The memoirs, novels, and poetry that stood out most
This year has highlighted the particularities of that thing called reading. Some found books impossible to pick up; sustained attention to text on a page is hard when the world is in so much pain. Others turned to literature anew, rediscovering the ways it can refresh and inspire. Below are the titles we were most drawn to in 2020: a wide-ranging list that includes new spins on epic poems, stories about the interior lives of women, memoirs that eloquently challenged industries, and, yes, essays that made us laugh.
The Meaning of Mariah Carey, by Mariah Carey, with Michaela Angela Davis
Marcel Proust had his madeleine, Charles Foster Kane had his sled, and Mariah Carey has her Ritz Cracker. “I’d hold the buttery, salty, crunchy goodness up to my nose, close my eyes, and breathe in one long, luxurious sniff,” she writes early in her memoir, sharing a childhood memory of her father’s strict rationing of snacks. “With precision, I would take one teeny-weeny bite along the scalloped edge.” Small moments like this, rendered in prose that’s amusingly fussy yet still lucid, elevate The Meaning of Mariah Carey from celebrity propaganda into impressive storytelling. The journalist Michaela Angela Davis has helped distill Carey’s knotty trajectory into a narrative propelled less by the reader’s voyeurism than by the authentic tensions of Carey’s life. Sharp analysis about race, poverty, fame, and control—plus insider takes on how popular culture has transformed since the late ’80s—harmonizes with the scene-setting detail work. The results are like Carey’s music: grandiosity made into art by humor, craft, and complexity. — Spencer Kornhaber