The Books That Brightened My 2020

Ioana Andrei

Photo by Valentin Antonini on Unsplash

I learned how to read when I was 5.

For many moons, I indulged in this skill by speaking names of stores and travel destinations out loud. I must have enjoyed the sound of my own voice.

I was informed that, "one day, Ioana," reading would serve me well at school. Little did my family know that, school or no school, I would reject the company of books for years to come.

In the twelve years I was publicly educated by the state, I recall seven books I actually enjoyed reading. These are Harry Potter and -

  1. the Philosopher's Stone
  2. the Chamber of Secrets
  3. the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. the Goblet of Fire
  5. the Order of the Phoenix
  6. the Half-Blood Prince
  7. the Deathly Hallows

Suffice it to say they were not on the school curriculum.

The books I was told to read in my literature class were exclusively written by privileged white men, who by then had been long dead. Their idea of intellectual entertainment amounted to depiction of rural life, punishment of adulterous women, and keeping everybody in their lane.

As an 18-year old Eastern European thirsting to ride the information wave of the West, I rejected my domestic reading duties sternly. By the time my final exams came, I'd completed about 20% of my reading list.

I got a prescription for anxiety pills, learned other people's opinions off by heart, passed my lit exam with a 92%, and boarded an economy flight to the Great British isle.

I promptly learned that folks here are very fond of lanes.

However, to my great relief, the only reading list in this chapter of my life was Amazon's recommendations.

It's been 5 years since I started my love affair with books. I stepped into it tepidly, the same way I did into the Black Sea when I was two years old and wasn't sure if it would swallow me whole.

I haven't looked back since.

When I was 24, I got a job with a 1-hour commute from Central London to the outskirts. Whilst most do it in reverse order for housing cost reasons, I was in for some serious economic benefit myself.

On a half-empty 8 am train, my mind was starving for stimulation. At 6 pm, I needed a wind-down. For the two years I held that job, I gobbled up a book every couple of weeks. Funnily enough, "The Girl on the Train" got finished in 5 days.

I became hooked. I experimented with fiction, non-fiction, and autobiographical works. I discovered I liked dissecting lives that were vastly different from mine. I enjoyed having my views changed.

Soon, my benchmark for a great book became, "Can it teach me something new and surprising?"

These days, I pose an additional question:

Did it change my life?

Though I like my drama, I believe that big changes can pass unobserved.

Something someone said. An Aha! moment. A moment of acute empathy.

We've become so accustomed to hierarchy and abstract goals that we forget the richness within a single day.

The world has no shortage of great books. If I read one every couple of weeks, I'd have no problem saying my life gets changed every day.

Isn't that worth aspiring to? Leading a new, more enlightened life every minute of every hour?

Besides, what else is one to do under lockdown, whilst unemployed and with dwindling hope?

One of the biggest blessings of this year was having something to read.

These were my favorites.

1. The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron

How it changed my life:

It's more than a book (though thank goodness it comes in this format and not just as Julia Cameron's $150 course).

It's a way of life.

It spoke frankly, poetically, yet practically about creative tools. It set out 12 weekly milestones, each digging away at the apprentice's blocks and defenses.

It taught me how to pray again. How to dream, hope, and believe.

It got me thinking about my deepest fears, my wildest dreams, and how I'm stopping myself from being happy. It got me into candles, colors, crafts, and gifts.

It plunged me into writing.

Experimentation is the name of the game, according to Julia. There's no creativity without it.

Just as a child picks up and points at everything to understand the world, we as creators must attempt things for the joy of doing rather than the expectation of a result.

“Serious art is born from serious play.” - Julia Cameron

2. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

How it changed my life:

The scene felt out of a Mark Twain novel. Pre-modern rural America, swamp, segregation.

The rhythm was reminiscent of the Gone With the Wind movies. First half: slow, breathy, taking up space. Second half: turbulent, fast-paced, operatic.

This novel changed my perception of both the craft of writing and the lives of outcasts.

Delia Owens seemed to be the director of a very complex plot. She knew what she wanted the audience to see and feel. She put the set together to achieve just that.

It's exciting to see a writer harness that power over the reader's universe.

On a personal level, I was faced with my own biases and privileges. The plot centers on a girl abandoned in extreme poverty while part of a marginalized group.

Mounting sympathy for this character is easy enough. But realizing that every day I walk past people who share her misfortune is actually quite hard.

People are uncomfortable with pain. The book makes it clear. And that is something that traverses continents and generations.

3. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, by Elif Shafak

How it changed my life:

Let me geek out over the form of the novel for a second.

You are informed, straight off the bat, that the story is being told by a woman who has already died.

The 10 minutes and 38 seconds comprise the last thoughts her brain processes after her heart stops beating.

Needless to say, the protagonist led a very interesting life.

While the plot itself was gripping, it was the detail that worked its magic on me.

The dying brain of the protagonist talks of sex work, Muslim families, love, gender identity, and injustice. It relays this in the context of 70s and 80s' Turkey.

These are not stories often told in the West. (According to the author, they are not common in Turkey, either.)

I was, again, forced to renounce my prejudiced stereotypes, having grown up on a continent that widely discriminates against sex workers, Muslims, and LGBTQ+.

Before reading 10'38", I'd never held a book that approached Islamic traditions with as much humanity as it did prostitution.

I could sense, underneath the storyline, that we'd all be a lot happier if we stopped judging and started loving.

4. Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo

How it changed my life:

This one hit a lot closer to home.

Firstly, home is London and a lot of the action goes down in London. There's something about hearing familiar names and places that makes happenings slightly more real.

Second, one of the central characters is trying to make it on the theatre scene. As am I.

Before picking this up, I'd forgotten that reading is meant to be fun. You're meant to spend 3 hours buried in a book, then look up and realize you've missed your dentist's appointment.

The whole book reads like a play. It's unsurprising that one of the plots is based around drama.

My attention span-lacking brain was enchanted by the rapidly changing narrators. One is a modern-day student. Another is a Windrush grandmother. Another is an ancestor from 4 generations ago. Pain and love seem to stream across all stories.

Most importantly, reading this during the global unfolding of Black Lives Matter protests gave me a lot of context for the myriad aggressions, big and small, that Black people face in the UK.

At my bedside now is Reni Eddo-Lodge's "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race".

I can feel a new benchmark for great books emerging:

Does it make me feel uncomfortable?

An uncomfortable read (as long as it's written with the intention to educate) can provoke rapid growth. Especially when it speaks to your history or politics.

I mentioned in the beginning that I moved to Britain with a longing for freedom and opportunity. Not for a second did I think that others, already born here, had these in less supply than me, because of what they looked like.

Reading something that was not written for you, but because of you, is one type of discomfort.

There are many others that can sustain growth: reading opinions you don't agree with, cultures you're unfamiliar with, world problems that have nothing to do with you.

Reading is one of the greatest gifts we've been given as a civilization. It's one of the simplest ways we can pass on knowledge, wisdom, and emotion across the ages.

At its best, it is an act of rebellion that can awaken billions of people to their true purpose.

“I don't want to be included. Instead, I want to question who created the standard in the first place. After a lifetime of embodying difference, I have no desire to be equal. I want to deconstruct the structural power of a system that marked me out as different." - Reni Eddo-Lodge

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My topics of focus include gender equality, mental health and social justice |


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