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8 January 2020

The books to read in 2020

From the planet’s last days to Thomas Cromwell’s: a 2020 reading list.

By Tom Gatti

As we begin the new decade with wildfires ravaging Australia, it’s hard not to feel that we are edging closer to Armageddon – and a glance at the books being published in 2020 is anything but reassuring. In Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta, April), Mark O’Connell meets the people preparing for end times: “environmentalists and far-right evangelicals, real estate impresarios and the super-rich”. O’Connell’s vivid and stylish last book To Be a Machine – on the “transhumanists” who seek immortality through technology – won the Wellcome Book Prize.

In 2019, Greta Thunberg became the patron saint of climate activism and a symbol of hope and resistance around the world. Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis (Allen Lane, March) is the story of how her parents came to terms both with Greta’s autism and the source of her distress. According to Naomi Klein, it’s an “extraordinary account” of how the Thunbergs rose “to the tremendous responsibility of being alive at the moment when our immediate collective decisions will determine the fate of life on Earth”. The death of the planet is small fry to the astrophysicist Katie Mack: in The End of Everything (Allen Lane, July) she considers how the universe will expire. The menu of five possible finales, in case you’re curious, consists of the Big Crunch, the Heat Death, Vacuum Decay, the Big Rip, and the Bounce.

Capitalism is widely blamed for the planet’s ailing health – but capitalism itself has seen better days. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century became a sensation when it was published in English in 2014; the follow-up, Capital and Ideology (Harvard, March) – at over 1,000 pages, no less ambitious than its predecessor – is being billed as “a bold proposal for a new and fairer economic system”. In Mission: Economics (Allen Lane, September), Mariana Mazzucato proposes “a moon-shot approach to the economy”, arguing the same level of bold spending and planning required to put mankind on the moon is needed to tackle problems such as climate change and inequality. From America come significant interventions in the form of Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future (Norton, January) and Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Princeton, April).

After December’s election result, the left has (at least) a year of soul-searching ahead. Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis offer their visions of progressive futures in, respectively, The Alternative and How We Build It (Allen Lane, September) and Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present (Bodley Head, September). David Lammy, the vocal Labour MP, has written a book that’s part memoir and part call to arms in Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society (Constable, March). Also from Westminster, John Bercow shares his insights from a decade in the Speaker’s chair in Unspeakable: The Autobiography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February); William Collins publishes the third volume in the Sunday Times reporter Tim Shipman’s “Brexit trilogy” in May; and Tom Bower, the big-game hunter-biographer, takes on the Prime Minister (Ebury, September).

Beyond party politics, two thinkers tackle urgent questions raised by our changing culture: the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks with Morality: Why We Need it and How to Find it (John Murray, March), and the American “global philosopher” Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Allen Lane, September).

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Several writers are on hand to ensure that discussions of “the common good” do not leave out half of the population. Helen Lewis, formerly of this parish, has Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape, February), a witty and wise corrective to the whitewashed heroines of the “rebel girls” and “awesome women” industry. Sally Howard tackles the battleground of domestic labour in The Home Stretch (Atlantic, March); while the award-winning foreign correspondent Christina Lamb turns to real conflict zones to examine the barbaric role of rape in war, in Our Bodies, Their Battlefield (William Collins, March). In The Double X Economy (Faber, April), Professor Linda Scott describes how empowering women economically could not only resolve gender inequality but also help address “many of humankind’s most pressing problems”.

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One of our pressing problems, many argue, is a global loneliness epidemic. It’s a subject tackled this year by Barack Obama’s former surgeon general Vivek H Murthy in Together (Wellcome, April), and by the economist Noreena Hertz in The Lonely Century (Sceptre, May) – a “bold new vision of how we must act, fast, to reconnect society at all levels”. The science author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford takes on a different social ill in How to Argue with a Racist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February), a counter-blast to those who would use science to justify prejudice. And, transhumanists (possibly) excepted, none of us can afford to ignore Daniel Levitin’s The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well (Penguin Life, February). The good news is that it’s not all downhill: according to Levitin our decision-making skills and happiness levels actually increase in later life.

