2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction

September 2020

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The ten contenders for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

The National Book Foundation announced the Longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 6.

The 2020 Nonfiction Longlist is a mix of debut works and veteran writers, and addresses current social issues, explorations of history, works of memoir, biographies of icons, science writing, and more. Jill Lepore is the sole author who has been previously honored by the National Book Awards, as Finalist for Nonfiction in 2013. The Longlisted authors have earned recognition from other prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction, the National Humanities Medal, and the Bancroft Prize. In addition, their writing has previously appeared in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Elle, Vogue, n+1, Tin House, The New Inquiry, The Guardian, Oxford American, Smithsonian MagazineScientific American, and more.

Michelle Bowdler’s Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto is written with the perspective and insight of a public health professional. Bowdler’s own 1984 assault acts as a catalyst into a career of advocacy in this impeccably researched narrative of rape culture, revealing the deeply flawed systems intended to deal with sexual violence, and interrogating how our society views rape. The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a keenly reported work written with an awareness that can only come from within one’s own community. Former DACA recipient Cornejo Villavicencio profiles undocumented people across the country, focusing on their inner lives and value beyond their status and contributions to the economy.

Afropessimism by Frank B. Wilderson III is both an autobiography and a philosophical account that asks why the perpetual cycle of slavery, in all its political, intellectual, and cultural forms, continues to define the Black experience. Afropessimism vividly takes readers through the author’s own life, showing how integral Black people are to society, yet in all places excluded from it. The one essay collection on this year’s Nonfiction Longlist, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker includes reflections on the author’s experiences in academia such as racial profiling by a campus security guard, accounts of discussing race with his children, and contemplations on disability and family, all told with a wry comedic eye and deep honesty.

Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson unpacks how America has been shaped by a hidden caste system in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores why those who benefit from being on the top rung are invested in maintaining our hierarchical system, and how to find a way forward through our shared humanity. Claudio Saunt turns a historian’s eye on President Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act in Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. Drawing on firsthand accounts and numerous records produced by the federal government, Saunt reveals how the removal of Native Americans was calculated and connected to the growth of the uniquely American form of capitalism.

Two books on the list convey emotional and intimate truths of historical icons. Decades of research went into the creation of The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne, a fully realized portrait of Malcolm X. Pulitzer Prize winner Les Payne set out to interview anyone who had ever known Malcolm X, and after his death in 2018, his daughter and researcher Tamara Payne completed his work. As a result of hundreds of interviews, readers get to know Malcolm X beyond his iconic role in American history, from his musical taste to how his early youth informed his Black pride. When interning at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas where the papers of writer Carson McCullers are held, Jenn Shapland discovers letters between Carson McCullers and Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach that imply a romantic relationship between the two. In My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Shapland plumbs the depths of the Southern writer’s life as well as her own, addressing how queer love stories are hidden and finally told.

A cautionary tale, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore draws a line between current obsessions with data mining and predictive analytics and a Cold War–era market research firm. Aiming to predict and change the future, Simulmatics clientele included the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign, the Department of Defense, and major manufacturers.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght brings science writing to this year’s Longlist. Traversing Russian landscapes to study the elusive and endangered Blakiston’s fish owl, Slaght provides a rare glimpse into the everyday life of a field scientist and argues the necessity of conservation efforts.

Publishers submitted a total of 609 books for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The judges for Nonfiction are Terry Tempest Williams (Chair), James Goodman, Yunte Huang, Hannah Oliver Depp, and David Treuer. Judge’s decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors and deliberations are strictly confidential. Winners in all categories will be announced live at the virtual National Book Awards Ceremony on November 18.

2020 Longlist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction:  

Michelle Bowdler, Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto
Flatiron Books / Macmillan Publishers

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The Undocumented Americans
One World / Penguin Random House

Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company

Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company

Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
W. W. Norton & Company

Jenn Shapland, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Tin House Books

Jonathan C. Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers

Jerald Walker, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays
Mad Creek Books / The Ohio State University Press

Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism
Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Random House / Penguin Random House

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