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Best Books of 2020

Last year, in my inaugural “Top” list, I combined books and podcasts. In this pandemic year of months of lock-down, books, movies, podcasts, and nature explorations were our salvation. So, there is much more to share from 2020. Hence, I am publishing three distinct lists of my favorite books, podcasts/blogs/websites, and movies that also include some family favorites.

At the height of the pandemic, it was impossible to read given my position. Our team needed to focus on managing the impact of COVID-19 that we could foresee and prepare for the unknown. This year, I also read a few interesting manuscripts that have not yet been published. I read some excellent dissertations whose authors, I hope, one day will publish in the broader public arena. 

Among all that I read this year, these books rose to the top, including the bonus at the end. I hope you will choose to purchase some, if not all, of them. Happy reading!

  1. I’m Rising by Michelle G. Stradford—I love this book of poems so much that I have gifted it to friends. For anyone who is going through a hard time or has a loved one affected and you are trying to pick yourself or them up, these poems will surely raise your spirit and keep you pushing forward.

  1. Meditations: Marcus Aurelius by James Harris—After years of translating Latin and spending so little time actually analyzing the meaning of what I translated, rediscovering Marcus Aurelius’ meditations was a gift. Harris does an excellent job with translating the originals for a contemporary audience.

  1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates. If you have not heard of this book, you have been living under a rock. And, yes, it took me until this year to listen to it. I enjoyed hearing the book on Audible and having Coates, himself, narrate to his teenage son what it is like being a Black person in the U.S. and sharing some of his own experiences. There were parts of this that I listened to with both my children on our drive from circus school.

  1. A Symphony for Shelby by Carl Vigeland—It was my first time reading a book of this genre: medical fiction. Vigeland squarely shows himself to be quite the renaissance man bringing together medicine, diplomacy, and music to this multifaceted yet easy to follow work of fiction.

  1. In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria—At a time when liberal education seems to be constantly under attack and juxtaposed against skills-based learning, Zakaria makes a strong argument for the liberal arts. My only critique is that he perpetuates the false dichotomy of liberal arts or technical/skills-based learning. They can both coexist and, in fact, we need their symbiosis to fuel our multiple intelligences and to reach our Triple Bottom Line magnum opus as a global community.

  1. Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer Mather—Underwater sea life is one of my long-time interests. I was inspired to buy this book after watching My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, a family favorite. Excellent and fun read for those wishing to learn about this fascinating animal capable of forming a relationship with a human.

  1. Black Appetite. White Food. by Jamila Lyiscott—This was definitely one of my favorite books this year. It is accessible, contemporary, and shows the versatility of the writer, researcher, and educator that Jamila is. No doubt she thrives at working with young people. She gets them and speaks their language while being also fluent in academia.

  1. Learning is natural: School is optional by Kenneth Danford—Just an excellent read! Part memoir, part advocacy for providing youth with multiple options for learning. This book is particularly relevant to our approach to learning for 21st-century young people.

  1. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton—This is probably the book of the decade! Written by two economists, it examines all of the key indicators of the well-being of white working-class Americans today and over time. Regardless of one’s social status, we should all be concerned about growing poverty and other declining aspects of economic, physical, and mental health. It also tackles the effects of technological advances, opioids, and globalization on everyday Americans.  

  1. After Shock edited by John Schroeter—If 2020 gave one gift to futurists, this was it! This dictionary-size volume is the successor to then-groundbreaking Future Shock, published 50 years ago. In this 21-century edition, the world’s leading futurists weigh in on what they foresee across a range of industries and disciplines. And there’s 2020…

  1. The Book of Beautiful Questions by Warren Berger—For anyone wanting to engage in meaningful conversations, find ways to convey their genuine curiosity, lead oneself and others more effectively, this is the book for you. You begin to experience life differently if you commit to using the tools and approaches Berger provides. 

  1. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu—One of the unexpected things that happened to me this year was discovering Taoism and fully embracing it. It is a way of leading one’s life and achieving greater peace, happiness, and fulfillment in service of others. This is a small book, but it will take you a while to really read it. It is truly transformative.

  1. Love and Rage by Lama Rod Owens—In the post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor era, this is a must-read for certain. It is incredibly grounding and empowering without suppressing our anger in an unjust world. Owens’ Buddhist framework is evident in the “practices” that he offers the reader for listening, processing, reacting, and honoring a range of emotions and behaviors. 

  1. Rue des Rêves Brisés by Guy Belizaire—A novel to which nearly all immigrants can relate, this was an unusual read for me, but it hit so close to home. It was so real and so poignant reading about the adolescent, Christophe’s journey as an immigrant in Canada. It also shows the humanity of those who assist immigrants and others with little or nothing to gain themselves. It evokes a deep sense of gratitude for those of us who owe our success and integration into our new home countries to kind and generous strangers.

  1. Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine by Ray Kurzweil—I was shocked to learn that futurist, Kurzweil had written a novel. I knew that I wanted to read it to my pre-teen, as did hubby. It is our nightly family reading. In addition to Danielle’s story (no spoilers here), the book comes with two other appended books. It is for the socially and environmentally conscious young person with tools on how they can make a difference.

  1. Free Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education by Peter Smith—At first, this book appears to be written for community college and public policy types, but it is for anyone with a pulse in the 21st century who understands not just first-time adult learners but the need for life-long learning, and the agency and choices that adult consumers have with the advances in technology. 

  1. Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education by Jon McGee—A simple, short, and concise book on the external factors that should be influencing the evolution of higher education institutions. Even before the pandemic, the case for change was strong. The institutions unable to evolve or unwilling to adapt to the changing context will soon find themselves in difficulty of continuing to exist, period. Prospective students and parents are also becoming more financially savvy and discerning using a range of criteria.

  1. The Empowered University: Shared Leadership, Culture Change, and Academic Success by Freeman A. Hrabowski III et al.—A must-read for anyone who is impressed and wishes to learn more about the transformation of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. What makes this book special is that it includes the perspectives of so many stakeholders.

  1. How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change by Adrianna Kezar—This is my second year with Kezar on my list. She understands higher education thoroughly and how we need to evolve. Whether it is educating for social justice, adjunct faculty issues, financial aid, pedagogy, she gets it. Here, she offers both theoretical frameworks for enacting, working through resistance to change, and scaling change.

  1. You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer by Tsedale Melaku—Firmly grounded in the author’s original research and the existing body of work on the experiences of Black women, this book highlights the ways that female professionals adapt and sacrifice in order to reach status and climb the career ladder. Degrees are just the beginning of the journey.

  1. Live Life Like Bronson by Roy Alabado—This is a nice short illustrated book to read over and over with a child. You can do some wonderful daydreaming about the post-pandemic world with this one. 

Yves Salomon-Fernández (she/her/hers) is president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. She writes about women’s issues for Inside Higher Ed’s “University of Venus” from the perspective of a Generation Xer, a mom, immigrant, and leader of color. Her social media handle is @PrezYves.

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