Best Non-Fiction of 2020 (and Honorable Mentions)

Hello, friends, family, foes, and other groups of people starting with “f.” It has been about a year since my last post about the best non-fiction books I read in 2019. For all of the tribulations and anxieties of 2020, it could have been worse if not for the following non-fiction books that kept me awake, thinking and feeling, deep into the year.  

And as always, I am reviewing five of the best non-fiction books I have read this year. Reasonable minds may disagree about many things but not about the most special number in mankind. Whether we call it cinco, cinq, or cinque, five is the greatest number of all time. This is non-negotiable and non-disputable. It is why Joe DiMaggio and Kevin Garnett donned that number. It is why Immanuel Quickley is the future of the New York Knicks. And it is why we have five fingers on a hand, five toes on a foot, five senses (OK, maybe not all of us), five elements, and the five by five rule.  

But, anyway.        

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

Sometimes, a non-fiction book is good because it interests, inspires, or improves us. But a great non-fiction book does all of the above such as Anna Konnikova’s jewel about chance, randomness, and probability. She’s a psychologist who took on poker and won a World Series of Poker bracelet after a year of practice, documenting her extraordinary journey in a book that is a nail-biter, a self-improver, and a soul-stirrer, all at once. 

One scene that keeps replaying in my head like a catchy tune, even if I would not know what it feels like, is when her poker coach – her Yoda – declared that he didn’t give a shit about how the hand ended. Rather, he told her, “what matters is what decisions you made. Don’t tell me if you won or lost but how you played the hand.” 

As Konnikova emphasizes, the wisdom of focusing on the process is rooted in the fickleness of luck. Sometimes, our shot attempts and stock picks and job applications and fantasy football trades and product pitches and marriage proposals materialize. Sometimes, they don’t. But it takes expertise and humility to resist the natural temptation to attribute success to skill and conversely, failure to bad luck. And resilience to recognize that, over time, sound choices will likely lead to better results. 

Thus, we ought to discount outcomes, favorable or not, and focus on the process, which we can more often own. This is what separates the Nick Sabans, Tom Thibodeaus, and Phil Iveys from the rest of us. They pay attention to what they can control and are never those whining to others: “Can you believe what happened?” For randomness cannot be avoided, the wise do not waste time and energy bemoaning what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. Instead, they focus on the quality of their decision-making and ignore the subsequent noise that clutters this vital process. 

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

My deaf grandmother who was Helen Lemberger Udkovich but will always be Granny in my heart somehow escaped from Theresienstadt, a concentration camp, during the Holocaust. She left everything that she had to live in England for over ten years before emigrating to Los Angeles where she met my grandfather and gave birth to my mother. When she was alive, she would always refuse to discuss her journey in Europe, preferring to focus on the here and now. 

I have always known she had it bad but what I had not realized until reading this book is what Granny endured after leaving Austria but before arriving in the States. That is, I did not appreciate the extent to which her tribulations had continued in London, how close England came to succumbing to the vile ideology and strategy of Nazis, and why Granny had so many Royal Doulton mugs of Winston Churchill and his poodle, two of which rest on my bookshelves today. 

Erik Larson’s masterpiece makes it clear that what stood between Hitler and Granny, the Axis and the Allies, and good and evil was that overweight man with a remarkable propensity for cigars, baths, whiskey, and late-night banter. Churchill was a personable, brilliant, and prescient man who had no qualms about calling out and defying evil. Unlike his comrades in France and his predecessors in England, he saw Nazism for what it was – a dark curse on humanity that must be fought at all costs. 

Churchill defied popular and elite opinion by telling Hitler that his people would fight anywhere and anytime, and that they would never surrender. This may sound less impressive today with the gauzy benefit of time and hindsight. But keep in mind that, at the time of Churchill’s exceptional resistance, the Nazis had invaded almost the entirety of the continent in the blink of an eye and without much effort. They then bombed the British isles for over 8 months, killing over 40,000 civilians. 

At one point, London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights; as many as 180,000 Londoners ended up sheltering in the London Underground. No buildings were spared. Hospitals, museums, houses, hotels, and even the London Zoo were blitzed by the Luftwaffe, so indiscriminately and wantonly that a recent census study of London marking the bombs that were dropped with red pins looks like a sea of red from afar. 

To be clear, air raid sirens howled at least twice and blood spilled almost every night in London for longer than we have been grappling with COVID-19 now. Nonetheless, the British preserved and the Allies won. How? Leadership.

Winston Churchill did not only govern with a spine of steel, a curious mind attuned to the latest discoveries and inventions, and a black and white understanding of good and evil. He was a leader for the ages because he led with a keen understanding of the human condition. 

When London was getting bombed, for instance, the British Army had decided to preserve its scarce ammo by not firing their big guns on the ground in the city, recognizing the microscopic chances of hitting German planes from such a distance. Yet, upon learning of this quite rational decision, Churchill ordered the guns to go on full blast throughout the night, knowing the visceral noise, feel, and sight would inspire and sustain Londoners in the long run more than the logical rationing of shells. 

Read the book to gain insight and appreciation of an extraordinary life during an extraordinary time. (And Barack Obama agrees, selecting this book as one of his favorite books this year.)   

The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time consists of two evocative letters from the singular James Baldwin, both written on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In lustrous prose, he makes a pained and lucid case for the problem of, and remedy to, racial injustice. 

Locating the root cause in history and psychology, Baldwin writes that white people refuse to examine the prejudices of yesterday and today because of a simple truth: that they have not experienced the act of suffering. Black people, on the other hand, have lived through it and, fairly or not, are tasked with the burden of education and activism: “I hear them saying ‘You exaggerate.’ They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you.” 

