A Year in Reading: Joseph Lee

December 22, 2020 | 2 books mentioned 2 min read

When I think about the books I read at the beginning of this year, I think about the train. On my morning commutes out to New Jersey, I usually did work, preparing for class and grading papers. On the way back, I liked to reward myself by reading. I’d keep reading on the uptown subway to my tutoring job, enjoying the empty afternoon trains. On the way home in the evenings, I’d read standing up, holding the book in one hand and the pole in the other.




During those train rides, I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which had me both impatiently trying to finish a section before my stop and pausing every few paragraphs to appreciate the incredible writing. I was reading on a downtown A train when I heard a woman talking about how disgusting Chinese people were and that’s why we all had the virus. That was in February. I also read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman on the train, a wonderful book I remember finishing in between stops on the Upper West Side.


In March, I read Cathy Park Hong’s amazing essay collection Minor Feelings. Every page—from describing the pain of seeing a parent’s helplessness in the face of racism to unpacking Asian American privilege to moments of unexpected humor—felt like a gift.

I’m lucky that I’ve been able to work mostly from home, but I find it hard to read now. I don’t know if I got so used to reading on the train or reading is just one of the many things lost to this year, but I’ve only read a few books since March.


I re-read Tommy Orange’s There There, one of my favorite books from the last few years. I also read Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. I taught a few of her poems this semester and my students loved exploring and discussing the seemingly endless layers. There are so many new books by Native authors this year that I want to read. Next year, I hope.

I’m also incredibly lucky to have taught writing classes this year. I probably read more student writing than anything else this year and I’m thankful for every single line of my students’ brilliant essays and poems. They write with so much hope and openness.  


Lately, I’ve found comfort in two cookbooks, the Xi’an Famous Foods cookbook and The Nom Wah Cookbook. Sometimes I just flip through them, thinking about eating everything. I’ve only made a few of the recipes, but I love the stories interspersed among the photos and recipes. The Nom Wah cookbook is filled with stories from Chinatown figures and institutions, all of which make me miss walking around Chinatown. I just keep dreaming of the day when we can all hang out in a giant dim sum hall again, sharing a table with strangers as the carts rattle by.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

is an Aquinnah Wampanoag writer and a 2020 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

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