I’ve discovered a secret to reading joy in recent years, and I share it with anyone who listens. It’s this: don’t get too hung up on the hot-off-the-press buzzy books. If you’re steeped in BookTok or Bookstagram, or you’re a professional book nerd — a bookseller, an author, a podcaster — that can be hard to do. You might want to be part of the conversation about the new books; you might want the social media likes that come from posting about a novel everyone is excited about. Maybe a certain book is zeitgeist-y and relevant to your life or the broader culture right now. And sometimes, the allure of other people’s enthusiasm is impossible to resist. If you’re around a lot of enthusiastic people — either in real life, or online — then that allure is even more powerful.
But here’s the thing: just because a book is new, that doesn’t mean it’s superior to others. And because there are only a limited number of hours in a day, the more of the new books we read, the less time there is to read older books which might be just right for us in that moment. In 2020, with everything else going on, I leaned heavily into that: I wasn’t going to make myself read anything I only wanted to want to read. I read what I actually wanted to read, regardless of year of publication. I discovered some great books as a result.
I’m still surrounded with a lot of book enthusiasts, and I’m lucky enough to get sent ARCs by publicists, so most of what I read is still brand new. But in the midst of a depressing winter I started my year, with the most delightful comfort read: the first Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. And more recently, I dragged myself out of a reading slump with The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, having loved the movie.
I asked my fellow Book Rioters what backlist books (books published before 2022) they’ve enjoyed this year. Here’s what they said.
Laid-Bank Camp series by Afro
Does a book need conflict? I’ve never thought so, and the Laid-Back Camp manga series I discovered this year has proven me right. This is about a group of girls in a school club who go camping together. That’s it. They don’t argue, except to good-naturedly tease each other. They don’t fight off bears. They discuss what kind of camping gear they want to buy and demonstrate how to build a campfire. It’s cozy and calming, like the book equivalent of ASMR, and I cannot get enough of it. I’ve read 11 volumes so far this year, and I wish there were a hundred more.
I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee
Let me just start by telling y’all that I was recommending this book to a coworker a few months back, and the simple act of gushing over it made me cry right there on the spot. So clearly this book means a lot to me. Skye Shin is a Korean American teenager whose dream is to become a K-pop star, so she jumps at the chance when a talent competition show comes to Los Angeles to hold auditions. Yes, this is a wonderfully fun, feel-good YA romance, but it also confronts issues like the toxic beauty standards and queerphobia present in many Asian cultures, which was really effective and hit very close to home for me. Reading this book made me really wish I could have had it as a teenager who never saw myself represented and struggled to be comfortable and confident in myself, and I can imagine how meaningful it would be for young people today who are anything like high school me.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I’ve tried to read Dracula before this year and never quite managed it. But in 2022 I discovered Dracula Daily, a Substack that delivers a chunk of the novel to your inbox almost every day from May to November, in chronological order. Since Dracula is an epistolary novel, this delivery method gives it the feeling of receiving updates from your friends, who are having a very bad time indeed in Transylvania/Whitby. More importantly, the book went semi-viral this year, especially on Tumblr, which became a massive, quirky book club with memes a-plenty. I probably would never have gotten through Dracula’s sluggish pacing, rampant xenophobia, and anticlimactic ending on my own, but Dracula Daily ensured that I’ll always look back on this unique reading experience with fondness.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
This was my first completed book by Louise Erdrich, and I think the thing I’m gonna have to do is listen to them on audio, because Louise herself is a fantastic narrator. This book, which came out in 2021, is set primarily in 2020, and while it touches on the horridness of both COVID-19 and the state of Minneapolis that summer, it has a way of also dreamily taking you through the lives of the narrator and her friends and family, while also making you nervous AF in regards to what’s going to happen next. It was a fantastic entry into the world of Louise Erdrich (who herself is kind of a character in the book), and a great dive into literary fiction, which isn’t my strongest reading category.
LGBT Salt Lake by J. Seth Anderson
Lately I’ve become interested in queer history and particularly local queer history. I’m a Utahn and, perhaps because the Mormon history I grew up with does not make space for queer people, I’ve wanted to learn about the queer people and communities who came before me and what life was like for them here. This is the first book I’ve seen on queer Utah history, and I loved the photos and historical documents. There were stories and movements I’ve never really heard told here. It made me even more interested in learning about local queer history in greater depth.
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith
Oh. My. Goodness. This book. THIS BOOK. Clint Smith is a poet, and you can tell when you read or listen to every sentence in this book. It’s an interesting combination of memoir, public history, and social treatise, and it hits just right in every category. Clint Smith traveled to several locations that have unique connections to the history of American slavery, most of which are public sites, and discusses his own experiences there, and conversations with tour guides, docents, administrators, and visitors. He gives us their history of sites and the actual history of those sites, some of which are the same, and some of which are very much not. And of course, the amount of history we just weren’t taught in the American school system is clear and present when you learn some of the things that he tells us. It’s an absolute must read for anyone, whether you’re a history person or not.
Wintering by Katherine May
I absolutely loved this book, which explores the concept of “wintering,” or embracing the qualities of the darkest, coldest months of the year. I loved how May intertwined her own struggles with her dawning acceptance of the qualities of winter. Given that winter is here, this is a superb book for December or January.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
I’ve been meaning to read this book for literal decades, and I’m so, so glad I finally got to it. I’ve read several of Butler’s other books, but this one felt very different in style. On the day of Dana’s 26th birthday in 1976, she’s bizarrely transported to a pre–Civil War plantation in Maryland, where a young boy appears to be drowning. She saves his life and almost immediately finds herself back in her time. But when she travels through time again only hours later, it becomes clear she’s somehow tied to him and called to save his life over and over again. It’s a thought-provoking, brilliant book that shows exactly why Octavia E. Butler remains one of the most memorable sci-fi authors of all time.
Want some more backlist inspiration? Check out The Blockbusters That Time Forgot, How TikTok Gave Colleen Hoover and Her Books a Resurgence, and I Found My Way Back to Reading Joy, And My Path Was Backlist.