One thing that can boost happiness levels is the great outdoors. In The Natural Health Service (Atlantic, April), Isabel Hardman, the Spectator’s assistant editor, describes how her own depression and anxiety were alleviated by contact with nature, from botany to wild swimming. Also melding psychology and nature writing, Michael Bond examines the “art and science of how we find and lose our way” in Wayfinding (Picador, March), which might be read alongside Gavin Francis’s ode to navigation and adventure, Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession (Canongate, May). And Helen Macdonald, a regular contributor to the New Statesman, returns with her first book since H is for Hawk in 2014: Vesper Flights (Jonathan Cape, August) is a collection of essays about “observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make the world around us”.

It’s a good year for life-writing. Jonathan Bate marks William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday with Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World (William Collins, April); the great biographer Hermione Lee attempts to pin down one of our greatest living playwrights in Tom Stoppard: A Life (Faber, October); and Blake Gopnik’s Warhol: A Life as Art (Allen Lane, February) is being marketed as the definitive biography of the silver-crowned prince of pop art, published in advance of a major retrospective at Tate Modern in March. John Preston, author of A Very English Scandal, about the Jeremy Thorpe affair, takes on an even more dramatic story of decline in Fall: The Last Days of Robert Maxwell (Viking, 16 July). A memoir from the WikiLeaks whistle-blower Chelsea Manning (Bodley Head, July) – who, having been released in 2017 was returned to prison in 2019 for refusing to testify against Julian Assange – is sure to make headlines. And two superb writers look back in Recollections of My Non-Existence (Granta, March) by Rebecca Solnit, and House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family by Hadley Freeman (Fourth Estate, March).


The fiction event of the year is likely to be the third volume in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate, March). It has been eight years since Bring Up the Bodies gave Mantel her second Booker Prize. Stage and screen adaptations of the first two books have helped to fill the silence, but now we can finally have her version of Cromwell’s last years, which also reveals “a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage”. Paul Kingsnorth’s Buckmaster trilogy, a much looser series, also draws to a close this year. It began in 2014 with The Wake, an extraordinary book written in a mongrel form of Old English and set in the aftermath of the Norman invasion; the final volume, Alexandria (Faber, May), fast-forwards to “the far side of the ecological apocalypse”. Also keenly anticipated are Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions, June), which follows Giovanna, a little girl in Naples, up to the age of 16; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel The Water Dancer (Hamish Hamilton, February), a story of the underground war on slavery in the American South; and David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue (Sceptre, June), a concoction of “drugs, sex, psychedelia, art, love, madness at the dark end of the 1960s” from the author of Cloud Atlas.

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon (Bloomsbury, February) is the tale of a friendship between an Israeli and a Palestinian, each of whom has lost a daughter, one to a sniper, one to a suicide bomber. Comprised of 1,001 chapters, it has won effusive praise from early readers. Of the many debut novels published in 2020, two worth flagging are Rainbow Milk (Dialogue Books, April) by Paul Mendez, a coming-of-age story that examines the legacies of the Windrush generation, and The Voice in My Ear (Jonathan Cape, March) by the gifted poet Frances Leviston, in which ten different women, all called Claire, are all “tangled up in complex power dynamics with their families”.

Daisy Johnson’s haunting Everything Under made her the youngest author to make the Booker Prize shortlist: her second novel, Sisters, a tale of familial love and envy, has its roots in psychological horror and is published by Jonathan Cape in July. Siblings are also at the heart of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Tinder Press, March), which, beginning in 1596, tells the tragic story of the death of Shakespeare’s son. Eimear McBride’s third novel, Strange Hotel (Faber, February), is a short, intense exploration of a woman’s mind as she passes through a series of hotel rooms around the world.

Also worth noting are new novels from Anne Enright and Philip Hensher (both February), Sebastian Barry (March), Amanda Craig (June) and David Peace (May). Ali Smith’s remarkable seasonal quartet has been an essential fictional companion to the upheavals of the past four years: with Summer (Hamish Hamilton) in July, it comes to an end. Who will hold our hand through the 2020s? 

Publication dates may change

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran