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Top 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020

Top 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020

By TIME

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About the list

In a year when the headlines were dominated by conflict around the things that make us different—race, class, gender, politics and all the other markers of identity—the best nonfiction books tore into those tensions and explored the humanity beneath. Some authors revisited historical figures to ask how their perspectives on race and religion shaped the world, for better or worse. Others shared personal stories to underscore the impact of a society that endangers people due to realities outside o... Read more

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Just Us

2020 | Claudia Rankine

FINALIST FOR THE 2021 ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE IN NONFICTION Claudia Rankine’s Citizen changed the conversation—Just Us urges all of us into it As everyday white supremacy becomes increasingly vocalized with no clear answers at hand, how best might we approach one another? Claudia Rankine, without telling us what to do, urges us to begin the discussions that might open pathways through this divisive and stuck moment in American history. Just Us is an invitation to discover what it takes to stay in the room together, even and especially in breaching the silence, guilt, and violence that follow direct addresses of whiteness. Rankine’s questions disrupt the false comfort of our culture’s liminal and private spaces—the airport, the theater, the dinner party, the voting booth—where neutrality and politeness live on the surface of differing commitments, beliefs, and prejudices as our public and private lives intersect. This brilliant arrangement of essays, poems, and images includes the voices and rebuttals of others: white men in first class responding to, and with, their white male privilege; a friend’s explanation of her infuriating behavior at a play; and women confronting the political currency of dying their hair blond, all running alongside fact-checked notes and commentary that complements Rankine’s own text, complicating notions of authority and who gets the last word. Sometimes wry, often vulnerable, and always prescient, Just Us is Rankine’s most intimate work, less interested in being right than in being true, being together.

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Hitler: Volume II

2020 | Volker Ullrich

In the summer of 1939 Hitler was at the zenith of his power. The Nazis had consolidated their authority over the German people, and in a series of foreign-policy coups, the Fuhrer had restored Germany to the status of a major Continental power. He now embarked on realising his lifelong ambition- to provide the German people with the living space and the resources they needed to flourish and exterminate those who were standing in the way - the Bolsheviks and the Jews. Yet despite the initial German triumphs - the quick defeat of Poland, the successful Blitzkrieg in the west - the war set in motion Hitler's downfall. With the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the entry of the United States into the war later that year, Nazi Germany's fortunes began to turn- it soon became clear that the war could not be won. As in the earlier volume, Volker Ullrich offers fascinating insight into the personality of the Fuhrer, without which we fail to understand the course of the war and the development of the Holocaust. As Germany's supreme military commander, he decided on strategy and planned operations with his generals, involving himself in even the smallest minutiae. And here the key traits - and flaws - of his personality quickly came to the fore. Hitler was a gambler who put everything on one card; deeply insecure, he was easily shaken by the slightest setback and quick to blame his subordinates for his own catastrophic mistakes; and when he realised that the war was lost, he embarked on the annihilation of Germany itself in punishment of the German people who had failed to hand him victory. In September 1939, Hitler declared that he would wear a simple military tunic until the war was won - or otherwise, he would not be there to witness the end. On 30 April 1945, as Soviet troops closed in on his bunker in Berlin, Hitler committed suicide; seven days later, Germany surrendered. Hitler's murderous ambitions had not just destroyed Germany- they had cost the lives of tens of millions of people throughout Europe.

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The Undocumented Americans

2020 | Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST - One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation. "Karla's book sheds light on people's personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard."--Selena Gomez LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FINALIST - LONGLISTED FOR THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD - NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY VULTURE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Book Review - Time - NPR - The New York Public Library - Book Riot - Library Journal Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she'd tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell. So she wrote her immigration lawyer's phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants--and to find the hidden key to her own. Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented--and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the singular, effervescent characters across the nation often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects. In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival. In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.

