He shared the ten best books he’s read in 2020, and that inspired me to try to do the same. I did my “five best books of the summer” back in 2018, and I’ve been reading a lot, again, this year, so I’m excited to share. No particular order, except the order to which these things came to mind.
I'd also like to invite you, reader: to share the 10 best books you read in 2020.
(1) Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory by Ian Hacking
This book explores multiple personality disorder, also known as dissociative identity disorder, from a critical mental health or history of science perspective. This means that instead of giving primacy to the assumption that the mental health patient is inherently disordered or wrong, Hacking places some of the burden of responsibility on the psychological profession to provide their claim to authority. Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault are two examples of writers who have documented the ways in which subjective cultural assumptions have become elevated to the level of scientific fact, repeatedly throughout history. Before we allow anyone to make us afraid of someone with multiple personalities—or with any other state of mind—we need to first make that person prove to us that what they’re saying can be trusted as real, objective truth, rather than private opinion raised to the supposed level of truth. Often, psychology is not capable of actually meeting that standard, so it’s important that we take a lot of what psychologists have to say with a grain of salt.
I had the opportunity to study this book with a bunch of really, really, really smart people—I’m in a reading group made mostly of British psychologists and psychiatrists. I’m there as sort of a representative of the lived experience peer leadership community. I don’t have a psychology degree or anything even close to it, but life’s circumstances have put me in a position where it’s critically important for me to keep abreast of the discussions psychologists are having—to try my best to understand, whether I fully understand or not—because eventually, my developing understanding of leadership is going to mean that I’ll have an opportunity or a responsibility to speak the language of psychological discourse as best as I can, in order to make cogent, logical arguments to help protect people who are not necessarily in a position to be able to make these arguments for themselves.
A few days after I finished the book and had the group discussion with the British psychologists, it was a little surreal to be presented with the opportunity to actually put in to practice all this leadership practice effort I had been working on. I had a conversation with a psychologist who is probably a global expert on my condition, borderline personality disorder, but who wagered her thoughts on some issues, multiple personality disorder and gender diversity (trans and enby experience). She was mildly familiar with trans experience, but really not familiar with enby people or the idea that identity could exist outside of a traditional gender binary. She proposed that people who claim to inhabit multiple sites of gender identity suffer from multiple personality disorder. I was able to deliver some really, really, really cogent arguments explaining to her why these ideas were not correct—and introducing her to the world of how Bernie-style millennials and Generation Z people talk about and philosophize about the minutiae of gender and sexuality innovation on their Tumblrs and similar spaces. I explained to her that I really wouldn’t expect a successful mid-career psychologist to be living her life based on what kids in their early 20s have been discussing on Tumblrs, in what is essentially the dark web, but that I would appreciate it if she listened to me and took me seriously as she heard me present some ideas to her for what was possibly the first time in her life she was ever hearing them. She did.
Books can create really magical experiences when they teach you something new or open up new experiences of the world to you. Rewriting the Soul was one such book. One core argument that I remember was that it was medieval Catholic theologians—Thomistic theologians—who really introduced the idea of a unitary soul into Western civilization. Classically, there were many multipartite or multimodalistic models of the soul that were the foundation of Western society, let alone Eastern and other non-Western societies. So there is so much that we are erasing when we try to call it a disorder to have multiple personalities. The Entropy System, on Instagram and YouTube, is one great example of about how people with multiple personalities are representing themselves in liberatory manner, if you’re interested.
(2) We Had No Rules by Corinne Manning
This was a great book of lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual short stories. Notable because every story had a woman or a feminine character as the protagonist. The stories were powerful and compelling—truly 21st century fiction. My favorite story in the selection was “Ninety Days,” a novel featuring a breakup between a lesbian couple. The person who initiated the breakup did so because he realized that he was a man and didn’t feel like it was possible to continue to feel fulfilled in a lesbian relationship. He breaks up with her at the start of the story, and the remainder of the story tracks the other partner’s struggle to come to terms with her ex’s gender. She plays the role of the narrator of the story, and the pronouns that she chooses to use to describe her ex change throughout the story in tandem with her developing ability to understand what he told her about his gender.
