With its ability to open our minds to new ideas, new cultures, people and places, the shelves of non-fiction never fail to reveal to us something we didn’t know. So what are we recommending this year? Well, from the truth about British TV and clever tips on writing to a fascinating work of feminist auto-fiction and essays on queer art under fascism, there’s something for everyone in our Non-Fiction Staff Picks (and if you haven’t already, check out our favourites in Fiction here.)
Browse the full list on Bookshop.org
The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain by Phil Harrison
(Melville House Publishing, 9781911545521, £9.99)
In the long-forgotten year of 2019 I was in a pub and overheard a bunch of office workers drunkenly discuss Doctor Who. Now it’s no secret I am somewhat overinvested in that particular show, but it wasn’t their plot predictions that fascinated me. Rather, it was the fact they were discussing TV at all, like they would the weather. TV in Britain is still An Event, much more so than anywhere else in the world. The Age of Static is about precisely this phenomenon, tracing Britain’s changing cultural landscape through TV shows of the last 20 years. Themed chapters explore the role of the BBC, reality TV and politics, class struggle, and a host of other social issues; all framed through the biggest small-screen talking points since 2000. At 240 pages it offers a fascinating and entertaining whistle-stop tour through British TV and politics since the start of the millennium.
Adrift: How Our World Lost Its Way by Amin Maalouf, translated by Frank Wynne
(World Editions, 9781912987108, £12.99)
Safe to say the world has had a rough ol’ go of it this year. To French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf however, 2020 is just the latest in a long line of years filled with worldwide turmoil. In Adrift, Maalouf traces how civilisations have drifted apart in the latter half of the 20th century, reaching across geopolitical lines to tell a fascinating and intensely personal history of how we ended up where we are. His personal recollections from an incredibly rich career form the underpinnings of a treatise on our uncertain future – and a sobering plea for global solidarity.
Great Trees of London Map by Paul Wood
(Blue Crow Media, 9781912018765, £8.00)
I had my annual multi-day hiking trip scheduled for April. Yeah, no hike for me.
Instead, I relished the one hour I was allowed outside daily, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve mapped most of your neighbourhood by now. Enter the Great Trees of London map. A beautifully produced map of the capital, it includes listings of some of the finest tree specimens on offer. The best part is that a fair few of them stand proudly in London’s sprawling green spaces, allowing for some much-needed time away from the familiar roads and houses that have become the backdrop to much of 2020.
Rayguns and Rocketships: Vintage Science Fiction Book Cover Art by Rian Hughes
(Korero Press, 9781912740048, £24.99)
Because it is largely concerned with the future, sci-fi feels dated faster than almost any other genre. The covers reproduced on the pages of Rayguns and Rocketships reveal a belief in technologies never realised, futures that never came to pass and alien life never discovered. Still, with their bright colours, depictions of grotesque cyber-animals and outdated spaceships, these pulp books make those beliefs as enticing as they ever were. A true feast for the eyes, and a triumph for science-fiction book history.
A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing by So Mayer
(Peninsula Press, 9781913512026, £6.99)
Next up in Peninsula’s rad pocket essay series, this is one of the best things I read this year. Taking into account the work of Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institut für Sexulawissenschaft, the Entartete Kunst exhibition (in which Nazis displayed the seized artwork of Jewish, queer, and foreign artists), and looking later at queer filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Pedro Almodóvar, So Mayer gives us a history of the culture war and how ‘degenerate’ art has always found its way into the world. It’s a joyful and riotous look at how art defies the traditional patriarchal, colonial canon, and a call to arms that asks how we might use pleasure to decolonise gender and sexuality. Also, special shout out to So and Peninsula Press for hosting the best digital book launch I’ve been to, complete with cabaret tunes, films, and candles.
The Cosmic Slumber Tarot by Tillie Walden
(Liminal 11, 9781912634170, £21.99)
Every tarot deck Liminal 11 produce is completely glorious – from the artwork, to the companion book, to the box. And as a Tillie Walden fan, I’d been excited about this one since I first heard about it. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been sent the limited edition from Liminal 11, which continuously blows my mind. The deck is dreamy, with Walden’s trademark and distinct artwork and colouring. And the limited edition comes with loads of special extras in a custom tin. Even if you’re not into reading the tarot, it’s worth getting a deck just to gaze at. For me it’s been a really helpful tool throughout this second lockdown, I can’t recommend it enough.
One Life by Megan Rapinoe
(Penguin Press, 9781984881168, £20.00)
I loathe football but I love lesbians being amazing at things! It’s always been a joy to watch Megan Rapinoe bounce around, take a knee, kiss her girlfriend after winning, give speeches. She uses her huge platform for good activism, and was the second lesbian (after Kristen Stewart) to be on the receiving end of one of Trump’s insane Twitter assaults. Because of all these things (and probably her football skills too), there has been a lot of buzz around this book. It’s an enjoyable look into her professional success (as an Olympic gold medallist and two-time World Cup winner) but mostly a thoughtful and inspiring discussion of social justice and equality and how we can further both going forward.
Lucifer Over London by Various
(Influx Press, 9781910312391, £9.99)
First published in Italian, this anthology gives us a version of London as seen through the eyes of international authors who are each immigrant to the city. Featuring prize-wining authors including Chloe Aridjis, Viola di Grado, Xiaolu Guo, Joanna Walsh, and Zinovy Zinik, it shows us a city in constant flux, always changing, full of languages and movement. I found it an especially good read this November during lockdown, where London has shrunk to basically my small corner of Hackney. It was cathartic to remember there are other, less stagnant London experiences out there waiting and that it’s a huge place full of so many different people.
