Nonfiction Books

The Best Nonfiction Books of 2020

recommended by Sophie Roell

As the world went into lockdown early in 2020, many of us without frontline jobs and lucky enough not to fall sick with Covid-19 found more time to read than usual. The sudden change to a slower gear also left more room to reflect on the state of the world and our place as humans in it. Sophie Roell, editor of Five Books, takes us through her personal choice of the best nonfiction books of 2020.  

Tastes in reading are so personal that it’s with considerable trepidation that I recommend any books, but as I ask other people to do so week in week out, it seems only fair that I should put myself on the line at least once a year. For me, nonfiction is a way of learning about the world, so here are the books that helped me reflect on the world as a whole and my place in it in 2020.

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HOW TO LIVE A GOOD LIFE: A GUIDE TO CHOOSING YOUR PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY, edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman

How to Live a Good Life is a fantastic book. I dare anyone not to do something differently in their daily life at least once after reading it. There are 15 chapters, each devoted to a different philosophy, and written by a scholar who is a specialist in that field. It goes from “Ancient Philosophies from the East” (Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism) over to “Ancient Philosophies from the West” (Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism) through to “Religious Traditions” (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Progressive Islam, Ethical Culture), and, finally, “Modern Philosophies” (existentialism, pragmatism, effective altruism and secular humanism). It’s a wonderful summary of the collected wisdom of humanity in a highly readable book of less than 300 pages. You can dip in and out of it when the mood takes you. Also, it’s written by scholars, so while these are obviously summaries, none offer glib advice on how [insert philosophy] can change your life, though I expect some of them maybe can.

For other philosophy books, here’s our philosophy editor Nigel Warburton’s personal selection of the best philosophy books of 2020.

TRANSCENDENCE: HOW HUMANS EVOLVED THROUGH FIRE, LANGUAGE, BEAUTY AND TIME by Gaia Vince

Transcendence was my favourite science book this year. I studied history in the UK and learned how and when the Tudors came to power, but never how and when humans started, which, as an adult, seems to me a much more important piece of historical information. Gaia Vince is a science journalist, and this is a really fabulous summary of the entire history of the human race, starting with the Big Bang (as she points out, “Our genesis is a story of physics, chemistry and biology”). It chronicles when we started using fire, when we started talking, the role of beauty, how we started keeping time. She also makes predictions about where we might be going, and while the book ends up on an upbeat note, some of that was slightly chilling. The book is quite a dense read—there’s a lot of science to cover—but lightened by little introductory stories at the beginning of each chapter. It’s really nicely done and my next step, which I’ll do in the upcoming holidays, is to use the bits of the book I’ve underlined to make a timeline for my wall and finally fill in those gaps in my historical education.

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Other science books I’ve enjoyed this year include Quantum Reality by Jim Baggott, a quantum physics-obsessed popular science writer who’s great at explaining what’s what in physics and Jim Al-Khalili’s The World According to Physics. I’m just now embarking on biologist Sean Carroll’s A Series of Fortunate Events, a funny book (it starts with a Stephen Colbert quote) about the enormous role chance plays in our lives as humans beings generally and individually. I also really loved reading Naturalist, a graphic adaptation of the memoir of American biologist EO Wilson.

SLAVERY AND BRISTOL by GM Best

As lockdown began in March 2020 in the UK, I finally sat down on the sofa to read a book which had long been on my nonfiction reading list: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. I love reading primary sources (many of which are available as free ebooks) and here was a book written in the 18th century by a man who had been kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. I was completely hooked. I’m a slightly obsessive reader and from there I embarked on a number of slave narratives, though I finally stopped when, late one night, sitting in bed and about to start a second Frederick Douglass autobiography, my husband suggested one was probably enough.

Of the books published in 2020 about the history of slavery, two caught my attention. One was Slavery and Bristol, which was sent to me by the New Room, a Methodist charity. As the title suggests, this book is about slavery and Bristol and the author is relentless in outlining all the connections between the two. “The slave trade was called the Guinea trade. That is commemorated in one of Bristol’s streets being called Guinea Street.” We learn that between 1730 and 1746 Bristol merchants were responsible for organising 40% of all British voyages to Africa, and overall was responsible for trading around half a million people. Although this was very much a collective effort, the author goes through which individuals should be particularly held to account, and which not so much, investigating whether it matters if you’re a slave trader, or just using slavery to get rich in some other way. He starts with a quick survey of the pre-18th century period and takes it to up to 2020 and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston. The book has great illustrations and pull-out quotes. I’ve only been to Bristol twice and have no connection with the city per se, but it’s that combination of the sweep of history, with a very precise evaluation of one specific locality’s connection to that history, which makes the book so compelling.

