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Reading List December 29, 2020

Our Top 21 Essays of 2020

To ring in 2021, here are Boston Review's top 21 essays of the year.

As 2020 draws to a close, we’ve been looking back at the incredible range and volume of new pieces we published. From the pandemic to the protests and from politics to philosophy, these essays—our top twenty-one most read—brought clarity and moral urgency to a chaotic time.

They also won new levels of influence. Our readership increased an astonishing 25 percent over last year. Our first book of 2020, On Anger, was named as one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker. Our August essay on pulse oximetry—our most read piece of the year—prompted an urgent new medical study that was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine and covered last week in the New York Times. Our series on COVID-19, Thinking in a Pandemic, won so much attention that we published an important selection of essays in a fifth, supplemental book on top of our usual four. And so many of our important essays on race and history made it into influential newsletters, including New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie’s.

We look forward to keeping it up in 2021—and to a healthier, safer world.


21. We Should Be Afraid, But Not of Protesters
by Melvin Rogers

The rage on display in Minneapolis is not only about police violence. It is also about the country’s utter disregard for the pain of black Americans.


20. COVID-19 and the Color Line
by Colin Gordon, Walter Johnson, Jason Q. Purnell, and Jamala Rogers

Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at much higher rates than whites, and nowhere more so than in St. Louis. This is the result of racist policies which collapsed the social safety net while setting blacks in the path of danger.


19. Identity Politics and Elite Capture
by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

The black feminist Combahee River Collective manifesto and E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie share the diagnosis that the wealthy and powerful will take every opportunity to hijack activist energies for their own ends.


18. How Epidemics End
by Jeremy A. Greene and Dora Vargha

History shows that outbreaks often have murky outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem.


17. The Weakness of the Furies
by Martha C. Nussbaum

Victim anger can be useful to the political struggle, but it can also become excessive and obsessive, deforming the self.


16. Science Won’t Settle Trans Rights
by Anne Fausto-Sterling

Appeals to the biological facts conceal a deeper contest over political equality—and scientific authority itself.


15. The Obligation of Self-Discovery
by Vivian Gornick

Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with her readers was a mutually demanding collaboration.


14. Thomas Piketty Takes On the Ideology of Inequality
by Marshall Steinbaum

In his sweeping new history, the economist systematically demolishes the conceit that extreme inequality is our destiny, rather than our choice.


13. Alone Against the Virus
by  Gregg Gonsalves and Amy Kapczynski

Decades of neoliberal austerity will make it harder to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, we must rebuild our social safety net and forge a New Deal for public health.


12. The Minneapolis Uprising in Context
by Elizabeth Hinton

A proper understanding of urban rebellion depends on our ability to interpret it not as a wave of criminality, but as political violence.


11. The Philosophy of Anger
by Agnes Callard

There are two problems with anger: it is morally corrupting, and it is completely correct.


10. 2020’s Existentialist Turn
by Carmen Lea Dege

While existentialist thinking has much wisdom to offer about anxiety, contingency, and death, we must also think concretely about politics and institutions.


9. New Pathogen, Old Politics
by Alex de Waal

We should be wary of simplistic uses of history, but we can learn from the logic of social responses.


8. The Struggle to Abolish the Police Is Not New
by Garrett Felber

Prison and police abolition were key to the thinking of many midcentury civil rights activists. Understanding why can help us ask for change in our own time.


7. The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy
by David Waldstreicher

Seeking to discredit those who wish to explain the persistence of racism, critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue—distorting the full case that can be made for it.


6. The Literature of White Liberalism
by Melissa Phruksachart

The popular new genre of antiracist nonfiction seeks to educate white readers about race, but it does not center more powerful critiques from the Black radical tradition.


5. Caste Does Not Explain Race
by Charisse Burden-Stelly

The celebration of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste reflects the continued priority of elite preferences over the needs and struggles of ordinary people.


4. Sweden’s Relaxed Approach to COVID-19 Isn’t Working
by Adele Lebano

With few restrictions and no tracing of the disease’s spread, the government is relying upon Swedish character and traditions to see it through the pandemic. But behind this exceptionalism lies a worrying social compact between state and citizen.


3. The Unfinished Project of Enlightenment
by Brandon Bloch

In a sweeping new history of Western philosophy, Jürgen Habermas narrates the progress of humanity through the unfolding of public reason. Missing from that story are the systems of violence and dispossession whose legacies are all too visible today.


2. Epidemiology Forum: Science and Policy in the COVID-19 Crisis
essays from Jonathan FullerMarc Lipsitch, and John P. A. Ioannidis

Pandemic response is not a simple matter of listening to the science, as scientists themselves disagree. Three researchers debate the right path to tackle COVID-19—including why we must take seriously the harms of pandemic policies, not just their benefits.


1. How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias
by Amy Moran-Thomas

Pulse oximeters give biased results for people with darker skin. The consequences could be serious.

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