July 09, 2021

Best non-fiction books of 2020

Making “best of” lists is a bit like speaking about politics - inevitably there will be people who disagree and would rather have it the other way around. The purpose of this list is not so much to give a “definitive best of 2020 book list”, but rather to act as a sort of representative sample of all non-fiction books published in 2020. In doing this, we’ll try to cover as many spheres of culture as possible, going from science, journalism, across history and politics, ending up with art criticism and theory. In the end, we should have a very diverse and rich list that summarizes the non-fiction genre of 2020.

Let’s talk a little bit about my criteria - and unlike most authors who write “best of” lists, I’ll be blatantly honest - my criteria are rather haphazard, unfair, and, ultimately, very much personal. I didn’t favor such obvious criteria as popularity and number of sales over quality of writing, research, and analysis offered in my favorite non-fiction books of 2020. That being said, popularity, social impact, and best-selling status often speak in favor of books, but those shouldn’t be the only nor the main evaluation criteria. 

Flash Crash: A Trading Savant, a Global Manhunt, and the Most Mysterious Market Crash in History - Liam Vaughan

On Uptime

Let’s start with an underdog - Vaughan’s incredibly detailed analysis of an economic anomaly, the stock market flash crash of 2010. First of all, this is a work of sheer journalistic brilliance. The amount of research and detail is simply incredible, and, frankly speaking, it’s the only way to at least try to explain what happened on May 6 2010, when the stock market marked a trillion dollar dip in a few seconds. 

Flash Crash is so much more than simply an economic analysis of what happened on May 6 2010. It’s also a very careful study of Navinder Singh Sarao’s character. Who is Sarao? Much like the Flash Crash of 2010, Sarao is an anomaly, a remarkable individual who got caught in a big economic game thanks only to the sheer power of his intellect and audacity. 

What fascinated me the most is Liam Vaughan’s compilation of Sarao’s Internet activity, which was used as a sort of basis for making conclusions about Sarao’s character. Besides approaching the subject as a psychologist would, Vaughan also brings up a whole arsenal of economic jargon, showing an enviable dedication to the topic at hand. 

What sets Flash Crash apart from most other books that appeared in 2020 is the underlying idea - which has been left unexpressed but nevertheless ever-present throughout the book. It’s the conflict between the individual and the collective, a crash, but this time on an abstract level, involving the individual and the ever changing socium, which has long ago started to behave in unpredictable and dangerous ways. Finally, it’s an incredibly ironic proof of how even the most isolated, socially-inept, and unknown individuals like Navinder Singh Sarao can shake up the whole world.

Vaughan is an investigative journalist, currently working for Bloomberg and Businessweek magazine in London. 

The Green New Deal and Beyond Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can - Stan Cox

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"Moving to zero net carbon emissions, and fast, is the point of Stan Cox's important new study, The Green New Deal and Beyond. Cox advocates on behalf of the GND as one step of several we need to take to stabilize the planet."—Noam Chomsky

The global ecological crisis is inevitably expressed in the book publishing industry. There are numerous books approaching this issue from various viewpoints, but rarely do we see people being so straightforward like Stan Cox, who is a plant breeder and agricultural scientist, working for he Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. 

The Green New Deal is the There’s No Planet B of 2020. It’s another reminder, backed up by increasingly pessimistic facts, that our grand plans for the future and interstellar travel might be shattered to pieces in just a few decades - if we continue doing what we’ve been doing for the last 200 years. 

I decided it’s crucial to include this book because ecology was and will remain one of the most important topics, and because Cox offers a perspective I tend to agree with. In the light of such apologetic terms such as “environmental alarmism” and a plethora of books that try to downplay the importance of ecology by emphasizing how bad it is to be “paranoid” about the impending catastrophe, in such a light, it’s crucial to restate the facts once again and remind everyone that we all have to work on making our planet a healthier place.

The answer is pretty simple yet so hard for us to accept - a low-energy society; low-consumption society; low-production society.

Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy - Li Zhang

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There’s no going around it - China as a global power is here to stay. This is why anthropological, sociological, and psychological studies of modern Chinese culture and character are becoming more and more important, not only for those dealing directly with the Chinese but for the whole global community. 

China has only recently shifted from tradition to modern capitalistic economy. For a while, the Chinese society was a peculiar blend of ultra-modern technology, economic reform, and traditional rural societies that were not dissimilar to how the Chinese people lived centuries ago. 

But things have slowly changed. Much like the US has seen a growing popularity of psychotherapy in the post WWII period, so is China currently experiencing a change in collective mentality and acceptance of mental health issues. 

Anxious China is also a study of how a drastic economic shift influenced the whole nation. Li Zhang, a Cornell doctor of anthropology, astutely analyzes the Chinese culture and the shifts it experienced in the recent period.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor -  Layla Saad

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Me and White Supremacy marked the year 2020 and is just a tiny drop in the ocean of books and articles on racism published during that turbulent year. 

A British author and social media figure, Layla Saad gives both a highly personal and objective analysis of white supremacy, aimed at those who might be propelled to turn to extreme and discriminatory interpretations of the difference between people. It’s a 28-day guide for white people helping them notice the signs of white privilege and supremacy. 

Interestingly enough, the book was published in January 2020, seeing a surge in popularity after the killing of George Floyd. 

A stark reminder that we are still living in a very much racist world, Me and White Supremacy is a great read for those interested in social justice. 

War: How Conflict Shaped Us - Margaret MacMillan

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Even though there have been no global conflicts since 1945, we’re far from living in a peaceful world. Quite the contrary, the world is, in certain respects, more tense and the future more uncertain than what people experienced during the Cold War. 

Margaret MacMillan, an American historian and Oxford professor, tries to answer the perennial question of war and whether it’s really a global status quo, or a necessary evil that we will be able to forget about in the future. 

War is an incredibly rich collection of historical facts showing how war has shaped each and every phase of the development of mankind. From the (pre)historical roots of the war, to modern conflicts, Margaret MacMillan gives an all-encompassing picture of human nature looked at through the prism of war. 

The author also addresses some peculiar questions like: “Why are warriors exclusively men?” or “Why is war often described as the pinnacle of human organization?”. 

The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) - Katie Mack

On Uptime

To name only a few of its accolades, this book has been named as the Book of the Year by The Washington Post, The Guardian, and New Scientist.

It is a bit weird that a book focusing on all the ways our world could end received such a good reception, but it seems like the global environmental situation reminds us all that neither we nor our planet, and for that matter, the whole universe, are eternal. 

From the current scientific dogma to far-fetched speculations on the world’s end, Katie Mack gives us a pandemonium of the ways the universe could cease to exist. Whether it be Big Crunch, Heat Death, the Big Rip or Vacuum Decay it’s impossible to be too pessimistic about the future of our universe. Fortunately, the author’s humor and the projected age of the whole world might assure you that you can sit back and enjoy the eons that are yet to come. Mack teaches astrophysics at North Carolina State University. 

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