Someone close to me told me that she was impressed with the effort I put into learning about enby gender expression, and this story is a big part of why I take it so seriously. One day I hope I may get a chance to read it aloud with her. I may also be writing an essay about it for a nonprofit called Beyond Binary Legal. I’ll keep you posted.
(3) The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
This was really confident, powerful gay fiction. Not really much more than this to say. Read this book if you want to feel confident and powerful about being gay, bisexual, or pansexual. If you want to realize that the threads of gay, bisexual, and pansexual culture run very deeply through human history and that you have a lot to be proud of if one of those terms defines you.
I listened to this book on audiobook while working with an amazing personal trainer (@60day6pack on Insta) to lose fifty pounds. It healed my soul even as the exercise healed my body.
(4) The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini
I had the chance to actually talk to Dr. Cervini in March, April, or May, very early during quarantine. He decided that he was going to make a book and movie club to help us pass the time and boredom of what it felt like to be cooped up inside our houses. I submitted a committed to the first book club discussion and he featured it on his Facebook Live video. It felt awesome.
The Deviant’s War is a great story about some of gay history prior to Stonewall. Dr. Cervini is a very, very, very talented Harvard and Cambridge trained historian. He’s younger than me, and he’s already done so much.
I read this book on the beach in Delaware, Joe Biden’s state, while spending my birthday week with my best friend Nick.
(5) Miles Gone By by William F. Buckley
This is William F. Buckley’s autobiography. It is so beautiful. It articulates conservative values and the love for what is beautiful about America without ever being polemical or even explicitly political. He came to Alta, Utah, to ski sometimes when he was alive, and I enjoyed his descriptions of his trips to Utah.
(6) The Conjure Woman by Charles Chesnutt
I had the opportunity to work at Sewanee: The University of the South this semester as a digital humanities consultant. My boss there actually wrote her PhD thesis partially on this book. It’s an amazing representation of postbellum Southern culture. It honestly blows my mind. Significant parts of the plotline involved freed black persons speaking in the capacity of a narrator, filling pages and pages in the 19th century version of Ebonics or African-American Vernacular English script. I actually struggled to read the script because of how non-traditional the grammar and punctuation was, but my boss could amazingly read it quite fluently. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience of modernist English innovation like that since I read James Joyce’s Ulysses as a teenager.
I listened to about half of the audiobook while driving up to Idaho for Thanksgiving dinner. It made the drive really beautiful.
(7) I Have Something To Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg
Chasten just tells a really good, special story of his experience of coming out and finding his truth as a gay man. I would love to give his book to teenagers in middle school. I wrote down something about Chasten talking about North Faces being part of his high school experience, and how similar that was to the role that North Faces played in my own high school too.
(8) The Future of the Professions by Richard Susskind
This book asserts that emerging technologies are going to completely redefine society until we no longer recognize it anymore. These changes mean that, among other things, the nature of professional life is going to be deeply structurally redefined in the years to come in the 21st century. I’m excited by the new future Susskind describes. I’ve enjoyed spending time thinking about what my role in this new economy is going to be. I had one idea—and that idea has, thankfully and probably, been erased. So I’m looking forward to going back to the drawing board and thinking further about what my role could potentially be in this changing global economy. One prospect that’s been opened up to me is that if I want to I can spend my 30s learning how to become a very talented data scientists. That feels awesome. I’m just finishing up a data science/ computational literary studies analysis of The Official Preppy Handbook that I’m about to email to Lisa Birnbach, the author of the book herself and that I’m quite proud of. I used Python to do the analysis. I never thought that I would possibly be able to do something like this, but here I am doing, amazing 21st century things.
(9) I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
This book explores what ethics are going to look like in a future where robotics are a more extensive part of society than they are right now. It makes a fascinating, good, humanities style introduction to the very complex issues that lie before us in terms of artificial intelligence and its role in the 21st century. Here is a link to President Trump’s December 2020 executive order about the role of American and Constitutional values in tempering the boundaries of artificial intelligence.
