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The Best Nonfiction Books of 2020

Stephen L. Carter
·6 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the tough times of 2020, I’ve found myself drawn to nonfiction that made me look at the familiar in a different way. I’ve collected my favorite 15 books of the year here (technically, two were published in 2019, but I didn’t get around to reading them until this year). The first 14 are in random order, followed by my pick for the best nonfiction book of the year.

Bonnie Tsui, “Why We Swim.” So many of us are drawn to the water, for recreation, for beautiful vistas, for food. And then there’s those who go to swim. In elegant prose, Tsui explores her own love of plunging into the water, and combines history, psychology, and interviews to explain the same emotion in others. Also, why humans are like salmon. Rebecca Sykes, “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.” Sykes argues that we’ve spent too much time studying the way Neanderthals interacted with Homo Sapiens and too little studying the way Neanderthals interacted with each other. So she tells us how they lived, treating them not as one of evolution’s failures but as our close behavioral cousins. “The fate of the Neanderthals has monopolised enormous amounts of attention,” she writes, “yet it may be the least interesting thing about them.” James Nestor, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.” Who knew that nearly all of us breathe wrong, to the detriment of our health? Or that the culprit might be “dysevolution” caused by the development of speech? A bit overconfident in places, but a fascinating view of a function we take for granted. Jill Lepore, “If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.” Although I’ve read countless histories of the sixties, I’d never heard of Simulmatics, an early effort to harness computer-drive analytics to predict the behavior of voters and consumers. The company didn’t do the work all that well, but it made a lot of influential friends, and anticipated the world we inhabit. Alec Ryrie, “Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt.” Perhaps, contrary to common assumption, the loss of belief over the past three centuries has been driven less by the advance of science than by the rise of a kind of emotionalism with which we’re nowadays all too familiar: anxiety and anger as things go wrong. (The first of the two 2019 books on this list.) Gretchen Sorin, “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” I’d never given much thought to how the ability of Black families to afford cars and go places influenced the course of history. Sorin weaves together gruesome tales of Black accident victims, the way Black affluence led corporations to try to profit from integration, and much more. An overlooked tour de force. Joseph Henrich, “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” The rare case of a volume that deserves all its many accolades. The title says it all. One can quibble over details (for example, some of what he says about the Western church), but overall, it’s a remarkable tome that makes a powerful case. Steve Inskeep, “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.” The fascinating story of the nation’s first abolitionist presidential candidate and the wife who was rarely beside him but relentlessly pushed his career. Frémont the explorer named San Francisco Bay the Golden Gate; Frémont the general was a favorite of the Republican party even after Lincoln was president. Camilla Pang, “An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do and Who We Are.” “I’ve often despaired at my ignorance toward my own species,” writes Pang, who was diagnosed at age eight with autism spectrum disorder. Whether or not you agree with Pang that humans are basically code, her sharp-eyed observations about behavior, emotion and relationships should help us understand ourselves a little better. Ilya Somin, “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.” Suppose the right to exit is more important than the right to vote? Whether switching jobs, moving to different states or crossing international borders, Somin argues, the ability to change our lives by changing our surroundings is a vital and personal freedom too often taken for granted. Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird, “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.” I wrote a whole column on how this provocative tome made me rethink a broad set of prior assumptions. Marie Arana, “Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story.” A fascinating retelling of the continent’s history from a series of different perspectives. Arana notes that most who write about Latin America assume a commonality based on culture and miss the continent’s deep and abiding divisions based on skin color. A sad, grand, important volume. (The second 2019 book.) Zachary Carter, “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.” The author has come under fire for downplaying his subject’s attraction to the eugenics movement, but that aside, this biography not only of Keynes but of Keynsianism is consistently fascinating, and manages to deploy the jargon of the profession in ways that always illuminate rather than confuse. Highly relevant to the moment. Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton, “The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life.” Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, but here’s what I like about this controversial volume: Reams of data and plenty of controlled experiments.

And my pick as best nonfiction book of the year:

Virginia Postrel, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.” My fellow Bloomberg Opinion columnist offers a bold retelling of history through an emphasis on cloth — cloth as decoration, cloth as currency, cloth as ritual and much more. One of the most extraordinary volumes I have read in years.

As always, happy reading.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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