The Common Reader’s “Lucky 13” From a Troubled, Turbulent 2020 Thirteen of the journal's best essays, blog posts, and reviews as chosen by staff, internet analytics "pageviews," and defiant relevance.

Courtesy Hennie Stander via Unsplash

In sickness and in health, in the abandoned workspaces and the doldrums of the home “office,” over meals solitary but sometimes with friends over Zoom, The Common Reader in 2020 published 59 essays and features, 53 book reviews, and 309 short “Dispatches.” Just typing that out compresses all the exhaustion of days of work, pushed into weekends by the haggard nature of work schedules dictated by the pandemic, itself another sort of compression whereby days spool out into mixed, uneven moments of high anxiety, fatiguing isolation, and righteous anger. The year 2020 was a lot like sucking chaos through a straw.

Through it all, though, we were glad to bring you writing steeped in trenchant thought and informed arguments, diverse and new perspectives, and fine—hopefully even eloquent, more often than not—style. Below is a list, replete with links, to what we believe comprises, if not the very best of what we published online this year, then certainly among the best. Sometimes we let our readers decide via reports from our site’s analytics record of pageviews. Sometimes we let comments via email and online comment drive the selection. And then sometimes it was a combination of both. But now, with thankfully precious few days left in this tumultuous year, let the countdown begin:


13. The Fat, the Thin, and the Psychology of the Body,” by Emily Gordon

Poet and critic Emily Gordon writes of gaining and losing and being drawn against her will to the idealized, attenuated figure of a woman who sups on a tulip. She then interleaves the insights of three books—the exhortations of a comedian and recreational pole dancer to be brave if you are fat; the epic tale of Weight Watchers; the grim reality of anorexia nervosa. Femininity, in Gordon’s wry understatement, is tricky.  —Jeannette Cooperman


12. Stoicism as the Art of Learning How to Feel Without Fear,” by Jeannette Cooperman

Because fear and pandemics are nothing new, then of course it follows that the earliest of philosophers, namely Seneca, has a lot to teach us. Staff writer Jeannette Cooperman lays out the ancient stoic’s teachings to explore what it means to tame our emotions in the face of hardship, but also what can be lost as a result. Insights abound, from what it means to hope and have courage to the ways fate and free will are bound and where we might sketch the boundaries of wisdom.  —Ben Fulton


11. Touchstone Texts: The Anatomy of Fascism,” by Steven C. Hause

Godwin’s Law, which posits that the longer an internet exchange goes on the more likely it is someone will step a wrong foot into analogizing fascism, means everyone should pay attention when authentic historians speak on the matter. Steven C. Hause, professor emeritus of history at Washington University in St. Louis, does not disappoint in this review of work by another authentic historian, Robert O. Paxton. Hause finds that in exploring what fascism does and in how it has come to power, Paxton’s book also fortifies our understanding of what fascism is—Ben Fulton


10. Requiem For A Young Soldier Who Vanished,” by John Griswold

Delving into his memory of serving as part of  U.S. Army post stationed at Fort Kobbe, a tiny U.S. Army post across the Bridge of the Americas from Panama City, staff writer John Griswold chronicles the unexplained disappearance of PFC David Kelley. One of among 19,251 U.S. military personnel who died in accidents around the world between 1980 and 1999, Kelley’s short life and service distills the painful mystery and bureaucratic indifference feeding the gaping maw of military service abroad.  —Ben Fulton


9. What Makes a House a Home,” by Jeannette Cooperman

“No matter how smart you are, something like this can happen,” a man says in this piece published just as COVID-19 was taking hold. It shows a tenuous world within its walls and is all the more compassionate for its direct gaze.  —John Griswold


8. The Broken Heart of America and Its Distortions” by Paul Wagman

Just because a certain “big book” by a “big name” hits the store shelves and best-seller lists does not mean it is deserving of unquestioned respect. This is especially true, says contributor and veteran St. Louis journalist Paul Wagman, in regard to Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. Or, as the review sub-head puts it, “A reviewer unveils scholarship that seems closer to polemic than history.” You can of course decide for yourself. Also, take into account staff writer John Griswold’s competing, more complimentary review—Ben Fulton


7. Touchstone Texts: It Can’t Happen Here,” by Gerald Early

Partly because Godwin’s law abounds in the age of Trump populism (see No. 11) but mostly because books once popular in the past deserve a closer look in our more relevant present, journal editor Gerald Early takes an extensive look into Sinclair Lewis’s popular book of political forewarning. Through careful consideration and dissection of the historic milieus in which this 1935 novel was first written, Early argues that while Lewis’s book reflected White America’s anxieties about dictatorship on U.S. soil, the fear and repression described within its pages was already familiar to Black Americans.
—Ben Fulton