(10) The Book of Mormon: Journal Edition translated by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Bette and Wynn, two of my favorite people, gifted this special version of the Book of Mormon to me for Christmas 2019. It really has become one of my most treasured possessions, and when I threw out the majority of my books in April 2020, this was one of the books that I made sure to keep. The purpose of the book is to invite you to feel what Latter-day Saints call the Spirit by pondering and meditating on the things you’re reading in the Book of Mormon as you’re reading them. You can use the extra space in the margins to write the thoughts that come to you as you’re reading the Book of Mormon. This will include your own thoughts, presumably, and perhaps, also, God’s thoughts too. It’s going to be really interesting to observe what my relationship to the Book of Mormon is going to look like in my 30s as a Jew, but depending what your interpretation of Jewish law is, I’ve been Jewish since about 2002, and I was Jewish throughout BYU, and I had a relationship to the Book of Mormon there, too, so maybe there’s a very long, dynamic conversation between me and God that’s about the happen in the 2020s.
I had a very powerful experience of the Spirit, as I understand, very recently, while studying Moroni 1:4 (1:4, not 10:4), a verse about the importance of keeping written records for future generations to read. I told my friend Braden how excited I was about the Spirit, and I also told him other cool stories about the Fruit Heights 10th Ward, how cool it is up there, and how much fun it is and how much I learn every time Bette and Wynn invite me to attend the ward. Braden is this super cool guy who’s about to live on his mission to the Philippines. I think really highly of him, and I’m really glad I met him. He seems to really have a lot to say, and it almost sort of scares the people who are responsible for the pluripotentiality of my BYU friends losing their ability to take the Book of Mormon seriously. With whatever kind of a vote I have in society, I vote very strongly in favor of Braden’s right to continue to develop his talents, express his voice, and change the world. I also vote really strongly in favor of him as a person. I hope he has a fun time on his mission, a fun time in college afterward, and a fun time in literally whatever he chooses to do in life. Becoming his friend has been one of the best parts of my 2020.
Here's an example of a recent verse Braden shared on social media: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.” - Isaiah 54:17. I told him that it was a really awesome verse, and I tried to comment on what it might mean for him as best as I could. I remember in high school when people used to make fun of the Isaiah 50-something chapters at the lunchtable; I actually just hung out with one of those kids again last night a Hanukah party. So it's really special that Braden's able to make Mormonism makes sense to me in a way that makes me feel comfortable talking about Isaiah 54 with him; maybe one day I'll find the words to explain to him why that was a cool moment for me, but also, maybe people in Generation Z don't need to be experts on all the minutiae of all the ridiculous things millennials in Baltimore did during the 2000s. I'm going to recommend the movie "Yes, God, Yes," to him, having just watched it myself on Netflix, but he's going to have to, as my ex-girlfriend Caroline told me, "use [your] imagination."
Something that we learn in the Park City, Utah, synagogue, is to be very proud of your Judaism. It's a paradox. We are at once members of this fancy, wealthy synagogue in this city that everyone around the world thinks is so special. At the same time, when it comes time to actually recite the blessings, like very simply traditional Jewish blessings, many people in the congregation stumble over their Hebrew in ways that are at best cute and at worse, embarrassing. Many people do not know how to say the full blessing over the wine, someone completely butchered the blessing over the Hanukah candles last night, and the rabbi accidentally ended the service early forgetting to stage the blessings over the bread and over the wine entirely. But it's this Judaism, this come-as-you-are Judaism, that you should be proud of. I put Braden's name in Mi Shebeirach last night because he's being bullied by people literally over twice his age right now, and that is not okay. Also put in other people's names, like Miki Forsting, Mrs. Solomon, and some of my roommates. I'm proud that my Judaism includes conversations with Braden about Isaiah in the 2020s just like it included conversations with Jon about Isaiah in the 2000s. It's hard to open even the first page of the Book of Mormon without being confronted with words indicating that God, Heavenly Father, Avinu Malkeinu, cares about each of us very much. So, let's be happy, and enjoy the last three weeks of this beautiful year that Avinu Malkeinu has given us: 2020.