In 2020, the year of endless doomscrolling (and doom-reading), it is sometimes easy to despair. Through that lens, the theme that encapsulates the best nonfiction books of the year is “ending”: The end of the human epoch via global warming. The end of privacy via invasive tech. The end of our country via autocracy, oligarchy, racism and white supremacy, and economic inequality. The final end of the universe. But there is also a less cynical thread running through these books: they can represent turning points. These books inform us, they give us the sometimes-uncomfortable knowledge necessary to understand our past, inform our present, and actively create our future.
The changes we want can feel too big, too overwhelming, and too unlikely to hope for, let alone work for, but the past is full of plot twists and the future will be too. So read a book and then get passionate about shaping the post-2020 world.
I desperately hope that by the time you are reading this review that this book will feel like an interesting thought exercise, but completely irrelevant to current conditions in this country. From the viewpoint of October 2020, this is the most important book of the year. Growing out of an essay that Gessen wrote for the New York Review of Books after the 2016 election, Surviving Autocracy is an urgent reminder that none of this is normal. In fact, it is deeply wrong. We should not be living with constant dread and divisive hate. We should all share one set of facts and one reality. So, what do we do? As Gessen writes: “Believe the autocrat, do not be taken in by small signs of normality, institutions will not save us, be outraged, don’t make compromises, remember the future” and read this book.
Today, despite a rapidly diversifying electorate and rampant voter suppression that disproportionally impacts communities of color, cable news channels (and politicians) are still deeply focused on white swing voters and white “economic anxiety.” By combining an insider’s knowledge of the news industry with a history of the foundational role Black voters have played in shaping the political landscape, Tiffany D. Cross shows why it is high time for the media to diversify its staff and focus and recognize the power and multifariousness of Black voters so they can get the representation they deserve.
No matter what the results of the election are this year, the lack of Black voices in media, the absence of focus on Black issues in politics, and voter repression that disproportionately impacts communities of color will remain urgent issues.
Nature writing has not moved me like this since the profound loss of Brian Doyle, and that is absolutely the highest praise I can offer. By letting us in on the depth of her feeling for the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it, MacDonald allows us each to reimagine our own relationship with nature. What it is, and what it could or should be. Her writing is a corrective and soothing alternative to the recent climate books that tell a devastating tale of imminent disaster. She does not minimize the human impact on the climate, but by refusing to accept a catastrophic end as a foregone conclusion and reminding the reader of the dazzling wild of the natural world, she galvanizes us to keep fighting.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has appeared to be a liberalizing force on society. From ending formal segregation in Brown v. Board of Education to legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade and legalizing same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, some of our country’s most progressive decisions have come from the Court rather than from the ballot box. In Supreme Inequality, Cohen makes a convincing argument that those highly publicized cases have obscured a larger truth: for 50 years the courts have been a centerpiece of Republican strategy and the increasingly conservative Supreme Court has prioritized corporate interests and the wealthy while giving short shrift to marginalized groups. Its decisions have directly helped to create the deep inequalities existent in our country today. With a new, extremely conservative justice just confirmed, this book is even more timely today than it was when it was published in January.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson pulls back the American myth of meritocracy and reveals a rigidly hierarchical caste system with roots that date back to Jamestown. A masterful examination of the deeply rooted systems of power encoded in every facet of American life, and a thought-provoking exploration of the parallels between the American caste system and those of India and Nazi Germany, Caste is necessary reading for anyone looking to understand where we are, where we have been, and where we need to go from here.
Wiener’s memoir is a fascinating insider’s account of the waning heyday of the 2010s in Silicon Valley. Uncanny Valley is a deeply unnerving look at the wealth, power, and data that tech companies have amassed with little oversight or regulation and the ways in which the enthusiastic 20-somethings leading the way down the rabbit hole justified their actions, to the rest of us as well as to themselves.
Wiener’s memoir also handily dissipated the last lingering resentments I felt for having been born just too late to have had a shot at riding the tech wave to a gilded life. Now I think I was lucky.
In the mountainous border region between North Macedonia, Greece, and Albania, along the path of the Via Egnatia which for 20 centuries connected Rome to Constantinople, can be found the twin lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. The lakes are Europe’s oldest and were once the home of Kassabova’s grandmother. Kassabova takes the classic story of return to ancestral roots and elevates it to a compelling investigation of the ways in which borders, history, and the fissures they create are deeply present in familial legacy. The story of her matrilineal line is intertwined with an empathetic exploration of the complex, diverse, and sometimes conflicting cultural and historical currents of an often-overlooked place and its people.
The Dead Are Arising offers a rewarding reading experience for those deeply exploring Malcolm X’s life for the first time, while engaging more knowledgeable readers with new interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, a deep look at his childhood, and correctives to the more sensationalized accounts of previous biographies.
As focused as so many of us are on the overwhelming plethora of current disasters, it is surprisingly comforting to take a step back and remember that we are just specks floating in a vast space in an infinitely tiny moment in time. Mack takes her readers to the very end of the cosmos to explore the ways in which our universe could come to its final end, and she does so in a way that is entertaining and accessible, even for neophytes.
Mishra offers a sharp rebuke of Western neoliberalism. In this wide-ranging and eviscerating collection of essays, Mishra pillories the imperialistic dogmas that are still alive and well and having a ruinous impact on domestic and foreign policy. Tactics once exclusively used on colonial populations have been brought home and the West’s relationship with the global south is still dictated by imperialist interventionism and massive resource transfer. Bland Fanatics opens the gates to deeper intellectual analysis of the fundamental assumptions that undergird Western society.