I suppose this is what people today mean by lived experiences. Knowledge heightened by suffering.   

Baldwin also argues that identity and self-interest are stopping white people from pursuing racial justice. By defining themselves in proportion to the degradation of black people, white people have a stake in preserving the status quo. Otherwise, to shake up the normal would be to degrade comfortable notions of reality, akin to waking up “one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame.” 

Therefore, the answer to the vexing problem of injustice, according to Baldwin, is not so much flagellation and condemnation as recognition and grace, to learn “how to accept and love themselves and each other.”

What is also particularly interesting about The Fire Next Time is recognizing the profound influence of Baldwin’s optimism on Obama’s pragmatism, the former of whom the latter has identified as an inspiration. As Baldwin decries systematic oppression in the country yet insists that “we can make America what America must become”, the spiritual roots of Obama’s audacity to believe in the possibility of America become apparent. 

The letters may have been published in 1962 but are perhaps even more relevant today. Baldwin believed a more equitable country – despite difficulty and history, and borne out of urgency and love – is not only possible, but necessary and crucial, and he is still completely right.

For a shorter read, check out this 1968 Esquire interview with Baldwin. 

Loose Balls 

As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “When we can’t think for ourselves, we can always quote.”  In this case, I will quote two of my favorite stories in Loose Balls about Marvin Barnes of the St. Louis Spirits, which is only proper. After all, Loose Balls is an oral history in which the author, Terry Pluto, interviewed players, coaches, broadcasters, and fans, cutting and splicing their answers verbatim to tell the stranger than fiction story of the short-lived American Basketball Association (ABA). 

Favorite story #1:  Bob Costas, who broke into the broadcasting world as the play-by-play voice of the Spirits: “After the game, I saw (Marvin) in the dressing room and he started giving me his state of the Spirits speech. He told me, ‘Bro, you know what’s wrong with this team? We don’t have any team play. We don’t care about each other … Let me give you an example. Tonight, I had 48 points with two minutes to go. Did anybody pass me the ball so I could get 50? Huh? No, they just kept the ball to themselves and I got stuck on 48.’ ”

Favorite story #2: Costas: The Spirits were about to depart on a flight from Louisville at 8:00 a.m. that would get into St. Louis at 7:56 a.m. After one look at his ticket, Barnes approached Costas and said, “I ain’t gettin’ on no time machine.”

Rape of Nanking

Iris Chang’s best-seller about the massacre and atrocities by the Japanese army in Nanking during the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937-1938 brought to mind the words of Viktor Frankl: “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

As Chang chronicles in painstaking detail, the capacity of humanity for barbarous cruelty and selfless heroism is unsettling and underexplored. Even as the Japanese looted, raped, pillaged, burned, and tortured in Nanking, a Nazi loyalist (!) and a university educator risked their lives by refusing to leave town to provide safe harbor and rescue the fleeing women and men from exploitation and extermination. 

Even though the death toll of Nanking exceeds the combined number of deaths from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski, too many of us do not know what happened. The events should be studied in classrooms and never forgotten. Not only for historical preservation but because we ought to be reminded of what we are capable of. 

***

FIVE HONORABLE MENTIONS 

Norco ‘80

People without community and commitment are those most likely to practice fanaticism. 

This Town 

Good people don’t live in Washington, D.C. 

A Three-Ring Circus

Good people don’t play or coach for the Lakers. 

A Promised Land

Barack Obama is as self-aware a politician, as skilled a writer, as thoughtful a luminary as they come. 

Blueprint

Believe it or not, goodness is embedded in our genes. 

***

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?  Do you have a book to recommend for 2021? If so, hit me up and let me know.   

Until next time, wishing you a peaceful New Year and a brighter 2021.

7 thoughts on “Best Non-Fiction of 2020 (and Honorable Mentions)

  1. Good Day Professor Stern,

    My name is Elmer H. Hayes and I am a friend of your father. This is the first time I have come upon your suggested “Best Non-Fiction” books to read. Am now eager to pursue these suggestions as I am in a way a prolific reader.

    Born and raised in Germany, still fluent in its language and well aware of the “Splendid and the Vile”.

    Thank you

    Like

    1. Hello Brendan. I am currently in the process of moving to Santa Fe and will give you my enhanced thoughts regarding one or more of the suggested book readings. It might take awhile as the SHMBO insist that I first finish our Abode there. Maybe I will include your Dad/Mom into the discussion under the influence of some cocktail at an elevation of 7000′.

      Cheers…

      Like

  2. Brendan, it was wonderful to read your thoughtful reviews of these selected non-fiction books. Thank you for paving the way for avid readers to share and reflect regarding their recommended books! I confess that 2020 was the year of fiction books for me – they were particularly comforting as an escape mechanism during unprecedented times what with our current affairs. But I’d be remiss if I did not recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist;” a bestseller in 2020 although it was published in 2019. His theories and discourse drilled deep into how real change can happen to address racism. I’ve read numerous books on this topic this year and would recommend Kendi as the author to experience if there could be just one to recommend. As for Erik Larson, I’ve enjoyed his prior writings, and the Splendid and Vile sounds markedly like In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin that he published in 2011. I was dismayed that the American ambassador in his 2011 piece did not seem to try to do more to change his predicament so I’m looking forward to reading this newer book by Larson. I’ll check out the other books too. Have a wonderful holiday season and keep tapping away with these reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Anon-Without-A-Q. I’ll need to read Kendi sooner than later. I enjoyed In the Garden of the Beasts also. Thanks for reading and sharing your recommendations.

      Until next time, Happy Holidays back at you, whoever you may be.

      Like

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