My hero books of 2020

When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.


When I was in grade school (like many of us at that time) I was broke. I had very little money. Whatever little money I had came from pocket change left from the 20–50 pesos that my father gave me every day. That didn’t change much in high school.

Once in a while, when my titas come home from abroad, I’ll grow about 10 times richer. They would hand out 10–20 dollars to us, their nephews and nieces, which we excitedly hand over to our parents who went to town to have them changed into pesos. I was so happy to have 500–1,000 pesos, which I was free to spend however I wanted.

I almost never spent this money on food or clothes. After receiving the bills, I immediately knew where to go: the bookstore. I would buy random books. Because I didn’t know much about what to read (I was unaware of reviews back then, and internet access was not as available as it is now), I just chose a book based on its blurb and cover. That was how I learned how to be a reader and a writer.

Reading is my primary way of learning, and books are my go-to resources especially on the most important topics I am learning like philosophy, psychology, art, etc. Today, I continue to buy books and I have more money to do so. But I do more than simply buying and reading them.

Back in 2018, I started tracking my reading. I kept a list of the best books I’ve read so far on specific topics. I also started my annual ritual of sharing my “hero books” of the year. And last 2020, I started keeping track of every single book I read.

The next step in my reading journey is probably to be more mindful about my reading. While reading is a wonderful activity, it has its drawbacks. As Arthur Schopenhauer writes:

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.

Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid.

It is better to be a better thinker than to be a better reader. This is the reason why although I horde books in the past, I collect less of them now and actually consider myself a slow and selective reader.

That said, I’ll continue the tradition I started for myself. Here are my hero books of 2020.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly | Jean-Dominique Bauby

I am not sure whether it was a good idea that I knew how the book was written before I started reading it. But I did. And I felt guilty reading it at my pace. I felt like I should have read it slower.

The book was written by someone who had locked-in syndrome, a condition where the brain stem has failed, making the person paralyzed throughout his body and unable to talk even if his other mental processes are normal. The author of the book, Bauby, was “fortunate” enough to still be able to move one eye. He used this eye to write the book.

Collaborating with his speech therapist, they constructed a way that he could communicate. Anyone who would like to communicate with Bauby held a card containing the letters of the alphabet arranged according to their frequency of use. The person would start pointing the letters. Bauby would blink when the correct letter was reached. Through this slow process, he dictated this short but stunningly beautiful book about the meaning of life.

It was, for sure, a labor of love. The book was literally written letter by letter. I guess, knowing that made me truly appreciate the book. The book was on my shelf for a long time, but I decided to read it only when I found myself needing some consolation and inspiration after my tinnitus started early January last year.

Coping with my tinnitus was not easy, but it was nothing compared to what Bauby had to go through until he died. And he was able to give birth to something so beautiful despite his condition. The book helped me go through one of the biggest challenges I faced in my life.

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World | Jane McGonigal

I have always been a gamer. When I was a kid I never had my own Gameboy. But I would borrow one from my classmates for weeks. I would then save some money from my allowance to buy batteries so I can play Pokemon the entire weekend. In high school, I would play computer games with friends for a good amount of my lunch break, going to Math class late. I would stop playing games in college, save some NBA Live games.

However, when I went through depression in 2011, games helped me cope with my condition. They helped me pass time as I waited for the medicines to take effect. In 2018, when my relationship of six years ended, one of my best friends hooked me into Underlords, a strategy game, which helped me move on. The same game accompanied me during a similarly difficult time last year when I haven’t habituated to my tinnitus yet. I continue to play the game today. It has become part of my daily routine.

Aside from the emotional benefits I experience from playing games, I have used games to enhance my mind and body coordination as well as my analytical skills. Granted, games have affected my sleep and I could get addicted to them if I let myself. But I haven’t. I limit myself to at most two hours of playing per day.

Despite its huge role in my emotional and even creative life, I’ve never been proud of being a gamer. I have avoided mentioning it in this blog or in front of people. This book was the first book to ever convince me of coming out and being proud of my gaming history.

The main moral of the book is that the elements that make games pleasurable should actually be used to redesign our social systems and institutions (education, work, etc.) so that people enjoy engaging with their world more.

The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient | William B. Irvine

I debated whether to include this book or not. The book was actually short and by no means dense. I feel like it could have been written as a blog post. Overall, I am not sure if this was a well-written book. However, I am including it in my hero books for the year because of the undeniable effect it has had on my life in the past months.

This is the second book I’ve read about stoicism. The first was [[essays/meditations by aurelius|Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations]]. That book was full of wisdom but it was so hard to digest and, therefore, remember. On the other hand, I remember The Stoic Challenge so easily, because its main point can be summarized into a single sentence: Treat every setback as a challenge. This was the first book I read that treated and emphasized this as a viable strategy for life. That simple lesson has never left me. My tinnitus is a challenge. The deaths of my pets were a challenge. The pandemic is a challenge. They are all opportunities to practice my ability to maintain emotional equilibrium during tough situations.

Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft | Steven G. Kellman

After Thoreau’s journal, this is easily the most important book I read this year. Finding the book was serendipitous. There was no way I could have read it if I didn’t find it in Booksale since it doesn’t have an ebook version.

It is an essential book because it helped me address one of the most perplexing problems I’ve ever had as a writer: In what language should I write?

I am tempted to say that the book’s answer to this question is: All of them. But that will fail to capture all the nuances that come with being a multilingual English writer, something that the book was able to present so excellently.

The book is an anthology of essays written by multilingual writers from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, most of whom also wrote in English. The collection is an excellent representation of the condition of multilingual English writers worldwide.

After reading the book, I felt less weird for experiencing this tension I have among the three languages I write in. I felt less alone. Throughout the world, even the most successful writers have grappled with the identity crisis that comes with speaking multiple languages. I still continue to struggle with my voice, but this book made me realize that I need to embrace this struggle rather than avoid it.

My voice is the collection of all the identities that I carry and the languages that come with them. I learned not to hate English for colonizing my mind or my mother tongue for not being rich or interesting enough. The languages I speak are my children. I need to take care of them. I need to let them talk to each other. This book helped me nurture the desire to demonstrate my multilingualism in the work that I do.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 | Henry David Thoreau (edited by Damion Searls)

Last December 13, 2020, I finished reading Thoreau’s journal after an entire year of reading each of his entries for the day. I talked about the lessons I learned from this in another post.

Thoreau’s journal was the first journal by anyone, dead or alive, I have ever read in its entirety. It was instructive to see how a writer, a public figure, could differ from who he is in his most private moments. I felt I knew Thoreau well as a person after reading his biography. Reading his journal, I felt he was a friend.

The journal contains Thoreau’s evolution as a writer, his most private project to create what he called a “Kalendar” of natural phenomena, which he never published. It contains a mixture of science and poetry that helps one appreciate how much beauty there is in the world where Thoreau lived. The journal also contains his routines and his ideas about writing and the creative life. I am an entirely different artist—no, person—after reading this book.

Other Great Reads

I read a lot of poetry last year that I can almost say that 2020 was a year of poetry for me. I immersed myself in that artform last year since I joined Tungko ng Tula, a course and community run by my friend Rem Tanauan. I’ll probably write about my year of poetry at a different time, but here are the poetry books I read this year as well as other great reads. For a complete list of the books I read in 2020, go here.

  • Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Collected Poems by Billy Collins. This is the first Billy Collins collection I read. If you want to laugh and think about the meaning of life at the same time, read him.
  • Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief From the Ringing in My Ears by Glenn Schweitzer. This is the only book in Tinnitus I finished this year. I could have finished reading the two other books I read on the subject, but when I started feeling better, I just have to park the books and move on. That said, this book encouraged me to actually use meditation to habituate with the tinnitus. As always, meditation worked for me.
  • Ochre Tones: Poems in English and Cebuano by Marjorie Evasco. Her name will forever be eclipsed by her son’s name (Joey Ayala), but Marjorie Evasco deserves a place of her own on the altar of verses. This is the only Filipiniana book I read this year (something I need to work more on).
  • Misdiagnosed: One Woman’s Tour of—and Escape from—Healthcareland by Jody Berger. I read this book after going through another terrible experience with doctors. My distrust of the traditional medical system is growing by the day and Jody’s example was a great beginner’s guide to what lies beyond it.
  • Selected Poems by Carl Sandburg. The thickest poetry book I read this year. Reading him was both fun and tiring. Sandburg was not afraid to experiment with form and to explore topics that are extremely turbulent and political.
  • Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon. This is the book that encouraged me to try newspaper blackout poetry. I have done blackouts on the Watchtower magazine as well as the local Filipino tabloids.
  • Winter Hours by Mary Oliver. Mary Oliver’s most intimate work by far. Reading her and Thoreau at the same time was a marvelous experience.
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I wanted to put this book on my list of top hero books for this year, but for some reason, I just can’t. Maybe because I need it to be life-changing or thought-provoking at least, but it failed in both. Nevertheless, the book was very, very surprising. It is the first book of its kind I’ve ever read: a very short novella made of very short chapters, which, in turn, are made of very short sentences and segmented thoughts. I want to write a similar book in the future!
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. After writing my short story Lurem, I was inspired to revisit my fantasy project. Part of going back to fantasy was, of course, reading fantasy. I intend to finish Tolkien’s major works. I’m done with The Hobbit and this first book of the trilogy. I’ll read the second and third books, as well as the Silmarillion, hopefully in the near future.

And that’s it. Another reading year has ended. I’m looking forward to writing my third iteration of this post next year. I hope this post pointed you to some books you might check for your own reading list this 2021.

May your 2021 be full of joy and, well…books!