Books of 2020

We trusted in books in a year that was perfect for digging deeper.


Books have been winning in 2020, one of the few rainbows apparent in our sickened and socially sullen national landscape.

Through three-quarters of 2020, U.S. book sales were up 6.4 percent, and October sales were up 7.2 percent over 2019. All books, all sales sources. That doesn’t mean you’ll see Molly Coogan (Bunch of Grapes) or Mathew Tombers (Edgartown Books) tooling around Five Corners in Teslas, but the national swamp of fear and doubt arising from 2020 politics and pestilence has seemingly driven us toward things we can trust — like books.

“Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have growth like [6.4 percent], but we are holding our own,” Edgartown Books manager Tombers said this month.

What is jaw-dropping to him is what’s selling. “We have sold more than 100 copies of ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,’ a summer bestseller by Isabel Wilkerson on the American racial dystopia. Definitely not a typical beach read, but yes, it was moving at David McCullough–like sales volume,” Tombers said, noting that “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, has been selling smartly too.

Now, we did escapist reading as well. In fact, New York Times’ top sellers included bestselling thriller authors James Connelly, James Patterson, et al., and my personal favorite, “Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat?” But we also bought a lot of tough, issue-based reads, as Tombers’ experience indicates.

In Vineyard Haven, longtime Bunch of Grapes book buyer Molly Coogan felt the reader passion as well. “The overall increase in bookstore sales can be deceiving. A lot of the 2020 book sales increase comes from Amazon. Our independent bookstore world is always a struggle, but we’ve been grateful for the support we have received from our community.

“For example, we were closed for several months during the pandemic, and we delivered books to people all over the Island. When we reopened, lots of customers told us the grocery store and Bunch of Grapes were the only places they went,” she said.
“People seem eager for connection now, and for books to know more. Our Island population is highly literate. They dive a little deeper. We also sold ‘Caste’ very well, as an example, and the Obama book is hot right now,” Coogan said.

Island authors produced some fascinating, and often startling, locally focused books. Skip Finley’s “Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy” (MV Times, May 13) is an extraordinary, detailed work that will change your perspective on the highly romanticized whaling era in American history, and the role of people of color in a trade that brought whalers fortunes and death.

In Andrew Theokas’ “Martha’s Vineyard Through Time” (MV Times, Jan. 17), the author describes his book as a way for visitors to understand the appeal of our place, beyond its natural beauty. His willingness to challenge generally held local beliefs makes it fascinating to Island longtimers as well.

Kevin Parham’s novel, “M/V Islander: Resurrection” (MV Times, Dec. 2), is a delightful romp-with-a-message about happier days between the Steamship Authority and the community.

You can get lost in Carly Simon’s “Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie” (MV Times, Jan. 8). You’ll be pulled in several directions, particularly if you’re of a certain generation, and specifically if you’ve lived on this Island for awhile. With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, we see in this book that the rich may be different from you and me, but emotionally we’re all the same.

Michael McAuliffe has written a terrific first novel in “No Truth Left to Tell” (MV Times, Sept. 23), a story of race, police corruption, violent extremism, and the rule of law. Set in Louisiana in the mid-1990s, “No Truth” is told from the perspective of a Justice Department attorney, McAuliffe’s former calling. Very appropriate against the never-ending racial violence in America.

For “American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution” (MV Times, March 25), Nina Sankovitch, corporate lawyer turned author, dug deep in research to produce a highly readable, fact-based account of pre–Revolutionary War events from Boston wharves to Braintree manors.

And finally, we live in a political place where each of two tribes stay in their own village and speak only with each other, often messaging with meanings that are muffled by the constraints of social media. But we always seem to get what we need. And we got a primer of sorts to help us on the scary journey of bonding and rebonding, courtesy of Island resident Loren Ghiglione, a longtime New England journalist, publisher, and journalism school professor.

Ghiglione and two J-schoolers initiated a trek across America, and the book “Genus Americanus: Hitting the Road in Search of America’s Identity” (MV Times, Nov. 11) is the result of the eight-year project begun in 2011, when Ghiglione’s team traveled across the U.S. to find out how Americans define themselves. Their book is also a primer on how to talk with people who aren’t like you, and how direct communication builds relationships between people.

To be clear, Americans bought way more books overall in 2020, though retail book sales struggled. But we turned to trusted friends, including books, for answers and solace this year. And there are examples, including on the Island, where independents survived thanks to a literate and supportive customer base.

The larger takeaway from increased 2020 book sales is that Americans looked for joy, understanding, and hope (weddings and engagements doubled nationally this year) in this year that has tried our souls.

Books helped us.