2020 is truly a banner year for nonfiction releases; I read more non-fiction in 2020 than I read in the last three years combined. Accordingly, it took me a while to get this list whittled down, but I finally did. My favorites include books about the importance of having an address, a trip to every U.S. National Park, a Twitter sensation, the artisan cheese movement in the United States, Dolly Parton, and much more. Here are the best non-fiction books of 2020.
The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask
When Mask stumbled upon “Addressing the World, An Address for Everyone” and learned that many households in the world do not have street addresses, she started investigating. Her research led her to write this fabulous and fascinating history of how streets are named, who counts and who doesn’t, and what happens today when someone does not have an address. This book is a must read.
American Cheese takes a deep dive into the world of artisanal cheese. With his signature humor, Berkowitz details his journey from novice to cheese aficionado. Set on this path after attending a cheese tasting at a well-known New York City cheese shop, he spends the next year and a half traveling the world seeking to become an expert. He frequents cheese festivals and the World Cheese Awards, visits American cheesemakers, takes a jaunt along the California Cheese Trail, participates in Cheeselandia at SXSW, and even attends Strip Cheese, perhaps the world’s only cheese burlesque show. This one is very entertaining and a ton of fun to read.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous
Duchess Goldblatt is a Twitter phenomenon who brings light, humor and joy to those who follow her. Becoming Duchess Goldblatt describes the creation of the fictional Duchess Goldblatt and the story behind her: a lonely woman crippled by grief who decided to beget a fictional internet persona to bring laughter, and, inadvertently a sense of community, to the popular social media platform. On her journey, she befriends Lyle Lovett and others including numerous authors, inspires groups to come together in her name, and is there for those who need a helping hand. She sprinkles her tweets throughout the book, frequently providing the backstory for a particular missive and the responses these tweets received. Alternating between heartbreaking, heartwarming, and hilarious, this book will stay with me for a very long time; it is the antidote for 2020.
Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre
Death in Mud Lick is an in-depth look at the opioid crisis in the U.S., and the corporate greed and malfeasance that led to addiction and devastation in coal communities throughout the Appalachian region. Three individuals, a woman who lost her brother to overdose, a driven attorney and a local journalist, worked together to uncover the scandal, and this book tells their riveting tale. Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on this crisis.
Everything Beautiful in Its Time: Seasons of Love and Loss by Jenna Bush Hager
Hager’s heartwarming and emotional collection of essays honors her beloved grandparents, President George and First Lady Barbara Bush and her mother’s mother, Jenna Welch, who died within 13 months of each other. To find comfort, she shared their words and wisdom with family and friends, and they urged her to memorialize these anecdotes in a book. Hager uses various formats, including letters to her grandparents, sharing stories that she wishes she could tell them personally. Before you start reading, grab tissues – Hager’s tales are charming and touching and will have you contemplating what matters most in your world.
Father of Lions: One Man’s Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo by Louise Callaghan
Father of Lions is a captivating and timely read that tells the tale of the ISIS occupation of Mosul, Iraq, in the mid-2010s through the lens of Abu Laith and his determination to save the animals in the Mosul Zoo at any cost. Callaghan’s focus is on the civilians in Mosul, and she skillfully imbues the story with the cultural, societal and religious norms found in present-day Iraq. I loved this one and still think about it regularly.
Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind by Kermit Pattison
A group led by the renowned fossil-hunter Tim White discovered a skeleton in the Afar region of Ethiopia in the mid-1990’s that significantly altered scientists’ understanding of human origins, but simultaneously triggered a seismic rift in the scientific community over the true origins of humanity. Based on the radiometric dating of nearby rocks, the group determined that the bones were 4.4 million years old, making Ardi (as they nicknamed the bones) a full million years older than “Lucy”, the previous oldest-known skeleton. In riveting detail, Pattison brings to life the discovery and demonstrates the importance of science in helping human’s understand their origins.
