A variety of 2020 non-fiction books that taught us lessons for the year ahead, shot from above.

Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

Every year it shakes out roughly the same way: we begin January with a set of goals and hopes for the year ahead; we achieve some, abandon the rest, and along the way, we learn lessons.

Not so in 2020. By March, our goals for 2020 felt promptly dashed, and the lessons we learned weren't alway the ones we expected. Many centred on taking better care of ourselves and others, our relationships, how we approach mental health, and having our perceptions of socio-political issues like racism and class changed forever.

As we head into 2021, we’ve collected a list of the books that can help continue that learning, and maybe even just change your life for the better.

How to scale back capitalism to save the environment

Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel

Most people agree, by now, that climate change is one of the world’s most urgent issues: the next step is making the necessary changes to stop it. In Less Is More, author Jason Hickel posits that the primary cause of climate change is capitalism, an economic system whose  “demands perpetual expansion” has led to the systematic destruction of our planet, but that there remains a solution: degrowth. Hickel’s book outlines a plan for a post-capitalist economy “fit for the 21st Century”, one that allows jobs to flourish and technological progress to advance while maintaining ecological balance. By taking less, he says, “we can become more” and put an end to the climate crisis.

How to establish your ideal work life

Designing Your Work Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Before the pandemic changed the way we work, making WFH a common acronym and Zoom a day-to-day tool, authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans were already outlining ‘How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work’, to borrow their forward-thinking book’s subtitle. Chock full of wisdom that is equal parts enlightening and empowering, Designing Your Work Life unpacks the fundamentals of work life, then equips readers with the necessary implements to find meaning through work. Whether you’re thinking of changing jobs, improving the one you have, or looking far into the future, Designing Your Work Life has something to offer.

How to protect your data and privacy

Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Véliz

“You might not know this,” Carissa Véliz wrote in an essay for Penguin.co.uk this year, “but last night, while you were sleeping, the apps on your phone were sending off information about you to dozens of corporations. The information might have included your phone number, email, your exact location, whom you were lying next to, and even whether you had a restful night’s sleep.” In Véliz’s crucial book Privacy Is Power, she reveals the urgency of the world’s data privacy problem, and the steps we can take towards establishing regulations that would take our data out of corporate hands and put the power back in ours.

How to raise empowered young women

What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous and Resilient Women by Marisa Porges

In a world where the gender pay gap remains emblematic of the ongoing fight for gender equality, Marisa Porges’ effectively titled What Girls Need is a powerful guide for parents to help close it – and, along the way, the confidence gap that keeps young women from achieving their potential. Based not just on the “ground-breaking work at the all-girls Baldwin School, renowned for helping girls thrive personally and professionally” but on the author’s own remarkable work in historically male-dominated environments too, Porges outlines the combination of factors necessary for parents – “and anyone who cares about girls and what happens to them” – to help young women thrive.

How to be antiracist

How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

On 25 May, 2020, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, sparking worldwide protests and a reckoning with the ugly truth: that racism remained a more deeply ingrained in society than many had allowed themselves to believe. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in this book, first released in 2019 but powerfully relevant throughout this year, “Not being racist is not enough. We have to be antiracist.” It’s a powerful reminder that in order to fight racism, we cannot afford to remain neutral; we must unlearn and push against racism wherever we see it. How to Be an Antiracist is a perfect place to start – but by no means the place to finish.

How to effect change

The Purpose of Power: How to Build Movements for the 21st Century by Alicia Garza

Learning about the prevalence of racism means nothing if you don’t put it into practice: enter Alicia Garza’s incredible The Purpose of Power, a handbook on How to Build Movements for the 21st Century. Here, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter tells the story of how she helped found the one of the most pivotal moments in recent history. Equal parts inspirational story, practical guide to the effectiveness of grassroots organising and a paean to human potential, The Purpose of Power shines a light towards a brighter future.

How to push against oppressive caste and class systems…

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Bringing further dimension to the urgent discussions of race and the way it intersects with issues of class was Isabel Wilkerson’s in-depth exploration of the insidious way that historical caste hierarchies continue to divide our world and fuel socio-political upheaval. But Caste isn’t just a historical study: by telling the stories of individuals as well as groups, Wilkerson provides both a micro and macro view of caste’s shadow, and by applying critique and problem-solving, she points the way forward for our global community after millennia of division.

… and learn from the past

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia

In a year where we engaged more deeply than ever with our country’s colonial past, historian Priya Satia’s interrogation of Britain’s imperial history was the perfect tome to which readers could turn. More than a history book, Time’s Monster recontextualises and reconfigures history-making as a moral act worthy of philosophical introspection. Looking forward by looking backward with a keenly critical eye, Satia’s Book of the Year (New Statesman and BBC History Magazine) couldn’t have been better-timed.

How to take care of our bodies

Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

In the absence of public gyms, pools and playing fields, 2020 was a difficult year in which to maintain physical health. But before we could get too down on ourselves, Daniel Lieberman’s Exercised came along to demystify physical activity, rest and health, debunking the myriads myths that surround them guilt, blame, anxiety and misconceptions. Drawing on decades of scientific research, this is the perfect book for anyone who’s ever wondered about their body and biology. You know – humans.

How to breathe

Breath by James Nestor

Yes, you read that right. In a year where seemingly everything that could go wrong did, you’d think we could count on that most reliably instinctive human behaviour – breathing – as something we were doing right. Not so, according to journalist James Nestor’s internationally bestselling Breath: “as a species,” the book claims, “humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences.” Subtitled The New Science of a Lost Art, Nestor’s deeply researched book revealed just how much breathing affects our overall health, from athletic ability to our internal organs.

How to trust our instincts

Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living by Glennon Doyle

There weren’t many books bigger in 2020 than Glennon Doyle’s ubiquitous memoir/self-help hybrid, Untamed. In Doyle’s bestselling story of self-discovery, readers found a galvanising call-to-action to listen to their hearts and trust their instincts, to Stop Pleasing and Start Living. If ever there was a year to make big changes, this was it, and Untamed captured the zeitgeist perfectly; just ask Adele, who read it this summer then claimed the book will “shake your brain and make your soul scream. I am so ready for myself after reading this book!”

Let us know what you think of this article by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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