between the World and Me, based on Ta Nehisi Coates’ profound treatise on race, with Mahershala Ali and Angela Bassett.

In Memoriam
Authors we lost this year included mystery queens M.C. Beaton and Mary Higgins Clark, adventure writer Clive Cussler, sci-fi/fantasy legends Terry Goodkind and Ben Bova, and Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Altima, a popular and frequently banned classic of Chicano literature. December brought news of the passing of British literary giant John le Carré, author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. His greatest creation was George Smiley, a British Intelligence Agent who appeared in many of his books.

Previously published books by authors who died in 2020 returned to the bestseller list, including The Answer Is by Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and The Mamba Mentality: How I Play by basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

Many cultural pursuits like live entertainment, movies and sports were hit hard by the pandemic, which is why reading took center stage. Pandemic Reading was about losing yourself in a good book and for some, Pandemic Reading was literal: older books about public health scares like The Stand (Stephen King), Pandemic (Robin Cook), and The Hot Zone (Richard Preston) were popular reads.

However you met the challenge, we hope the Gwinnett County Public library helped you along the way. Let us know what you read this year. And here’s to even more reading in 2021!