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The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

2020 | Les Payne, Tamara Payne

Les Payne, the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, embarked in 1990 on a nearly thirty-year-long quest to interview anyone he could find who had actually known Malcolm X—all living siblings of the Malcolm Little family, classmates, street friends, cellmates, Nation of Islam figures, FBI moles and cops, and political leaders around the world. His goal was ambitious: to transform what would become over a hundred hours of interviews into an unprecedented portrait of Malcolm X, one that would separate fact from fiction. The result is this historic biography that conjures a never-before-seen world of its protagonist, a work whose title is inspired by a phrase Malcolm X used when he saw his Hartford followers stir with purpose, as if the dead were truly arising, to overcome the obstacles of racism. Setting Malcolm’s life not only within the Nation of Islam but against the larger backdrop of American history, the book traces the life of one of the twentieth century’s most politically relevant figures “from street criminal to devoted moralist and revolutionary.” In tracing Malcolm X’s life from his Nebraska birth in 1925 to his Harlem assassination in 1965, Payne provides searing vignettes culled from Malcolm’s Depression-era youth, describing the influence of his Garveyite parents: his father, Earl, a circuit-riding preacher who was run over by a street car in Lansing, Michigan, in 1929, and his mother, Louise, who continued to instill black pride in her children after Earl’s death. Filling each chapter with resonant drama, Payne follows Malcolm’s exploits as a petty criminal in Boston and Harlem in the 1930s and early 1940s to his religious awakening and conversion to the Nation of Islam in a Massachusetts penitentiary. With a biographer’s unwavering determination, Payne corrects the historical record and delivers extraordinary revelations—from the unmasking of the mysterious NOI founder “Fard Muhammad,” who preceded Elijah Muhammad; to a hair-rising scene, conveyed in cinematic detail, of Malcolm and Minister Jeremiah X Shabazz’s 1961 clandestine meeting with the KKK; to a minute-by-minute account of Malcolm X’s murder at the Audubon Ballroom. Introduced by Payne’s daughter and primary researcher, Tamara Payne, who, following her father’s death, heroically completed the biography, The Dead Are Arising is a penetrating and riveting work that affirms the centrality of Malcolm X to the African American freedom struggle.

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Memorial Drive

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2020 | Natasha Trethewey

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An Instant New York Times Bestseller A New York Times Notable Book One of Barack Obama's Favorite Books of 2020 Named One of the Best Books of the Year by: The Washington Post, NPR, Shelf Awareness, Esquire, Electric Literature, Slate, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and InStyle A chillingly personal and exquisitely wrought memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her former stepfather, and the moving, intimate story of a poet coming into her own in the wake of a tragedy At age nineteen, Natasha Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became. With penetrating insight and a searing voice that moves from the wrenching to the elegiac, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey explores this profound experience of pain, loss, and grief as an entry point into understanding the tragic course of her mother's life and the way her own life has been shaped by a legacy of fierce love and resilience. Moving through her mother's history in the deeply segregated South and through her own girlhood as a "child of miscegenation" in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985. Memorial Drive is a compelling and searching look at a shared human experience of sudden loss and absence but also a piercing glimpse at the enduring ripple effects of white racism and domestic abuse. Animated by unforgettable prose and inflected by a poet's attention to language, this is a luminous, urgent, and visceral memoir from one of our most important contemporary writers and thinkers.

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The Dragons, the Giant, the Women

2021 | Wayétu Moore

A powerful and poignant memoir of survival and resistance by the critically acclaimed author of She Would Be King, about her family's dramatic escape from the Liberian Civil War, and how they were eventually reunited My Ol' Ma says the best stories do not always end happily, but happiness will find its way in there somehow. When Wayétu Moore turns five years old, her father and grandmother throw her a party at home in Monrovia, Liberia. Yet all she can think about is how much she misses her mother, studying in faraway New York. Before they can be reunited, the Civil War breaks out in Liberia. The family is forced to flee their home on foot, walking along dangerous roads to the relative safety of their ancestral village. Here they will hide until a remarkable rescue by a rebel soldier, who smuggles them across the border. The Dragons, The Giant, The Women spans this heartbreaking journey into childhood, and Moore's years adjusting to life in the USA, where she discovers a new kind of danger, as a black woman and an immigrant. This is an unforgettable memoir of the search for home in the midst of political upheaval, and an intimate story about the tenacious power of love and family. Wayétu Moore was born in Liberia and raised in Spring, Texas. She is a graduate of Howard University, Columbia University, and the University of Southern Carolina. She teaches at the City University of New York's John Jay College and lives in Brooklyn. Her debut novel She Would Be King is also published by ONE.

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