The Best Epigraphs of 2020

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Ashley Holstrom

Staff Writer

Ashley Holstrom helps make books at Sourcebooks. She lives near Chicago with her cat named after Hemingway and her bookshelves organized by color. Newsletter: Crooked Reads. Twitter: @alholstrom.

Hello and welcome to my favorite tradition: rounding up the best epigraphs of the year! An epigraph is a lovely quote or passage at the beginning of a book, usually related to the content or tone of the book, but sometimes just something meaningful to the author.

A thing I deeply enjoyed while compiling this year’s list is learning about books and writers I want to read more from—both from the books in the list, but in the origins of the epigraphs. This is a treasure trove of wonderful books, truly.

For past years’ best epigraphs: 2017, 2018, 2019.

The Best Epigraphs of 2020

Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid”

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

“The clearest way that you can show endurance is by sticking with a family.”
—Anne Tyler

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

“I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.”
—Sylvia Plath

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

“I can only make things up about things that have already happened…”
—Alison Bechdel

Leave the World Behind book cover

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

“Love goes on like birdsong, 
As soon as possible after a bomb.”
—Bill Callahan, “Angela”

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
—Toni Morrison

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

“Because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.”
—James Baldwin

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth and Sara Lautman

“Surely there must be in a world of manifold beautiful things something among them for me. And always, while I am still young, there is that dim light, the Future. But it is indeed a dim, dim light, and ofttimes there’s a treachery in it.” 
—Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane

Let’s Never Talk About This Again by Sara Faith Alterman

“Could be worse. Could be raining.”
—Mel Brooks

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

“The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle, unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.”
—Estele Margritte

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

“O, fly and never tire, 
Fly and never tire,
Fly and never tire, 
There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.”
—An African American Spiritual

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

“If a film needed an exotic backdrop…Chinatown could be made to represent itself or any other Chinatown in the world. Even today, it stands in for the ambiguous Asian anywhere.” 
—Bonnie Tsui

Memorial by Bryan Washington

“Everybody everywhere, I think, is always talking about the same shitty thing.”
—Rachel Khong

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

“We die with the dying: 
See, they depart, and we go with them. 
We are born with the dead: 
See, they return, and bring us with them.”
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“A father is a man who expects his son to be as good a man as he was meant to be.”
—Frank A. Clark

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

“When I want to understand what is happening today or try to decide what will happen tomorrow, I look back.”
—Omar Khayyam

Here For It by R. Eric Thomas

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”
—Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate”

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

“Foreigners, here it is, 
This is my homeland,
Here I was born and here live my dreams.”
—Pablo Neruda, “Return”

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker

“Remember this, for it is as true as true gets: Your body is not a lemon.”
—Ina May Gaskin