Summer reading shouldn’t be limited to novels and beach blockbusters. While it’s the perfect time to escape into fictional worlds, summer is also a great time to sharpen your thinking and increase your sharps when it comes to the workings of the world.
We’ve read some of the best new non-fiction books in 2020 – from thought-provoking insights into policing in the modern age to explorations on what it means to be human. Below is a medley of non-fiction titles worth your time, and these should be on everyone’s summer reading list this year.
Best new non-fiction books to read in 2020
Crossing the Line: Lessons From A Life On Duty by John Sutherland (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
In Crossing The Line, retired Met Police chief superintendent John Sutherland draws on his 25 years of service to highlight the extraordinary everyday bravery and commitment of police officers who face overwhelming challenges. Each chapter scrutinises a different social issue, be it drugs, knife crime or domestic violence, interspersing empathetically told true stories of victims with grim crime statistics, to underline officers’ vital work. Sutherland is no blind apologist and acknowledges past and present police failings. Instead, he makes an impassioned plea for solutions to support forces hit by years of austerity. Driven by hope for the future, he suggests many himself, making cases for alcohol minimum pricing, a public health approach to knife crime and a new public conversation around drugs. Firmly in his sights are politicians, who he blasts for their self-serving and short-sighted outlooks. Tough, earnest, thought-provoking and moving, this is a book that lingers.
Humankind: A Hopefully History by Rutger Bregman (Bloomsbury)
Rutger Bregman’s Utopia For Realists, proposed a universal basic income. So it’s fair to say the Dutch historian is not afraid of ruffling a few intellectual feathers. In Humankind, he sets out to disprove the idea that humans are naturally bad. He identifies an epidemic of cynicism infecting figures in every generation, from Hobbes to Dawkins, who would have us believe we are inherently selfish. He uncovers a real-life Lord of the Flies scenario in 1960s Tonga, finding no tribalism, no murder, but a group of boys who survive through cooperation. It seems Rousseau was right: we’re naturally good, but corrupted by society. Want compelling evidence most soldiers don’t actually fire their guns at the enemy? He has it. Proof the most famous psychological experiments showing our capacity for evil are unreliable? Ditto. The reader emerges from this book with a new respect for humanity and a practical sense of how to make the most of our natural talents.
Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes by Haley Shapley (Gallery Books)
Inspiring people to think, ‘I want to be strong, like her’, is Hayley Shapley’s ultimate aim in this compilation of female strength success stories, through the ages. From the original Olympic Games in 776 BCE to modern-day CrossFit Games, Strong Like Her is a journey through the history of strong women – both in the physical sense, as well as the cultural, social and personal strength that broke gender barriers, succeeded in achieving body autonomy, and redefined social norms. Shapley illuminates the women and events that paved the way for female freedoms today, something she believes isn’t just inspirational, but instructive. 24 contemporary female athletes across a range of disciplines are also showcased as “a new kind of female beauty” – one that’s rooted in capability and accomplishments. In exploring the ‘femininity is frailty’ and ‘masculinity is muscularity’ dichotomy, this book proves the boundless ability of who, and what, a woman can be.
The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller (Atria Books)
A new genre of self-meets-community-help has formed. Its premise is that our fragmented, polluted or overburdened world reflects our own psychological fragmentation, emotional toxicity or over-commitment to others. We need to heal, cleanse or learn to just say no. And so it is with The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan.
There’s always a few key ingredients for books like these: the moment of truth (plastic trash on a beach); the humble truth (lessons from a Nepalese village); the tasks (exercising the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – and adding a few more, like ‘refuse’); the unpacking (the different meanings of ‘refuse’) and promises of abundance (join a Buy Nothing group; you may meet your future spouse – and have the wedding supplied by neighbours). There are tips we wouldn’t follow, like reusing empty crisp packets as gift bags, and there’s the irony of paying for a book about not buying anything… But for those looking for it, this book may well offer that elusive Something.
The See-Through House by Shelley Klein (Chatto & Windus)
When Shelley Klein moved home to High Sunderland to take care of her elderly father, she was welcomed back into its glass rooms as the girl she once was, but the furniture and house plants she’d accumulated in the 30 intervening years, were not. This wasn’t wholly unexpected, however reignited a familiar tension between her and the man she both refuted and revered.
