I’m a slow reader, and at the end of each year I find myself mildly disappointed by my low book count. However, this was the year of COVID-19, political unrest, and existential uncertainty. All my previous forms of entertainment (news, social media, shows, gaming) became too stimulating in an already over-stressed existence. I retreated to books, and they sustained me through this dumpster fire of a year.
I did more reading in 2020 than I have in any previous year, completing 50 books in total. My goal for the new year is to keep up this robust reading practice.
The vast majority of my books read were audiobooks (and yes, audiobooks count as reading) followed by ebooks, and then analog books. The following is my Top 15 list of 2020.
First, a word on what makes this list. This is not a “top 15 best books,” or “top 15 books I agreed with the most.” Rather, this list includes the most frustrating, aggravating, and atrocious as well as the most awe inspiring and well written. It is a round up of the most memorable, which includes the best and the worst.
Without further ado, here are my top 15 books of 2020, with arbitrary categories I made up on the spot.
Most Damaging and Deranged: Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin
My childhood was tormented by this book. Growing up in a charismatic Christian family that firmly believed in the existence of demons, Hostage to the Devil was taken as a reliable guide to exorcism and the demonic realm. I have vivid memories of being a child and flipping through the pages, reading passages of violence, horror, and adult themes that devastated my mental health. I returned to its pages as an adult to re-examine this landmark in my development. What I discovered was a masterful and terrifying con wrapped in gorgeous prose. It is still taken as a reliable guide to exorcism in many Christian circles, and therefore an important resource for those trying to understand religious abuse and delusion.
Most awe-inspiring fantasy novel: Imajica by Clive Barker
All of Clive Barker’s stories feel like works of religion to me. The pinnacle of Barker’s metaphysics, myth building, and world-spanning creations is Imajica, in which five fractured worlds must be reunited by a powerful magician. It includes all the best of Clive Barker: surreal cityscapes, fantastic creatures, intense sexuality, and stunning myth making. It’s dense, and I struggled to get through it, but once I finished it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I even started dreaming about it.
Most creepy: The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel
The Mothman Prophecies claims to be an account of unnerving paranormal events in West Virginia, and is now a staple in UFO literature. There is something truly unsettling about this book, from its unhinged author and protagonist, John Keel, to the atmosphere and strange encounters it describes. I have no reason to believe it is a true account, but it still managed to be the only book in 2020 that frightened me. I listened to it while going on my daily trail runs up in the mountains, and the experience transformed my mountain runs from relaxing to utterly uncanny and terrifying.
Best Novella: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
The Hellbound Heart is the basis for the Hellraiser series, so I thought I had a decent idea of what I was getting myself into when started it. I was wrong. No film adaptation could prepare me for the sheer force, brutality, and darkness of this slim volume. I don’t know when I last read such a small book that packed such a devastating punch.
As with Imajica, there is something timeless and mythic about The Hellbound Heart. It feels like a work of religion to me, somehow hearkening back to ancient truths.
Incidentally, this was also the book I was reading when the pandemic first hit back in March. In retrospect, that probably didn’t help my COVID anxiety.
Most Nostalgic: Drawing Blood by Poppy Z Brite
No book has made me feel like a gothy gay teenager in the south all over again quite like Drawing Blood. Relentlessly homoerotic, dark, and steeped in nineties alternative culture, this novel is part gay love story, part southern gothic haunted house story. It’s over the top, pornographic, unapologetic, and I loved every fucking minute of it.
Biggest Read of 2020: The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft
My relationship with Lovecraft goes way back to highschool, but I’d never worked through his complete fiction. Reading all of it in one go as an adult, the best and worst of Lovecraft is on full display:
The best: his sweeping, original imagination; the pulpy schlock of almost all his stories; the moments of true cosmic horror.
The Worst: His racism, which provides the foundation for a great deal of his horror, was pathological and extreme even by the standards of his time. Plus, he was often just a really, really bad writer.
Lovecraft poses that age-old question of appreciating art: how do I reconcile the enormous influence Lovecraft has had on my creativity and development with his raging, broken personality? I don’t know. I’m still working on that one.
