Best Non-Fiction Books of 2020

In a year where we couldn’t take our eyes off of the news, these non-fiction titles offered us some solace and empowerment by educating us on social justice issues, telling stories that inspire us, and showing us the most humane and strange sides of our world. Here are some of the best non-fiction titles that kept us going this the year:

 

 

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Les Payne, the renowned Pulitzer Prize winner and 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.

 

 

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In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores- through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people- how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.

 

 

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Today’s feminist movement has a glaring blind spot, and paradoxically, it is women. Mainstream feminists rarely talk about meeting basic needs as a feminist issue, argues Mikki Kendall, but food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. All too often, however, the focus is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few. That feminists refusal to prioritize these issues has only exacerbated the age old problem of both internecine discord, and women who rebuff at carrying the title. Moreover, prominent white feminists broadly suffer from their own myopia with regard to how things like race, class, sexual orientation, and ability intersect with gender. How can we stand in solidarity as a movement, Kendall asks, when there is the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others?

 

 

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Poet and essayist, Cathy Park Hong, fearlessly and provocatively blends memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose fresh truths about racialized consciousness in America. Part memoir and part cultural criticism, this collection is vulnerable, humorous, and provocative—and its relentless and riveting pursuit of vital questions around family and friendship, art and politics, identity and individuality, will change the way you think about our world.

 

 

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For the black community, Jerald Walker asserts in How to Make a Slave, “anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punchline.” It is on the knife’s edge between fury and farce in which the essays in this exquisite collection balance. Whether confronting the medical profession’s racial biases, considering the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson, paying homage to his writing mentor James Alan McPherson, or attempting to break free of personal and societal stereotypes, Walker elegantly blends personal revelation and cultural critique. The result is a bracing and often humorous examination by one of America’s most acclaimed essayists of what it is to grow, parent, write, and exist as a black American male. Walker refuses to lull his readers; instead his missives urge them to do better as they consider, through his eyes, how to be a good citizen, how to be a good father, how to live, and how to love.

 

 

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When he was just a fledgling birdwatcher, Jonathan C. Slaght had a chance encounter with one of the most mysterious birds on Earth. Bigger than any owl he knew, it looked like a small bear with decorative feathers. He snapped a quick photo and shared it with experts. Soon, he was on a five-year journey, searching for this enormous, enigmatic creature in the lush, remote forests of eastern Russia. That first sighting set his calling as a scientist.

Through this rare glimpse into the everyday life of a field scientist and conservationist, Owls of the Eastern Ice testifies to the determination and creativity essential to scientific advancement and serves as a powerful reminder of the beauty, strength, and vulnerability of the natural world.

 

 

 

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In May 1830, the United States formally launched a policy to expel Native Americans from the East to territories west of the Mississippi River. Justified as a humanitarian enterprise, the undertaking was to be systematic and rational, overseen by Washington’s small but growing bureaucracy. But as the policy unfolded over the next decade, thousands of Native Americans died under the federal government’s auspices, and thousands of others lost their possessions and homelands in an orgy of fraud, intimidation, and violence. Unworthy Republic reveals how expulsion became national policy and describes the chaotic and deadly results of the operation to deport 80,000 men, women, and children.

 

 

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Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time and 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.

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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As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climates of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplanted―no matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscape―she was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.

“What the peacock can do,” she tells us, “is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.” The axolotl teaches us to smile, even in the face of unkindness; the touch-me-not plant shows us how to shake off unwanted advances; the narwhal demonstrates how to survive in hostile environments. Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship. For it is this way with wonder: it requires that we are curious enough to look past the distractions in order to fully appreciate the world’s gifts.

 

 

 

Amazon.com: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (9780735274457): Kolker, Robert: Books

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Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins–aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony–and they worked hard to play their parts. But, behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?

What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And, unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.

 

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