The other book, shortlisted for the 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, is Black Spartacus, a biography of Toussaint Louverture. It’s by Oxford historian Sudhir Hazareesingh and is about the first successful revolution by slaves against an imperial power (France) in what is now Haiti.

WAR: HOW CONFLICT SHAPED US by Margaret MacMillan

As editor of Five Books, I have access to Google Analytics and get a glimpse what people do and do not like reading about. Paradoxically, while military history and military strategy are popular subjects, war is not. It was funny to find, when I started reading Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan’s latest book, her making a similar observation. To attract students, she was encouraged to change a course she was teaching on “war and society” to “a history of peace” instead. War: How Conflict Shaped Us is a book compiled out of her Reith Lectures (you can also listen to the lectures here) and investigates various aspects of humanity and its relationship to war. As one would expect from a book based on lectures, it’s a quick read, and gives a good sweep of the subject, but lacks the granularity to be fully satisfying. But Margaret MacMillan is a leading historian, an expert on World War I (amongst other things), and it’s great to be taken on a tour of such a critical subject, pointing out the paradoxes and contradictions of war along the way. It’s a book to reread and take notes on.

While on the subject of war, another of the books on my to-be-read pile for 2020 is Missionaries by Phil Klay, whose writing comes highly recommended by our US editor Eve Gerber. It’s a novel about US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan fighting in Colombia. Klay is a veteran of the US Marine Corps, and fiction seems to be one of the few ways ex-soldiers seem to be able to write directly about their experience, so I’m cheating and including it here under nonfiction.

A WORLD WITHOUT WORK: TECHNOLOGY, AUTOMATION AND HOW WE SHOULD RESPOND by Daniel Susskind

A World Without Work by Daniel Susskind was published in January 2020, before Covid-19 really got going, but the global pandemic brought the world the book describes immeasurably closer. Susskind is an economist at Oxford, which means he’s good at explaining the economics with words instead of equations, and that’s what this book tries to do. He goes into the economic history and lays out the relationship between technology and employment that has held in the past (covering, for example, the Luddites. Apparently Ned Ludd, from whom they took their name, was not a real person). As I understand it, however, the future is likely to be different from the past, and robots really are going to be taking our jobs. For that reason, we need to be looking at things like Universal Basic Income (UBI) to give people financial support but beyond that, sources of meaning in life other than work. Whether Susskind turns out to be overly dramatic or scarily prescient only time will tell, but it’s definitely something to be aware of and ties in, I think, with the book below.

TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF AUTHORITARIANISM by Anne Applebaum

I wanted to include a book on what might broadly be called the state of the world today. In the United States, United Kingdom, India, Brazil—around the world leaders have got into power by offering xenophobic, nationalistic messages. Why? Anne Applebaum’s book is her personal experience of this trend, as an American journalist and author who has spent a lot of time in Poland (amongst other places). What’s fascinating is how a random event, a plane crash that killed the Polish prime minister Lech Kaczyński in 2010, seems to have been the trigger for the craziness and conspiracy theories that have followed, some of which have targeted Applebaum herself. In the UK, it was Brexit, and, again, there’s a personal connection. Applebaum knows the British prime minister Boris Johnson, because her husband was a contemporary of his at Oxford (they were both members of the Bullingdon, an all-male dining club). Applebaum chronicles how Johnson basically got into the EU-bashing because it went down well when he was a journalist in Brussels and has continued to pursue it haphazardly ever since for opportunistic reasons. There’s a lot to think about after reading this book, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers.

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Finally, as editor of Five Books I’m a big believer in some of the book prizes that systematically go through hundreds of books and choose the best of the year as a somewhat more objective way of getting at the best nonfiction books of 2020. I’d particularly like to highlight the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, named after the sponsor of the prize, which really has a fantastic shortlist this year, including a book about Lakota America with a different vision of what the United States might have been. The Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, meanwhile, is a less academic approach, and this year’s winner is a book about The Beatles by Craig Brown, who is an excellent and entertaining writer. Lastly, there’s the Financial Times, which also has a book prize, of which McKinsey is the sponsor. It’s supposedly about business books, but in reality is more about good, important nonfiction about the world. For example, this year’s shortlist includes Deaths of Despair by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, about rising mortality rates among non-college-educated whites in the United States. We interviewed FT Management Editor Andrew Hill about the shortlist, but I’ve also been buying books after looking at its longlist: including a book about Samsung, which I’ve currently got by my bedside, and two about Mohammed bin Salman, the 35-year-old Saudi Crown Prince who came to international prominence after dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was chopped to pieces in the country’s consulate in Turkey.

Part of our best books of 2020 series.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books.

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books.