In an angry and anguished year, it sometimes seems that we’ve talked, tweeted and Facebooked the English language beyond recognition.
But good books refresh our sense of what words can do. It’s why I publish a column after each Thanksgiving with suggestions for holiday books — either as gifts for loved ones or, what the heck, yourself. At the bottom of a topsy-turvy 2020, maybe you deserve something nice, too.
You might be tired of politics, but in such a fateful season, I feel moved to mention a few books about governance that aren’t partisan, instead focusing on common principles. “Writing Politics” is a collection of lively commentaries from voices as varied as Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln on the affairs of their day. The key takeway? Representative government has always been hard, but it’s the best system we’ve got.
“American Democracy,” another great new anthology featuring everyone from George Washington to the Rev. Martin Luther King, makes the same point.
“Eleanor,” the new Eleanor Roosevelt biography from David Michaelis, and “The Luckiest Man,” Mark Salter’s chronicle of U.S. Sen. John McCain, respectively celebrate a legendary Democrat and Republican. But to read these books is to be reminded that Roosevelt and McCain really belong to us all.
At a time when so much attention is focused on national leadership, John Dickerson’s “The Hardest Job in the World,” which examines how presidents of various stripes tackled their challenges, is good reading, too.
Few people read poetry these days, assuming the modern stuff is too indecipherable to do them much good. But anyone who’s read the slyly funny work of former poet laureate Billy Collins knows that poetry can still entertain as well as edify. In “Whale Day,” his new collection, he considers a few complications of aging, including the fact that his cat could well outlive him. Collins makes me smile, and that’s been gift enough in this grim year.
I also like “How to Fly,” a new collection of poems from Barbara Kingsolver that argues for accepting age as a blessing rather than a burden. You can’t go wrong, either, with “Red Stilts,” from former poet laureate Ted Kooser. Like his previous work, it shows that the best poets are great storytellers.
“Vesper Flights,” Helen Macdonald’s eloquent new book of nature essays, is a timely nudge to get outside and look around, a more uplifting experience these days than cable news.
Among the big news stories this year were the struggles of retailers, including neighborhood bookstores. Do your part to support them by buying books locally. Many area bookshops offer delivery or pickup options to accommodate social distancing.
If you’re lucky enough to find a book under the tree this year, then you’ll have the promise of another voice you can sit with for a while in a quiet corner. After the 2020 we’ve had, I can’t think of anything better.