Today was hard.
Every year, my team and I evaluate hundreds of books to select our winners for the Non-Obvious Book Awards and it’s tough. Judging books and picking winners means that many great books won’t make the list. Still – the ones that do are worth sharing.
As part of the program this year, we also did something new: identifying some big trends and themes across many books that we received. So here are some of the biggest patterns we noticed, books that we selected and our top five picks for the absolute BEST non-fiction books of the year. Enjoy!
The Shortlist & Winners
Here were our top 15 selections for the best books of the year, including picks for the top five honors:
2020 Most Important Book of the Year: Make Change by Shaun King
2020 Most Entertaining Book of the Year: Lurking by Joanna McNeil
2020 Most Useful Book of the Year: True or False by Cindy L. Otis
2020 Most Original Book of the Year: The Lost Family by Libby Copeland
2020 Most Shareable Book of the Year: Humankind by Rutger Bregman
Top Ten Biggest Book Trends/Themes:
These were the top ten biggest themes we found in books published this year:
The theme of #inequality showed up in many different topics of books, from several focused on corruption to others breaking down the market success of traders who gamed the system successfully to make hundreds of millions of dollars while others suffered. Ultimately, some books offered hope while others served as cautionary exposes of a world increasingly shaped by the wealthy and weighted against those who lack the power, resources or knowledge to change it.
It’s no surprise there were lots of political books this year, given it was an election year. What was new was just how partisan, angry and urgent they seemed. Yet this clearly resonated with readers – as a NY Times article spotlighting the growth of this category showed. Rage and politics fit together perhaps a bit too well this year. Which means perspective and thoughtful debate were sadly in short supply.
In a continuation of what has been a theme for the past several years, there were many important books once again exploring how we all can be better mentors and champions of women at work. Interestingly, several books this year were themed specifically on how men could be better allies for women – a critical and too often minimized part of the movement to empower women.
Who doesn’t love a good origin story? This year there were plenty, from the mystery of eels to the fundamental role of textiles in human history. Coffee, soap, plants, fashion, magic and even breathing all featured centrally in this group of story-driven, historically relevant books about the origins of everything.
Diversity. Inclusion. Belonging. Equity. These are becoming so ubiquitous today that they risk feeling like buzzwords. Yet all the interest and conversation is driven by their necessity. We must create a more inclusive world, and this category of books both spotlight the problem … and offer some tangible solutions. It’s an important discussion to have, and to move towards action. We’ll be doing our part by bringing together more than 75 speakers (including several authors featured in this category) to host our own Beyond Diversity Summit in late January. You can be part of the conversation and register for free here >>
You don’t have to be awesome or save the world. It’s ok to just be yourself. That is the fundamental theme that seemed to come to life in many different ways this year as we spotted books about embracing your averageness, being comfortable in your (fat) body, conquering your anxiety and being unafraid to brag just a little better. The message in each case seems less about constantly improving yourself and more about embracing yourself and the natural strengths you already have.
2020 was always going to be a year with lots of books about trends and the future. I wrote one myself (Non-Obvious Megatrends). Many focused on technology and how humanity would survive in a world increasingly run by (and dependent on) AI-driven solutions. What was most interesting is just how many of them suggested a new balance that might emerge where humans co-mingle, co-work and sometimes perhaps even find new freedom in this new world where tech solutions can more frequently take over those things we don’t want to do at work and in real life.
As an antidote to the dearth of political books this year, several looked at the world from the opposite perspective: the goodness of human beings. Some spotlighted how humans have essentially been decent to one another for far longer than we think. Others explored themes like friendship, gratitude, serendipity, loneliness and how we can create a better world just by avoiding the temptation to be an asshole. To say the world needs these books is probably an understatement. It was nice to see so many of them coming out this year.
The nature of truth and our modern believability crisis (as I have often called it) have been a fertile topic for many books over the past decade. If there is one theme that has remained fairly constant over that time, it would probably be this one. As in previous years, the books that focused on this trend considered fake news, bullshit, polarized media, information overload, the decline of local news and the coming of “surveillance capitalism.” Some titles in this topic felt depressing, others anxiety-inducing. It’s a hard world to live in when the truth itself feels broken. Especially when the path to fixing it seems impossible to find.
Several years ago, the word of the moment was “pivot.” It was all about making big changes. This year the theme that emerged for us was more about fixing problems, making better decisions and actually making change happen. Whether it was a deep dive into fixing problems before they happen, or a focus on changing your habits – the message overall was that changes can be made, as long as you follow the right process and approach to make them.
Our annual book awards program is a labor of love. In case you missed it, all of the trends and the shortlist were first announced in my weekly Non-Obvious Insights Show that went live today and you can watch a replay of the show below.
In the comments below, let me know what you think of our picks, the trends and especially any books that you LOVED which we might have missed. We’re always reading and already looking at books published after Dec 1st 2020 for our awards program next year – so we’d love to hear what you think!