The Pioneer Woman, who is a blogger, food writer, television persona, and author, returns with tales from the country, specifically about living with her husband and four children. The collection of essays spans stories that take place over 25 years and touches on everyday things from marital strife to movie nights to donuts to relatives. With her trademark wit and down-home manner, Drummond will entertain both her fans and those new to her.
In this gem, Knighton recounts the year he spent traveling to every national park in the U. S. The parks are grouped by theme instead of location, and the book is interspersed with humor and character. Knighton highlights the importance of our national parks, how various parks received their designations, and how climate change and over-visiting is impacting these beautiful sites. Leave Only Footprints makes me look forward to the days when I can travel again.
Bess and her grandmother Bobby shared a special bond, and when Bobby died at age 90, Bess was shattered. To honor Bobby, she decided to write a memoir from Bobby’s perspective utilizing the many voicemails, texts and emails Bess had saved. Channeling Bobby, Bess relays the advice she received (sometimes hilarious, sometimes critical but always heartfelt) and tales from Bobby’s childhood. I laughed, I cried, and I did not want it to end.
In She Comes By It Natural, Smarsh explores Dolly Parton’s role in standing up for under-represented women. Smarsh highlights both Parton’s songs that validate a group of women long overlooked for their contributions to society and her career generally as Parton ensured that she had control of her brand and refused to be guided by those who did not agree with her vision. Parton’s decades-long ability to serve as an inspiration to many while staying true to herself and her beliefs is a bright spot in a world where those in the spotlight struggle to stay authentic. I thoroughly enjoyed this highly relevant and timely look at an icon who has both subtly and overtly left her mark on society.
In Shit, Actually, Lindy West revisits various well-known movies from the last several decades and evaluates them to determine how they hold up in 2020 (hint: some do not). Using her favorite movie “The Fugitive” as the standard against which the rest are judged, Lindy rates each movie on a scale of 1 to 10 and hilariously addresses plot holes in movies such as Forrest Gump, The Lion King and Face/Off and scoffs at romantic movies written by men for women such as The Notebook, Love, Actually, and Titanic. I listened to this one as an audiobook, which West narrates, and laughed so hard at times that I cried; it is absolutely hysterical.
Standoff: Race, Policing, and a Deadly Assault That Gripped a Nation by Jamie Thompson
On July 7, 2016, five Dallas law enforcement officers were killed and 11 people were wounded when a gunman opened fire at a downtown march protesting the deaths of two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, at the hands of police officers. Using exhaustive research and extensive firsthand accounts, Thompson provides a balanced accounting of that tragic day and the equally tragic events that led up to it, while also delving into the social and political forces that contributed. Her retelling of the shooting and its aftereffects is through the eyes of those present which is a very effective format. Sadly, a takeaway from Standoff is that not much has changed since 2016.
Award-winning sportscaster and interviewer Jim Gray reflects back on his career and specifically on his interviews and relationships with a number of the legends he has encountered during this tenure. He includes the famous moments that made history, but he also writes about lesser-known events such as how his infamous interview with Kobe Bryant concerning Shaq and the Lakers came about, his years-long pursuit to tell the story of George W. Bush’s decision to throw the first pitch at the Yankees World Series opener following September 11, 2011, and his chance encounter with Lucille Ball. Gray’s frank and informal style lends itself well to his recounting of the standout moments in his career which are often also the monumental moments in his subject’s careers as well.
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins – During the Great Migration, over 6 million black people left their rural Southern homes seeking better economic prospects in the North, West and Midwest. Taking a personal approach to the effects of the Great Migration, Jerkins recreates the paths her ancestors took out of Georgia and South Carolina and studies the loss of familial knowledge and the impact on personal identity. Her premise provides a fresh and enthralling deep dive into one woman’s attempt to understand her roots and her family’s legacy. Thought-provoking and incisive, Wandering in Strange Lands is a timely tale. I listened to the audiobook, which Jerkins narrates.