Best Arts Books of 2020

Toni Morrison, Ravi Shankar, and Richard Avedon star in the best arts books published in 2020.

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists


Bennett, Juda & others. The Toni Morrison Book Club. Univ. of Wisconsin. ISBN 9780299324940.

Four thoughtful and incisive academics approach Toni Morrison’s novels as catalysts for personal and societal analysis, and, like the very best book groups, their observations are insightful, wide-ranging, and often profound. Goethe described the string quartet as like “listening to four rational people conversing among themselves.” These four are sublime.


Craske, Oliver. Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar. Hachette. ISBN 9780306874888.

This compelling and informative biography is the definitive look at legendary sitarist, composer, and teacher Ravi Shankar. Craske places his subject’s career in an appropriately global context, paying close attention to Shankar’s personal and cultural relationship with India while detailing his vast impact on Western music. A fitting tribute to an influential musician.


Geffen, Sasha. Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary. Univ. of Texas. ISBN 9781477318782.

Geffen describes how music gives artists a space to exist—and flourish—outside the gender binary, scrutinizing the lyrics, music, and personal styles of musicians ranging from David Bowie to Prince, from Annie Lennox to Kurt Cobain. A brilliant, highly accessible, and timely testament to the power of music to shatter the status quo.


Gefter, Philip. What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon. Harper. ISBN 9780062442710.

Gefter chronicles photographer Richard Avedon’s personal and professional struggles, equating his emotional insecurities with his lifelong efforts to be taken seriously as an artist. An absorbing look at a man who, with his unique style of portraiture, transcended fashion photography and created a new kind of intimacy with his subjects.


Gornick, Vivian. Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. Farrar. ISBN 9780374282158.

In this provocative exploration of reading, Gornick notes that our relationship with books changes as we do, and while spending a second (or third or fourth) time with a book often provides more insight into the work, the greater benefit is that it enables readers to better understand themselves.


Kenny, Glenn. Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas. Hanover Square: Harlequin. ISBN 9781335016508.

Kenny probes Martin Scorsese’s decidedly unsentimental tale of New York gangsters, emerging with details on everything from the title cards to the soundtrack, along with breathtaking insights into why this work still matters 30 years later. As enthralling as the movie it chronicles, this volume raises the bar for film analysts.


Lane, Christina. Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock. Chicago Review. ISBN 9781613733844.

Joan Harrison began as Alfred Hitchcock’s assistant but was soon cowriting Rebecca and Suspicion before becoming the producer and driving force of television’s legendary Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A thoroughly engaging and long overdue biography of an elemental yet heretofore unheralded force in the film and television career of Hitchcock.


Shapland, Jenn. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Tin House. ISBN 9781947793286.

The discovery that Carson McCullers had romantic relationships with other women ignited a passion in Shapland, a queer woman who embarked on a journey of research and self-examination. Shapland’s achingly intimate work raises important questions about where we draw the line between biographer and subject.


See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

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