The books that shaped my year

2020 will go down in history as the year that changed everything. Here are ten of the books that shaped my year.

2020 has, on the whole, been a pretty awful year. But if one good thing has come out of this year, it has been rediscovering my love for reading. As a child, every second that could be spared would be spent with a book in my hand. But as life got busier and more complicated, this particular hobby had fallen by the wayside. But this year, reading and the escapism that it brings has proven a vital coping mechanism for dealing with the disruption of the pandemic.

But it has also been incredibly impactful. As I describe in my recent post about the best non-fiction books I’ve read in 2020, this year has been a chance to focus on expanding my horizons and broadening the range of authors and topics I read. And this has taught me a lot about the world around me.

So here are the eight books that have made the greatest impact on my year, and also a couple that, have made me realise, although it may not always feel like it, just how much the world has changed for the better.

Rediscovering my love of reading

Appreciating our healthcare professionals

Despite learning alongside medical students for many years, and hearing from friends about the horrors of being a junior doctor, until reading This is going to hurt I’d never really appreciated the sacrifices doctors make to simply go to work, let alone advance their career. Kay hilariously describes many of his escapades as a junior doctor specialising in Obs & Gynae, as well as some heartbreaking tales of when it goes wrong. This book is really worth a read for anyone considering a medical career, or just wanted to gain insight into the fantastic work of NHS doctors in the UK, particularly at a time when we all need to show our appreciation to all healthcare professionals.

Counteracting fake news

New perspectives

The first book I want to highlight is Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala (2017). Part autobiography and part political history, Natives is the story of UK hip-hop artist Akala, detailing his life growing up as a person of colour in London against the background of decades of racism and discrimination. The increase in visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement this year made me realise just how white my reading list was and lead me to seek out a broader range of voices from which to learn. This book opened my eyes to the challenges of violence, race and class and exemplified how much further our society still needs to go to tackle racial discrimination.

And I’ve also learned it doesn’t have to be non-fiction books and autobiographies that help you learn about other people’s perspectives. Two amazing fiction books I read this year were Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019) and The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (2019). Set across a hundred years, Girl, Woman, Other follows 12 women of colour living in Britain, detailing their trials and tribulations of navigating their rapidly changing worlds. On the other hand, The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells the story of a couple escaping Syria after the destruction of their city and the death of the son, switching between their harrowing journey to the UK and their fight for asylum. Both tell stories of people, particularly women, facing personal difficulties, discrimination and hardship and how they navigate their difficult lives. Although fictional, I found both stories incredibly touching and thought-provoking and was hugely inspired by the bravery the characters showed.

You can read more about these and other fiction books I loved this year in my recent blog post.

Improving my science

Another hugely influential book that I read this year was Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini. I learned so much from this book, and it’s really made me question some of the scientific research I have read that uses racial groupings to draw conclusions. Now when I see papers looking for differences between ethnic groups, I think more deeply about the underlying cause of this variation — in all likelihood socioeconomic differences can explain apparent racial differences. This was a particularly useful insight to have during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK regarding the higher death rates from the virus in people of colour. This was also a great example of clear, concise and enthralling science communication, and if I can learn to write half as well as Saini I’ll be very happy!

I’ve written more about Superior and Natives in my list of the best non-fiction books I read this year, which you can read more about here.

And some problematic books that made me realise just how much the world has changed…

The first of these books is Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter (1975). Having lived in Oxford for the last five years, it felt ridiculous that I’d not read an Inspector Morse book! The first in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock takes place in a village in North Oxford, where Inspector Morse and his side-kick Lewis have to solve the murder of a local young woman. While it was a good story and very easy to read, there were some incredibly problematic comments and characters. From questioning the reality of rape to frequent drink driving, this book has not aged well and was quite clearly written in the 1970s.

The other was a book by the author of the infamous Adrian Mole books, a series I really enjoyed when I was younger. Number 10 by Sue Townsend is a satirical look at early 2000s politics in the UK, with thinly-veiled disguises of popular politicians of the time. Although I can see it could have been impactful and insightful when it was first written, its narrative relied heavily on jokes about a man wearing a dress, and derogatory attitudes towards minority ethnic and working-class people. I think the same issues could have been raised about out-of-touch politicians without resorting to offensive stereotypes. It also included a terrible portrayal of mental health, which as a neuroscientist I found particularly egregious. Overall, the book felt incredibly dated and would certainly not be published today.

This year has truly been a great year for reading, and I can’t wait to keep this momentum going in 2021 — I’m very excited to see what books the new year will bring!

DPhil Student in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford 🔬 Science 🧠 Neuroscience 🎓 University Life