Best of 2020: Nonfiction Books

It’s time to talk about the things we loved this year! This was not a huge year of TV for me so my friends at Marvelous Geeks and Nerdy Girl Notes teamed up to do a a couple podcast episodes together instead of writing our own lists! You can list to us talk about our favorite performances, characters, and platonic relationships in part one and our favorite romantic relationships and episodes (plus a quick bonus discussion on the shows that made us happiest this year) in part two. It was a lot of fun to collaborate with both of them for the first time in this format and I hope you’ll go listen if you’re mostly here for TV content and let us know your thoughts! And for more year end content, be sure to check out the rest of the great content at Marvelous Geeks.

I may have watched much less TV than usual this year but it was a terrific year for books. I have no explanation for why my brain couldn’t focus on a 25-minute episode of TV but could sit down and read a book but it’s 2020 and we had to roll with the things we could enjoy wherever possible. This is the first of four book lists and potentially a couple other lists of things I loved depending on time so if nonfiction isn’t your favorite, stay tuned for other things you may enjoy more.

As I’ve mentioned in previous years, my academic area of interest was social psychology and sociology and I’m a big fan of understanding systems and the way things operate. I love the way it allows me to get a better understanding of the world around me and to incorporate new knowledge into a broader and more thorough mental image of society and all that entails. Which is terrific for me, there are a lot of books designed to talk about exactly those things. However, it does mean that I choose things on the heavier side or things that are likely to make me mad while I’m reading them because we live in a society that has deeply rooted systemic problems. I know these books aren’t going to be the kind of reading that everyone wants to do in their limited free time but if the mood strikes for one, they can be so rewarding. They can take a lot out of you and make you examine your own thought patterns or weaker areas (which is not always the most comfortable) but they can also help make you better to your fellow humans and more determined to build a society that works for everyone, which is a reward I can always get behind.

1. Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall This is the nonfiction book I have thought about more than any other since I read it in April because it shifted my framing of feminism and what it should be. It’s a book I want everyone to read and learn from and then take the ideas found within and remake the world. In the introduction, Kendall writes “For a movement that’s meant to represent all women, it often centers on those who already have most of their needs met” and she’s right, yet that’s not what our conversations look like. It’s a dichotomy that had never fully occurred to me before because I have been privileged enough that it’s never needed to and I’m grateful it exposed that gap in my thinking and understanding of the world. It challenges each of us to really examine what we can do to truly show up and consider the needs of all women in all areas of life, from housing and education access to the environment, because they are all feminist issues. What would it look like to build a world that was actually concerned with meeting the needs of the most marginalized and trusting in the work those communities are already doing to support themselves? It’s an exciting thought and one I look forward to keep with me as I continue to learn and grow. (Add to Goodreads)

2. How We Show Up by Mia Birdsong I have no idea how I discovered this book but I am so grateful that I did. In a year with a lot of physical isolation, this book’s focus on how we build communities within our lives and how we live out those connections spoke so deeply to me. It was the same feeling I got while reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, that idea of finding a way to describe the values you hold most dear but didn’t have the words to vocalize. I love the intentionality behind Birdsong’s writing and life and the excitement in building something outside the model we’ve been given all our lives. There is joy and reflection and a deep sense of commitment to the work of nurturing the connections in our lives. It is beautiful and inspiring and a balm for my soul this year and I hope more people discover this book and get as much from it as I did. (Add to Goodreads)

3. March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell I can struggle with graphic novels, my brain hasn’t quite figured out how to absorb both the words and the pictures and use them together to tell a story. That being said, I think the choice to tell John Lewis’s story in this way was a smart one. The juxtaposition that was possible between his fight in the civil rights movement and President Obama’s inauguration was extremely powerful and there are a couple jumps between time periods that took my breath away. It also allowed readers to experience the violence and hatred of the time in a more visceral way than just words on a page would have fully conveyed. It makes it a tough trilogy to get through but it’s no less worthwhile for it. You will be moved and feel such deep admiration for this man who fought so strongly, not just on the front lines in the South during Jim Crow but continued that fight in Congress until his death. He was a remarkable man and we are all better off because of him.  (Add to Goodreads)

4. One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson If you want to look into what actual election stealing looks like, read this book. It is infuriating and even if you’re already familiar with modern voter disenfranchisement, seeing it laid out in one place is hard to stomach. The right to vote and participate in our government is supposed to be one of our strongest ideals but the reality couldn’t be further from that. Since the gutting of the Voting Rights Amendment, states across the country have made it harder to access that right because it’s allowed now, talking us further and further away from that representational democracy we have been taught was America’s strength. But this book doesn’t just look at the problems with our systems and the actions being taken to undermine the voices of millions, it also looks at the people fighting back. To me, that’s always essential framing when writing a book that’s exposing deep issues like this one. It’s easy to feel enraged and discouraged by all this information but that doesn’t necessarily translate into action. The book is dedicated to all those fighting for our democracy and it backs that up by ending with the ways people are pushing back. It leaves you on a message of hope while also demonstrating ways to be more involved and engaged. It’s not an easy read but a necessary one, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 election. (Add to Goodreads)

5. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson This was one of my summer reads as discussions around the prison system and policing were underway. I don’t understand how a person could look at our current system and say that justice is being done, that our communities are being made safer. Some of that comes down to framing, we have tended to get a sanitized version of what incarceration looks like and as a nation, we are very bad at recognizing prisoners as fully human and worthy of basic rights (a fact exacerbated by the racial makeup of our prison population, which is itself a result of an unjust system). This book puts a name and a story to some of these prisoners. It’s a challenge and a reckoning and a story of one man’s work to play a small part in making it better. It’s heartbreaking and enraging and yet something that can’t be turned away from because it matters so deeply. If you’re just starting to dive into the way our criminal justice system operates and the way we have allowed people to be treated in life and put to death, this is a great, clear introduction. (Add to Goodreads)

6. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat This is the book for anyone who enjoys cooking and also understanding why you do things. There are recipes in it and you learn how to combine them together to form a menu but the focus is really on mastering these four critical components of cooking. You learn the best way to do things so that you can take those skills and apply them to anything you make going forward. My favorite part about the book were the flavor diagrams that showed how to build a dish based on a particular cuisine to make a cohesive whole. It’s a good way to build a pantry and a smart way to think about cooking in general even if you aren’t using a specific recipe. Since reading the book, I am much more cognizant of the role acids play in a dish to brighten and bring out flavors and am much more likely to lean on lemons or vinegars to finish a dish, which has improved my cooking and my enjoyment of the whole process. (Add to Goodreads)

7. When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrice Khan-Cullors This is the story of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ life and how her past shaped her need to co-found Black Lives Matter. She takes us through the cruelty and the systemic failures and personal heartbreak that drive her politics and her life. She’s seen what happens when Black lives don’t matter to the people in positions of authority and seen the damage it causes to families across the country and has committed herself to changing the culture. Those first-hand experiences, more than any statistics or more generalized stories, paint a vivid portrait of a deeply broken system and highlight the need for change. If you want to learn more about one of the women who founded Black Lives Matter or are looking to do some additional learning and read that first-person perspective, this book is a really good place to start or continue that learning. (Add to Goodreads)

8. Because Internet by Gretchen McCullough I have a very minimal amount of knowledge about linguistics and to be honest, have never been overly interested in it as a topic but I really loved the way this book made me think about language and the disconnect it causes in communications when two people are approaching it from different perspectives. I have been an Internet Person since I was a teenager, I’ve been through the lolcats phase and seen the evolution of memes branch out and become specific to the web sites in which they’re predominantly used. So I feel like I had that base level of understanding of the way we communicate based on lived experience but I loved the explanations behind things like the differing ways people use and capitalize “lol”. It gave me a new perspective and made me think and understand an aspect of the world just a little better and that’s really what I want most from my nonfiction. (Add to Goodreads)

9. Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow This book is incredibly disconcerting and angering to read, which I expected going in, but was still not fully prepared. It’s the story of Ronan Farrow’s investigative work into the Harvey Weinstein abuse story and the process of bringing that story to light despite all efforts to contain it. It’s a fantastic piece of journalism that he remained committed to despite the personal costs. The pushback and colluding from top officials at NBC is infuriating and a reminder that our world is shaped by news organizations and media by people who don’t see this kind of abuse and predation as dealbreakers, only a reflection of the power they hold over others, which is horrifying. But it also exposes a world that I was wholly unfamiliar with where double agents and secret foreign agencies are just another way to maintain power. It’s chilling but extremely well done and deserves every accolade it received. (Add to Goodreads)

10. Disability Visibility by Alice Wong (ed) I love a good first-person essay collection, especially about topics I’m under informed about. I don’t know much about the disability justice movement or the people bringing it into greater awareness and for me, this was a place to start. The beauty of first-person is that everyone gets to speak from their own perspectives and voice instead of feeling pressured to be the definitive voice on a topic, which means each essay is deeply personal. It’s full of hope and anger and love for the self but also for the larger community and it gave me thoughts to keep with me going forward. There a lot of very strong essays in this but some standouts for me included Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “Still Dreaming Wild Disability Justice Dreams at the End of the World”, Harriet Tubman Collective’s “Disability Solidarity”, Sky Cubacub’s “Radical Visibility: A disabled queer clothing reform movement manifesto”, and Elsa Sjunnson’s “How to Make a Paper Crane Out of Rage”. (Add to Goodreads)

1 thought on “Best of 2020: Nonfiction Books

  1. I love this list! Nonfiction is often harder for me to get into, but I think a lot of these books would be great for me to read in small chunks. I’ve added a bunch of these to my to-read list, thanks for sharing!

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