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6 January 2021

The essential non-fiction books of 2021

The literary highlights of the coming year span everything from big-picture investigations into the pandemic to moving personal memoirs.   

By Tom Gatti

Global protests, Britain’s rift with Europe, a devastating pandemic that caused profound economic shocks and transformed the way we live – we begin the new year still reeling from the events of 2020. The publishing world has responded with alacrity, and many of the books of 2021 promise frameworks for understanding the present moment.

Despite the near-miraculous discovery and deployment of vaccines, the effects of Covid – medical, economic, social – are here to stay. There are stories on a human scale, notably Many Different Kinds of Love (Ebury, March), the diaries of the children’s author Michael Rosen detailing his near-fatal experience of the virus, as well as accounts by doctors such as Gavin Francis (whose Intensive Care is reviewed in this issue) and Rachel Clarke (Breathtaking, Little, Brown, January). For the inside story of the UK’s flawed response, the fullest picture, in the short term at least, will come from Failures of State (HarperCollins, March) by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott of the Sunday Times Insight investigative team.

In Shutdown (Allen Lane, September), the historian Adam Tooze follows Crashed, his account of the 2008 crisis, with a short, sharp book on how coronavirus caused a “financial revolution”. Kyle Harper and Niall Ferguson put today’s upheavals in perspective with Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History (Princeton, September) and Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Allen Lane, May), respectively.

Two former Labour leaders have been focusing on the search for solutions. Gordon Brown’s Seven Ways to Change the World (Simon & Schuster, June) promises to harness the “new ways of thinking” that arise from adversity. In Go Big: How to Fix Our World (Bodley Head, June), Ed Miliband explores innovative approaches to “everything from inequality and climate crisis to the challenges of housing… and demographic change”. Bill Gates is another man with a plan: in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Allen Lane, February) he outlines a route to zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Several other writers have also “gone big” this year with ambitious, ideas-rich books. One of the most keenly anticipated is The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan, a young philosopher at All Souls, Oxford. Published by Bloomsbury in August, it is billed as “a landmark dismantling of the politics and ethics of sex in this world”. In Everybody (Picador, April), Olivia Laing tells the related story of the body and its fight for political freedom through 20th-century movements such as gay rights and feminism. Jan Lucassen’s The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind (Yale, July) feels timely as we adjust to a workplace transformed by the pandemic. Its themes are shared by several other titles including Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe (Hurst, January) and Why You Won’t Get Rich by Robert Verkaik (Oneworld, March).

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Similarly ambitious is The Art of More (Scribe, September) by Michael Brooks, about how maths shaped the world. Charles Foster tackles one of the biggest subjects of all in Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 years of Consciousness (Profile, August), and Simon Sebag Montefiore ups the ante with The World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, September), his history of humanity. Taking almost as long a view is the New Statesman columnist and Cambridge academic Helen Thompson: Hard Times: The Permanent Problem of Political (dis)order (OUP, September) surveys events from the fall of Rome to the rise of Donald Trump in order to shed light on today’s politics.

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Across the Atlantic, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has teamed up with Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein for Noise (William Collins, May), about how to make better decisions. Steven Pinker, another “big beast” of the field, shows us how to be better reasoned beings in Rationality (Allen Lane, September), while Jordan Peterson draws on “the hard-won truths of ancient wisdom” for Beyond Order (Allen Lane, March), a sequel to 12 Rules for Life.


When a statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down last year it was just the latest development in our complex reckoning with the British empire. Having examined one aspect of that legacy in his excellent 2019 documentary on the Amritsar massacre, Sathnam Sanghera focuses on the pervasive influence of imperialism in Britain in Empireland (Viking, January). Kris Manjapra and Clint Smith trace the long shadow of slavery in Black Ghosts of Empire (Allen Lane, October) and How the Word is Passed (Dialogue, June) respectively.

The anti-Colston movement was galvanised by the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the globe after the killing of George Floyd. The publishing world had already begun to reflect a growing appetite for writing on race and racism, and in 2021 the theme is developed and deepened. Ijeoma Oluo has the superbly titled Mediocre, on white male power (John Murray, January), and Ayanna Thompson investigates the revealing history of a racist entertainment trope in Blackface (Bloomsbury, April). In Biracial Britain (Constable, January) and Mixed/Other (Trapeze, April), Remi Adekoya and Natalie Morris explore what it means to be mixed race in the UK today, while the American academic Emily Bernard’s Black is the Body (Transworld, February) is a series of first-person essays that capture “the twists and turns in the lives of three generations of black women”.

When it comes to essayists, there are few as influential as Joan Didion, now 86. Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Fourth Estate, February) collects 12 pieces never before published in book form. Two brilliant, idiosyncratic novelists also have essay collections out this year: Lucy Ellmann, with Things Are Against Us (Galley Beggar, July) – exploring environmental catastrophe, sex strikes and Hitchcock – and Rachel Kushner with The Hard Crowd (Jonathan Cape, April), on loss, social justice, art and friendship. Fellowship is the subject, too, of Tracey Thorn’s My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend (Canongate, April), which looks back over the singer-songwriter and NS columnist’s long relationship with Lindy Morrison, drummer for the Go-Betweens.

There are several other memoirs of note. Musa Okwonga’s One of Them (Unbound, April) describes his time at Eton in the 1990s and probes wider issues of privilege, influence and racism. Home in the World by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane, July) traces the Nobel Prize-winning economist’s life back to his childhood in Bengal. And an as-yet untitled autobiography by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei (Bodley Head, September) will also tell the story of his father Ai Qing, a poet who was both revered and persecuted.

Deborah Levy’s Real Estate (Hamish Hamilton, May) is the final instalment in her superb “living autobiography” series, which began with a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write”. Rebecca Solnit picks up that particular baton in Orwell’s Roses (Granta, October), an “alternative journey” through the writer’s life and afterlife.

One of the great modern literary lives is scrutinised in Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey (Jonathan Cape, April), while one of the great modern biographers – Claire Tomalin – turns her attention to HG Wells (Viking, October), and the cultural historian Philip Hoare reaches further back, to Albrecht Dürer, in Albert and the Whale (Fourth Estate, March). Faber does not have a monopoly on biographies but it does have two of the most tempting in 2021: Jackie Kay mixes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose in a new edition of her 1997 ode to Bessie Smith (February), and From Manchester With Love (October) is Paul Morley’s intimate portrait of his friend Tony Wilson, the Factory Records boss.

Wilson’s career choice was determined by seeing the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. In the pandemic the bodies and buzz of gigs seem a distant memory – but one activity still available to us is sitting at home and listening to records. Long Players (Bloomsbury, June), a collection I put together based on a special New Statesman feature from 2017, includes 50 writers on the albums that shaped them, from Marlon James on Björk to Deborah Levy on David Bowie. Our best loved LPs can transport us like nothing else: in times like these, they feel more necessary than ever.

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See also: The most anticipated fiction of 2021


This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control