In a year full of half-truths, misinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and bizarre press conferences, we needed the academic rigor and sourced narrative of nonfiction books more than ever.
While the fiction books I read in 2020 allowed me to escape reality, the nonfiction books I read in 2020 deconstructed and added context to the reality that so often appears to skew closer to fiction. These ten nonfiction books gave me hope, helped me understand, and shifted my perspective on a number of topics and issues during this crazy year.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic — David Quammen
In order to be better informed about one of the major headlines of 2020, I read several books on viruses and infectious diseases this year (The Hot Zone, The Great Influenza, Deadliest Enemy, Pale Rider, etc), but Spillover proved to be the most comprehensive, educational, and flat-out chilling look at how totally unprepared we are for what the future has in store for us. Read this book, and you’ll instantly know more about viruses and pandemics than about 95% of the general population — which really would’ve served us well this year.
Divided into nine sections, Spillover explores the methods by which some diseases naturally cross (or “spillover”) from animals to humans and wreak havoc in our society. This issue is particularly relevant and consequential as nearly all of our major diseases and pandemics (SARS, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Influenza, malaria, and, yes, COVID-19) are a direct result of spillover events. Though written in 2013, author David Quammen spends several eerily prescient chapters speculating on where a novel flu-like virus would originate, how it would spread across the globe, and the ways in which the United States (and, to a larger extent, the world) would not be prepared for the eventuality. And, with the hindsight 2020 affords, it just makes it all the more frustrating knowing most of our elected officials seemed to rely on magical thinking more than hard science to fight our current pandemic.
Amy Peterson’s first book, Dangerous Territory, was one of the best books I read last year (and helped me reconsider some common “missionary myths” I’d internalized without questioning), and her follow-up, Where Goodness Still Grows, is just as enlightening and prophetic. If you’ve been shocked and dismayed by the hypocrisy flowing from the evangelical church in recent years, this book is a must-read.
Peterson takes nine common virtues (lament, modesty, purity, kindness, hospitality, love, hope, authenticity, and discernment) and flips them around in the most surprising of ways. The essays on lament, modesty, purity, and love are particularly engaging and powerful (and worth the price of the book on their own). Where Goodness Still Grows may sound like another “deconstruction” memoir, but it’s anything but. Peterson masters the delicate art of critique in such a way that her prose and observations never feel cynical or spiteful. I don’t read a lot of ‘Christian’ books anymore (for reasons Peterson explores in her own book), but this one felt like a breath of fresh air.
Janesville: An American Story — Amy Goldstein
In 2008, the General Motors factory in Janesville, Wisconsin closed its doors — forcing thousands of the town’s citizens out of work. The closing of the plant triggered a domino effect of economic collapse, resulting in widespread layoffs, nosediving home/property values, and a skyrocketing unemployment rate. In Amy Goldstein’s Janesville, the Washington Post journalist chronicles the demise of the industrial town between the years of 2008 and 2013 by following multiple people as they struggle to provide for their families, make impossible decisions, and grasp onto any glimmer of hope.
Janesville is a complex and nuanced take on the relationships between politics, welfare, charity, unions, wealth disparities, education, and the American Dream. Through Goldstein’s intimate depiction of Janesville’s economic death spiral and the frustrated efforts of its concerned citizens, the book operates as a damning indictment against both late-stage capitalism and half-hearted government intervention. More than anything I read this year, Janesville helped me understand the damage wrought by the policy decisions championed by each political party and the sentiments of the people caught in their crossfire.
Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife — Bart Ehrman
In Heaven and Hell, Christian-turned-agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman tackles the “history of the afterlife” and the ways in which certain ideas (like eternal punishment versus everlasting rewards) became embedded in mainstream Christianity despite much less Biblical support than one would expect.
Despite the density of the topic, Heaven and Hell is written in straightforward and lucid prose, and logically breaks down the evolution of different ideas about the afterlife as depicted in the Bible (and how those ideas may have been influenced by the surrounding culture). For example, have you ever noticed that no one in the Old Testament seems particularly concerned about “going to Heaven?” Or that Jesus’s two explicit parables about rewards and punishment after death have nothing to do with “accepting Jesus into your heart” and everything to do with how one treats the poor? Or that Jesus and Paul frequently contrast eternal life with death — not eternal conscious torment?
Though Heaven and Hell ends on a big question mark (after all, no one can tell you with absolute certainty what happens after death), the historical roots of the afterlife unveiled by Ehrman offer a spiritual balm to anyone still reeling from childhood scrupulosity (religious-themed anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder) related to their eternal fate.
Between September 1940 and May 1941, the city of London experienced one of the largest bombing campaigns in history (including 57 nights of consecutive bombing) from the German air force. With The Splendid and The Vile, author Erick Larson delivers a riveting piece of narrative nonfiction about the Blitz by weaving together dozens of first-person accounts, experiences, and perspectives — including (but not limited to) German bomber crews, British fighter pilots, members of Winston Churchill’s inner circle, Hitler’s wartime propaganda team, and Londoners forced into bomb shelters every night for weeks on end.
Larson is also the master of the fascinating historical anecdote or amusing aside. From the British Navy forced to fire on French naval vessels soon to be commissioned into the German military to a young British couple desperately trying to lose their virginity during a night of heavy bombing, Larson does a masterful job of uncovering bits of arcane war trivia without neglecting slice-of-life storytelling.