Ten Things About Writing: Build Your Story, One Word at a Time by Joanne Harris
(September Publishing, 9781912836598, £12.95)
This entertaining guide to the art of writing is based on a popular series of tweets, #TenThings, that has reached over 70 thousand of Joanne Harris’s followers. It is good to know that now, with this bright, authoritative book, her wise words will reach even more. Moving between tips on setting up a writing workspace to forming positive and productive habits and nailing dialogue, reading this book made me feel more confident that writing something to completion and being satisfied with it is actually possible, with a clear path to success in sight. It also reveals some fascinating insights into how the world of publishing works, from submitting a manuscript to the issues of rights, territories, etc.. Illuminating!
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
(Tramp Press, 9781916434264, £12.99)
I was very excited when I found out we were handling this book from Tramp Press – old Irish poetry, a time- and genre-crossing narrative, and the prose debut of a significant Irish language poet too! Two stories are interwoven within these beautiful covers: an 18th century Irish noblewoman, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, drinks handfuls of blood in the grief over her murdered husband and composes a legendary poem, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a lament for his life. And in the present day an autobiographical Doireann, a young mother who has recently narrowly avoided tragedy, is spurred on to track down the rest of Eibhlín’s story and the parallels it traces with her own life. Interwoven with meditations on womanhood, motherhood and how things echo across time and space, this is beautiful, enthralling, and thought-provoking writing — deservedly called ‘one of the best books of this dreadful year’ by The Sunday Times.
The Plain by Melanie Friend
(Dewi Lewis Publishing, 9781911306702, £30)
As both the UK’s largest military training ground and a wildlife conservation area, Salisbury Plain is the focus of this new book of photography by Melanie Friend, as she continues to investigate everyday militarisation. The chalk grasslands of the area shelter larks, corn buntings, wildflowers and other rare plants and animals, while the presence of the army and its activities are never far from view. The photographs in this book illustrate the contradictions and curiosities Friend has found there, and the result is an eerie, surprising, and fascinating collection.
Portrait of a Muse: Frances Graham, Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Dream by Andrew Gailey
(Wilmington Square Books, 9781913394400, £25)
Frances Graham was the muse of leading Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones for the last 25 years of his life. Burne-Jones is undoubtedly one of the most popular and familiar of the Pre-Raphaelites, but less is known about the woman who featured in so much of his work. This is the first biography to concentrate on Frances, and it paints a fascinating picture of a remarkable, intelligent person who mixed at her dinners politicians and aristocrats with artists, writers, and those as-yet little-known. As a study of power in the time of the Pre-Raphaelites – who had it, who exerted it, and who pushed the bounds of acceptability – this is an incredibly engaging book that illuminated a hidden corner of art history I was previously unaware of.
We Do Lockdown by Miriam Elia
(Dung Beetle Books, 9780992834920, £8.99)
These days the satire tends to write itself, just turn on the news and you’ve already entered the world of the upside-down. I imagine then that We Do Lockdown, the latest lampooning guide from the author of We Go to the Gallery, was pretty easy to come up with. From runs on bog roll to hazmat outings, to the granny you can’t see anymore but never visited anyway, We Do Lockdown is the perfect gift for a New Normal Christmas. Find out more in our Book of the Month blog.
An Opinionated Guide To Independent London by Hoxton Mini Press
(Hoxton Mini Press, 9781910566824, £9.95)
Us in the book trade are painfully aware of the fact that independently owned stores have borne the brunt of high street shutdowns and decreased footfall. And for ways to show some love to indie bookshops this year, head here. But another way to support independents of all stripes is with Hoxton Mini Press’ fantastic new guide to London’s best small businesses. Profiling 54 independents from artisan delis to stationery hubs, complete with insider tips and fantastic photography, this is the perfect way to explore independent London.
Leonard Freed: Black In White America 1963-1965 by Leonard Freed
(Reel Art Press, 9781909526778, £49.95)
More than 50 years ago, Leonard Freed published a visual essay exploring the lives of Black communities living in the States in the midst of the civil rights movement. It was a powerful and seminal work that brought the experiences of Black Americans to a humanising fore through the camera lens. There are some remarkable photographs in here, both of prominent figures and moments like Martin Luther King and the March on Washington protest, but mostly of everyday Black Americans attempting to live their lives beneath a system that oppresses them. Captioned with conversations Freed recorded himself, these images still speak and resonate, showing both how much has changed and how much more needs to be done.
Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo by Tariq Zaidi
(Kehrer Verlag, 9783868289732, £32.00)
Described as the “ladies and gentlemen of the Congo”, if you haven’t heard of the Sapeurs you really must check this out (for just a taste check out this amazing ad from Guinness.) They are the ordinary Congolonese men and women who clock off their day jobs to sashay through the streets in flamboyant suits, ties and waistcoats. Turning heads, defying their circumstances, and bringing joy wherever they step. This photographic essay showcases this striking subculture in all its glory.
For more great reading recommendations, check out our Staff Picks in Fiction & Graphic Novels. Plus. And head here for our favourite non-fiction from the year before.
As booksellers across the UK face renewed restrictions, they need your help to stay afloat.
If anything you’ve read about on our blog catches your eye, consider ordering from your local bookshop. Find yours here. Alternatively, you can browse your favourite indies on Bookshop.org.