6. When Scholarly Articles Are Fraud, Whim or Total Insanity,” by Jeannette Cooperman

Academic publishing and journals form the competitive battleground where knowledge is scrutinized and chaperoned, oftentimes a lot less successfully than the public ever knows. In this popular blog post, Cooperman examines the aftermath of those embarrassing failures in the form of retractions and their heavy, little-publicized costs.  —Ben Fulton


5. Remembering Ronald Fair,” by Cecil Brown

Shocking tragedies have a way of seeming new, which may be our mind’s way of protecting itself. Here, though, Cecil Brown takes us, in his easy way, back to a smoke-filled café and a conversation with the Black author who wrote We Can’t Breathe half a century before George Floyd suffocated. Brown’s off-and-on friendship with Ronald Fair tells larger stories of literature, race, art, and inspiration.  —Jeannette Cooperman


4. Fragments From an Imagined Apocalypse,” by John Griswold

The moment they emerged from their Central West End home in late June to brandish firearms in the face of BLM protesters, Mark and Patricia McCloskey became St. Louis’s angriest couple of the year. Eschewing the filter of standard journalistic narrative to tell their story, staff writer Griswold instead crafts and collects kaleidoscopic accounts, quotes, and vignettes. Throwing trenchant and brilliant shards into view every step of the way, he reveals the McCloskeys as products of history, even as they were in the process of making it.
—Ben Fulton


3. “Breathing Lessons For Black Girls,” by Olivia J. Williams

With its definitions and impressionistic details, this essay teaches us how to read it. Its anger and fear are emblematic of 2020.  —John Griswold


2. Rhythm-a-ning: The Art of Knowing a Policeman Well,” by Gerald Early

“Our personalities did not mesh. We were not in sync as types; we had, it might be said, no rhythm in our dance with each other.” With his unfailing candor, Gerald Early captures the tension of his relationship with his stepfather—a tough, honorable cop who showed him scant affection, yet altered his life’s course.  —Jeanette Cooperman

“For a child, the problems of adults are not real; indeed, adults themselves are not real,” this piece says, then brings them before us with both great understanding and a continuing sense of mystery.  —John Griswold


1. Underneath the Melting Pot,” by Jason Purnell

At more than eight thousand words, Purnell’s essay may not be for the casual reader. Then again, neither is its subject of “the disproportionate burdens” exacted on Black people in the United States. With Toni Morrison’s 2019 death as a starting point, Purnell honors the novelist’s memory, yet departs from it. Using the then still emerging COVID-19 pandemic as the latest misfortune to visit Black lives, Purnell soon departs from that as well to offer a reading experience that invokes David Hume, James Baldwin, the murder of Emmett Till and, most of all, Israel Zangwell’s early twentieth-century Broadway play, from which the essay forms its title. Concluding that our country needs a new narrative, indeed, a new “we,” that more accurately reflects our tragic national shortcomings in matters of racial justice, Purnell forges an essay of passionate urgency and—in light of the fact that it was written before George Floyd’s murder and published even as protests erupted worldwide—somber prescience.  —Ben Fulton

The Common Reader staff and contributors

The Common Reader is staffed by Professor Gerald Early, staff writers Jeannette Cooperman and John Griswold, and managing editor Ben Fulton. Stephen Belt, PhD, is Associate Professor of Aviation Science and Chief Diversity Officer at Saint Louis University School of Science and Engineering. Susan Butler is a journalist and writer living in Lake Waters, Florida. Butler’s biography East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart was the basis for the 2009 movie Amelia, starring Hilary Swank. Stephen Dark has worked as a journalist and writer for more than thirty years in locations as diverse as London, Buenos Aires, and Salt Lake City. He currently resides in Eastbourne, on the southeast coast of England. Michael Finke, professor emeritus, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, was on the Washington University in St. Louis faculty from 1988 to 2006. The most recent of his eight scholarly books are Freedom from Violence and Lies: Anton Chekhov’s Life and Writings (Reaktion Books: London, 2021), and Approaches to Teaching the Works of Anton Chekhov (edited with Michael Holquist; MLA: NY, 2016). A recovering journalist—the former executive editor of the St. Louis alt-weekly The Riverfront Times and arts-and-entertainment editor of The St. Louis Post-DispatchCliff Froehlich is the retired executive director of the nonprofit Cinema St. Louis. Alexander Nemerov is the author most recently of The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s (Princeton, 2023), a series of tales each centering on a visionary experience in the last years of America as a heavily forested land. Praised by Annie Proulx ("deeply beautiful,” “astonishingly tender,” “one of the richest books ever to come my way,”) and Edmund de Waal (“moving and shocking and beautiful, an extraordinary achievement”), The Forest conjures a lost world of shade and sun. Nemerov’s previous book, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, was short-listed for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Prize in Biography. He teaches art history at Stanford University. Clifford Thompson is the author and illustrator of Big Man and the Little Men, was published by Other Press in the fall of 2022.