The best nonfiction of the year

Chris Schluep on December 22, 2020

The best nonfiction books of the year

In the Best Nonfiction of 2020, we find topics that should be familiar to anyone who's been paying attention. There's a book about dealing with a pandemic. There's a book about inequality in our justice system. There's a book about therapy. And there's a book about food. I'll let you discover what other books are offered up below, or you can check out our full list of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2020 here.

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria

Whether or not it feels like it right now, we will eventually be living in a post-pandemic world. But other pandemics will follow. Zakaria, who personifies thoughtful, levelheaded judgement, lays out the lessons learned from COVID-19, citing the success stories and recommending improvements for a possible future where we are able to competently navigate similar threats. In part, he writes, it requires an approach where the people listen to the experts—and the experts listen to the people.

Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking by Bill Buford

It seems like a crazy idea to pick up stakes from a comfortable life in New York and move your wife and three-year-old twins to a city in France (not Paris) to look for a job in a restaurant. It might make more sense if you are Bill Buford, author of Heat, the 2006 book that did for Italian food what, frankly, Dirt will do for French cuisine. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Bill Buford is a foodie with literary chops—he founded the literary magazine Granta and was fiction editor of the New Yorker—but he is also an adventurer, and apparently a very hard worker. After locating a home abroad (Buford’s wife is essential in many of his endeavors), enrolling his kids in a local school, learning French, studying technique at L’Institute Bocuse, and enduring fifteen hour days at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lyon, the heart of French cuisine, he still managed to write down his experiences with humor and vibrancy. Dirt is the result of five years living and working in France, learning to know the people and their food, and getting to the heart of something—some feeling or quality of living—for which many of us are searching.

A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom by Brittany K. Barnett

A Knock at Midnight was our #1 book of 2020, but it also landed on the list of best nonfiction. Amazon's Al Woodworth had this to say about the book: "As a child of a mother who did jail time, Brittany K. Barnett understands the grave implications of a parent lost to 'the striped Looney Toons suit.' As she writes in A Knock at Midnight: 'There’s something about seeing your childhood hero, your guiding star, fallen. It rocks you to your core.' In this deeply personal memoir, Barnett shares how as a young Black girl she was surrounded by drugs growing up in the south—her mother, a nurse, at times was addicted to crack, and her boyfriend dealt drugs—how her family fueled her, why she pursued law, and became dedicated to defending those unfairly incarcerated for minor drug crimes. As she learned, inequality lurked everywhere: 'The discrepancy in sentencing blew my mind. I began to wonder whether America’s harsh drug sentences were tied to the drugs in a man’s hand or the melanin in his skin.' While A Knock at Midnight is a brilliant memoir of Barnett’s own journey, it also chronicles the stories of three of her clients. Their lives—including their crimes, their families, and their jail time—are rendered with such care and compassion that it is impossible to put this book down. It is also impossible not to root for Barnett and her clients as she fights to get them the justice they deserve, and never had. A Knock at Midnight is a profoundly moving memoir that reveals the incredibly racist world of the feds, the courts, and the laws that throw away people’s lives—for life."

Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life by Christie Tate

Amazon's Sarah Gelman had this to say about Group when we selected it: "Christie Tate is a summer intern at a law firm, the top of her class, and headed for great things—and her memoir opens with her sitting in her car alone, wishing someone would shoot her in the head. This moment sends her in search of therapy, and she lands in an untraditional group led by a charismatic therapist who doesn’t allow secrets. It feels clichéd to write 'you’ll laugh, you’ll cry,' but I promise you’ll do both, as well as examine your own life and happiness… even if you don’t want to. Written with the gift of hindsight, Group is an honest, heart-breaking and hilarious look at reaching rock bottom and climbing your way back to life." —Sarah Gelman

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper

Becky Cooper’s investigation is laced with atmosphere and obsession, as she systematically peels back the layers of a 40-year-old crime. Readers will stay up late turning the pages, and as the presumed guilt swings from one suspect to another, they will likely decide to stay up just a little later.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Our own Erin Kodicek said the following about McDonald's eagerly awaited book: "It was Helen Macdonald’s unusual way of processing grief that put her on the literary map. In H Is for Hawk we met Mabel, a rancorous raptor Macdonald adopted and trained, and in doing so, wrenched herself free from despair. The book was an award-winning best-seller that captured countless hearts, and not just ones belonging to ornithologists. The why of that is the reason readers will also fall in love with Vesper Flights. More meandering than her memoir, this collection of essays waxes poetic on things ranging from lunar eclipses, to nocturnal bird-watching in Manhattan, to mushroom hunting, and even migraines. Before reading Vesper Flights the only swift I knew about was Taylor, and she’s pretty good at drawing attention to herself. But that is one of Ms. Macdonald’s gifts. She notices things, the magic and the wonder and the consolation of nature, and she mines what those things have to teach us about being better humans and stewards of this planet. Her exquisite prose will get you to pay attention too. Macdonald writes: 'Someone once told me that every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write. It can be love or death, betrayal or belonging, home or hope or exile. I choose to think that my subject is love…' That is evident on every page of Vesper Flights."

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