Friday Reads: 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed by Eric Klinenberg

If there were a year that many would like to forget, it would likely be 2020. The worldwide pandemic that brought the spread of a novel virus, originating in rural China, sparked global disruption and changes that will continue into the future. In his new book, 2020, sociologist Eric Klinenberg chronicles the experiences, stories, and research associated with the pandemic, public health measures, economic peril, political distress, and societal changes.

The COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s death and the social justice movement, and the presidential election were prominent in this historic year. Klinenberg observes, “This story is not over. We are living through the long 2020.” 2020 includes an extensive presentation of data and is global in scope. However, as broad and sweeping as it is with comparisons and contrasts, a unique feature is the personal stories that reflect on individuals and their experiences living through this extraordinary time. Experiences depend on individual circumstances. Location, lifestyle, and access to resources all played a significant role. A takeaway is how these disruptive events affected each individual in their own personal way.

Disturbing was the growing divide over policies and actions to address the pandemic. Policies and actions varied from neighborhood, community, state, national, and global. The United States lacked consistency in providing direction. States differed in the extent of public health safety policies – some highly restrictive and others much less so. Communities varied based on local leadership and circumstances. Overall, the pandemic strained public trust in both government and science, leading to deep divisions over measures like mask mandates, social distancing, lockdowns, and vaccinations.

Klinenberg profiles seven New Yorkers including a new bar owner, an elementary school principal living in a multigenerational home, a transit worker, a local political aide, a retired district attorney turned neighborhood organizer, and others. Notable is the Staten Island bar owner who declared his bar an autonomous zone and refused to follow New York City’s health safety requirements. Questionable as his actions were, we can sympathize with his dilemma – opening a new business and having it shut down soon after. Others interviewed spoke of depression, food insecurity, and employment uncertainty. For others – the vulnerable – those living in high-density neighborhoods, nursing homes, those lacking homes with the resources school age children needed to participate in online education.  

Despite the negative, there are remarkable examples of compassion and courage, as well as the day-to-day efforts of many to provide care for family, friends, neighbors – donations, pantries, deliveries, childcare, and more. To be appreciated are the health care workers, teachers, and all in “essential” occupations with close exposure to illness.

Klinenberg’s book is difficult to read because it is a reminder of the tragedy of pervasive illness, death, disruption, and economic uncertainty. Consequences have lingered and polarization continues. A troubling question remains whether we are now better prepared and less vulnerable for the next pandemic.

Eric Klinenberg is Professor in the Social Sciences and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Among his other books is Palaces for the People, published in 2018. In regard to Palaces for the People, Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, commented that “Klinenberg is echoing what librarians and library patrons have been saying for years: that libraries are equalizers and absolutely universal.”

Klinenberg, Eric. 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed. Knopf. 2024.

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