2020 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

As the annus horribilis of 2020 finally draws to a close it’s time to announce my favorite nonfiction books of the year. This year, like in years past I read some outstanding nonfiction making it darn near impossible to limit my list to just 10 books. While in past years I’ve cheated and listed a dozen titles, this year I’m gonna stand firm and name just 10.  So here’s 10 books in no particular order of preference I have no problems whatsoever recommending.

  1. The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins 
  2. Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell 
  3. The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue 
  4. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker 
  5. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen
  6. Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
  7. Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas
  8. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
  9. Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
  10. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan 

Sadly, I haven’t been able to review all the books on my list but hopefully I’ll be able wrap things up over the next few weeks or so. Some of you might remember back in April I predicted Black Wave would end up being my favorite nonfiction book of 2020. Despite stiff competition from Hidden Valley Road, The Future is History and The Jakarta Method I’m going to stick with my original prediction and proclaim Black Wave the year’s best. If you’ve followed my blog over the years you already know I almost always includes back-listed titles in my year-end list. To me it doesn’t matter when a book was published, as long as it’s exceptional. This year’s list includes two older books, Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai published in 1986 and Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle in 1966.  

Add to this list a slew of honorable mentions like Masha Gessen’s Surviving AutocracyStephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us” and Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947 and the more I think about it, 2020 was a pretty decent year for nonfiction.

19 thoughts on “2020 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

  1. What a fantastic list of nonfiction books. I read far less nonfiction this year than last (perhaps real life was dramatic enough?), but I hope to read more next year.


  2. This is such a great list! Hidden Valley Road made my list as well, and I finally did finish The Future is History as well! It was fantastic, but I liked the sections following the individual people more than the general history. I’m so glad I finally read it though, thanks for the push! And glad you had such a great reading year in nonfiction! (PS 1947 was one of my absolute favorites the year it came out — such a gem of a book!)


  3. I went the other direction this year, typically limiting myself to ten favorites but cheating with a dozen this year 🙂 Black Wave has been on my list for a long time and seeing your list it as your favorite out of so many great options makes me more excited to pick it up. Hopefully once I finish more of my project of clearing my own shelves!


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