Most Satanic: The Devil’s Tome by Shiva Honey
One of the most exciting things about being in a new religious movement (The Satanic Temple) is watching it grow and evolve before my very eyes. This year, Shiva Honey made a significant contribution to the evolution of modern Satanism with her book The Devil’s Tome, which is a guide to Satanic ritual and practice. As TST grows into itself as a religion, ritual practice is playing a bigger role in the movement, and Shiva is one of the central figures in this movement towards Satanic ritual practice.
Most Life Changing: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
It’s surprising to me that the book that most profoundly altered my life would be a book about social media, but that just demonstrates how ubiquitous social media has become almost without being noticed. Jaron Lanier is one of the fathers of our digital age: he pioneered augmented reality, virtual reality, and a number of other significant innovations. He is also an intensely strange and original thinker, and reading him is like dialoguing with a benevolent alien who has come to earth to guide humanity.
In Ten Arguments, Jaron Lanier gives compelling evidence that social media is destroying your life, the world, and maybe humanity as a whole. My relationship to technology fundamentally changed after reading this book.
Most Interesting Work on Religion: Speak of the Devil by Joseph Laycock
Speak of the Devil is a study of The Satanic Temple, my own religious organization. It charts the highs and lows of the organization, as well as its underlying philosophy and the ways in which TST is disrupting deep-seated biases about religion, evil, and politics in the united states. As a Temple Satanist, it’s rare for me to feel well represented by an outsider to my religion, but Joseph Laycock succeeded.
Best Sci-fi series: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer
I read an extraordinary amount of sci-fi and fantasy this year (which you can read about here) and while it was all good, the one series that keeps steeping in my psyche is the Southern Reach Trilogy, in which a shadowy government agency called The Southern Reach is monitoring an eerie stretch of land where an alien entity is altering all biological life. The series is a slow burn of relentless weirdness and cosmic horror. I frequently found myself bored while listening to it, but was unable to stop thinking about it after I was done.
Best Memoir: Educated by Tara Westover
One of the best memoirs I’ve read in recent years. Tara Westover recounts her escape from a survivalist Mormon cult, and her journey to higher education. Read it.
Most frustrating: The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray
After my social media detox inspired by Jaron Lanier, I realized how monochromatic my thinking had become, and that I almost never seriously engaged with people I thought were wrong. I decided that I would venture out of my bubble and read something I knew I disagreed with.
The Madness of Crowds is an expose on how runaway identity politics (four main categories: gay, women, black, trans) is derailing society. At the time, I was pretty disillusioned with the left and willing to at least hear Murray out. What I found was a shallow, rambly, poorly argued, barely sourced op-ed style book. I was stunned that the book was so popular, and I found myself writing “citation needed citation needed citation needed” endlessly in the margins.
Most Challenging to my Worldview: Cynical Theories by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose
Where The Madness of Crowds failed in mounting any serious argument against my worldview, Cynical Theories succeeded. I found myself truly challenged by the arguments put forth by Lindsay and Pluckrose. In essence, Cynical Theories argues that philosophical liberalism is the foundation for the greatest strides in human progress, and that a new mode of thinking – Critical Justice Theory – threatens to hijack the progress established by liberalism. Cynical Theories is well argued, sourced, and should be engaged with seriously.
I don’t agree with the authors on a lot (especially James Lindsay, who’s twitter feed is an endless dumpster fire) and I’m still generally “woke.” But I did walk away from Cynical Theories strengthened and shaken.
Required Reading: The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart
The Power Worshippers is an investigation into the rise of Christian nationalism. It was also the book that launched my fantasy and sci-fi bender over the summer, because it was just a bit too much morbid reality. For anyone who cares about religious freedom, free speech, and minorities rights, however, it is required reading. You can also listen to my two-part Sacred Tension Book Club series about the Power Worshippers here.
Most Important Read of 2020: Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France
Three years after becoming a member of The Satanic Temple, I finally picked up The Revolt of The Angels, which is canon for the Temple. While it started out slow, it ramped up into something gorgeous, mythic, and wise. Reading the book helped me understand more deeply the differences between between The Satanic Temple and Church of Satan, as well as the moral heart of TST.
What were your top books of 2020? Let me know in the comments below.
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