In a year when compassionate leadership was more than lacking and people threw temper tantrums for having to wear a piece of cloth over their noses in the grocery store, reading about Churchill and the citizens of London enduring the most sustained bombing campaign in history with grace, poise, courage, and unity was a much-need balm for my cultural malaise.
Perhaps one of the most personally disheartening (and bewildering) aspects of 2020 was the speed in which some of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ leaped from “supporting the Black community” to decrying any of talk of America’s racist past affecting the present day as “anti-Biblical” and “anti-Gospel.” It’s also a stance that happens to be “anti-reality” and “historically illiterate.”
In Stamped From the Beginning, author Ibram X. Kendi ambitiously charts the formation of racist ideas and how they were embedded in American society through public policy, popular culture, and personal prejudice. And he brings the receipts. From journal entries and sermon excerpts to Presidential letters and secret transcripts, Kendi forces us to peer into the cruel heart of America’s original sin and rethink how we process the history of our nation.
Stamped From the Beginning is a monumental achievement and a testament to the power of exhaustive research and narrative nonfiction. At nearly 600 pages, however, the biggest problem with Stamped From the Beginning is that those who need to read it, won’t give it the time of day. (But, for those with much shorter attention spans, the book was adapted for high school readers as Stamped with Jason Reynolds).
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire — Kurt Andersen
A madcap 500-year history of the United States, Fantasyland will have you chuckling, rolling your eyes, and dropping your jaw in absolute bewilderment as you learn everything about our country your history teacher definitely wouldn’t have even known how to tell you. Author Kurt Andersen explores our nation’s cultural progress (or lack thereof) by documenting the cults, schemes, religious movements, pop culture, conspiracy theories, and superstitions that got us to where we are today — and, in doing so, reveals that who we are now is who we’ve always been.
Fantasyland covers a sweeping range of topics: Anti-vaxxers, the Founding Fathers, the Salem Witch Trials, Airsoft militias, LARPers, Area 51, the California Gold Rush, Oprah, DisneyWorld, the Satanic Panic, Dr. Oz, the porn industry, Rapture theology, the NRA, the new Confederacy, Joel Osteen, the lottery, Creationism, the Charismatic Movement, the mythic Wild West, and so so much more.
Fantasyland is simultaneously one of the most disturbing and comforting books I’ve ever read. Comforting in the sense that the book makes it clear that our current cultural moment really isn’t that crazy in comparison to what’s come before, and disturbing because it leaves one wondering if we’ll escape our descent into magical thinking and fantasy.
Know My Name: A Memoir — Chanel Miller
Penned by the “Emily Doe” of the infamous Brock Turner rape case that sent shockwaves through Stanford University (and, later, the United States, when Turner was sentenced to less than six months in county jail), Know My Name is a blistering, uncompromising, and beautifully written memoir about the physical and emotional trauma experienced by sexual assault survivors.
Know My Name also happens to be staggering work of immersive journalism. Author Chanel Miller is an incredibly gifted writer, and her words have been sharpened into razors here. Throughout her narrative, Miller weaves biting critiques of our criminal justice system, the dehumanizing effects of victim-blaming, and our culture’s toxic double-standard for female sexuality. The world would probably be a better, safer, and more compassionate place if every incoming freshman male was given a copy of this book at college registration and required to read it.
I consider Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise to be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand our current political and cultural climate.
The book covers the prevalence of conspiracy theories (and why we fall for them so easily), the ways the Internet makes us dumber (but more confident in our wrongness), the transition of universities to consumer-driven degree mills, the partisan commodification of our media sources, and the obliteration of “objective truth” from our lexicon (and how that gives rise to uninformed populist governments).
Make no mistake, The Death of Expertise is not a liberal screed against conservatism. Nichols aims pointed barbs at both conservative and liberal talking points. This is one of the most-highlighted books I own, and I returned to it more than any other resource this year to help make sense of our country’s complete disregard of collective empathy, common sense, critical thinking, and peer-reviewed science.
In the Dream House: A Memoir — Carmen Machado
Carmen Machado’s memoir In the Dream House is the most creative, gut-wrenching, and paradigm-shifting book I’ve read in years. A terrifying account of an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, In the Dream House shattered every preconceived notion I had about what a memoir could be.
Told in very short chapters, In the Dream House walks through every stage of Machado’s abusive relationship with her partner (meet cute, infatuation, moving in, warning signs, etc.) — but each chapter is written in a different genre of literature, including (but not limited too) fable, horror, erotica, Choose Your Own Adventure, murder mystery, and romance novel. Additionally, a bulk of the book is written in second-person, which lends a visceral immediacy to the content and traps you within the psychological framework of abuse (if you’ve ever wondered, “Why don’t they just break up?” about an unhealthy relationship, pick this up immediately).
In the Dream House is a masterwork. Not only is it an affecting tale of survival, but it’s also a pitch-perfect example of creative nonfiction, genre, and form, and it absolutely deserves a place on your bookshelf.
Which nonfiction books gave you clarity in 2020? Let me know in the comments below!
(Also, be sure to check out my favorite fiction books I read in 2020).
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