Part memoir, part heart-felt eulogy, Shelley maps her father’s life and career through the floorplan of the house he built for her and her siblings; from glass hallways, to the living and bedrooms, and finally to the garden where the children say their last goodbyes to an eccentric and fastidious, but ultimately adored, father. A touching and timely account of familial love, The See-Through House arrives with all the greater power in our period of lockdown, compelling readers to appreciate the importance of home and family anew.
Lost, Found, Remembered by Lyra McKee (Faber & Faber)
It’s a devastating cruel irony that the Northern Irish investigative journalist and LGBT activist Lyra Mckee was killed, aged 29, during rioting in Derry in April 2019. This book brings together a selection of her writings, in her memory, including personal memoir, journalism and extracts from a book she will now never finish. The book section, The Lost Boys, deals with the corrosive effects of trauma, passed on from generation to generation. Her cohort, she writes bitterly, were known as the Ceasefire Babies. They were supposed to benefit from the prosperity and goodwill of conflicts resolved. Yet the pain lives on, and suicides in Northern Ireland remain anomalously high.
Along with other pieces on the issue of a past that continues to haunt the present, she writes of the little-recognised medical issues affecting boxers in later life and, in the unbearably poignant A Letter to My Fourteen-year-old Self, talks of her journey to coming out and asserting her own identity. This book should never have needed to be published in this way, at this time; Mckee clearly had so much more to think and discover and write. But at least in its pages we can see something of the bright curiosity and fierce compassion of a courageous voice whose time was cut cruelly, scandalously short.
The Address Book by Deirdre Mask (Profile Book)
Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book has pretty much everything you want in discursive non-fiction: a fascinating topic, excellent breadth and depth of research across multiple countries and communities, logical compilations of the facts into topic areas and an enthusiastic and chatty narrator. Uncovering what the humble address reveals about us in a multitude of ways – from how we perceive and make sense of our world, through to what constitutes a social legacy, and on to the very timely usefulness of the address in helping us deal with epidemics – Mask has done an excellent job of collating an impressive array of fact, fable and experience. It’s unfortunate that at times the delivery isn’t quite as tight or as nuanced as both author and topic deserve. Perhaps a more challenging edit would have helped Mask’s manuscript really sing. However, there’s still much to appreciate in this book – and a lot of fantastic facts to share or store in the back of your mind for the next pub quiz.
Greenery by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape)
Alongside sights, sounds and species, the experience of nature – its role in our lives and history – has formed the heart of recent nature writing. A radio producer, student of literature and dedicated birdwatcher, Tim Dee has shown his aptitude for this blend of personal, cultural and natural histories in previous memoirs. Greenery is an anatomy of spring, travelling northwards through the year, but its course meanders eclectically. Swooping in one chapter from Sicily’s Persephone myth to a discarded toffee wrapper on Heligoland, by way of human and avian migrants and Brueghel’s Icarus, Dee’s writing sings. Sometimes the lush prose overwhelms but many moments resonate, like the ‘rhyme’ between birds in the daylit arctic summer and in the sun-drenched south. When scattered personal anecdotes finally crystallise into the recent events in Dee’s life, the heart breaks. A book best experienced like spring itself, blooming and fad07ing at its own pace.
Liquid Gold by Roger Morgan-Grenville (Icon Books)
Of all hobbies to adopt on a whim, keeping 50,000 temperamental insects in your garden and stealing their winter food stores to eat yourself is not the most accessible to amateurs. Nevertheless, in 2016 Roger Morgan-Grenville and his friend – nay, first-time acquaintance – Duncan decided to become beekeepers and this book follows their bumbling through and swift abandonment of a £250 budget.
Morgan-Grenville clearly has eclectic interests. After army service during which he retraced Shackleton’s trek across South Georgia, he imported kitchenware and fundraised for Help for Heroes. His previous books have sought humour and self-contemplation in another quintessential rural pastime: cricket. The reader will learn plenty about bees and beekeeping from this book, although it is about as far from a manual as possible. Liquid Gold is a well-observed delve into the hobbyist’s desire to find what is important in life, no matter their age or preparedness.
Fancy some fiction books instead? Read our guide to the best books to read this summer.
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