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2020 Book Concierge: Books For History Lovers

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

NPR's Book Concierge brings together some of the year's best books in a handy, searchable guide - hundreds of books this year, more than 380 new recommendations, which is a lot. So we asked some of our colleagues to help narrow it down to four books that may satisfy the history buffs out there.

To kick it off, I'll start with one of the books I wrote about. It's called "Race Against Time." It's by Jerry Mitchell. He's a Mississippi investigative journalist, and I've been a longtime fan of his. And his memoir doesn't disappoint. It's a page-turner that really reads more like a mystery novel, but it's frighteningly real. It recalls his reporting over the years that ultimately resulted in justice for some of the most notorious murders carried out by the Ku Klux Klan.

Mitchell takes readers inside the investigations and prosecutions that decades later held Klansmen to account for killing civil rights leaders and workers in Mississippi and for killing four Black girls dynamited in a Birmingham church. Now, I covered most of those trials for NPR. But Jerry's memoir recreates those historic events in riveting detail that even I didn't remember.

EMIKO TAMAGAWA, BYLINE: I'm Emiko Tamagawa, arts producer for Here & Now, and I'm recommending "Roadside Americans" by Jack Reid. The title says it all. This is a book about hitchhiking. So why should you care about it? - because Reid uses the practice to examine shifts in American culture during the 20th century, from being an economic necessity during the Great Depression, a part of the counterculture in the 1960s.

By the late '70s and '80s, hitchhiking was seen as dangerous. The hitchhiker was often depicted in TV and film as a deranged psychopath. "Roadside Americans" transports the reader to a time when Americans actually gave people rides without being paid for it.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: My name is Diaa Hadid, and I cover Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR. Islamic militancy has many fathers, and the book I'm recommending is a cinematic story of one of them. It's called "Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar And The Afghan Islamists Who Changed the World." It's by Chris Sands with Fazelminallah Qazizai. Roving between the snowy peaks of Afghanistan, gritty refugee camps near Peshawar and the revolutionary politics of Kabul's campuses, Sands and Qazizai tell the story of this restless, black-turbaned fanatic who helped lay the ideological groundwork for Muslim extremists to use violence to come to power.

In his own failed quest to rule Afghanistan, Hekmatyar smashed Kabul into rubble and killed untold numbers of civilians. He also took under his wing the foreign fighters who flocked to Afghanistan, most famously Osama bin Laden, who gave him a black, armored SUV. Through those mujahideen, Hekmatyar's ideas pollinated across the world, helping to shape ISIS. Indeed, some of Hekmatyar's men in recent years have defected to the extremist group, seeing it as the purest distillation of their beliefs.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: I'm Anastasia Tsioulcas, and I'm a reporter on NPR's Arts Desk. One of my favorite books this year is a gargantuan one - "Wagnerism: Art And Politics In The Shadow Of Music" by Alex Ross. And I promise you don't have to be a lover of Richard Wagner's operas or even classical music in general to appreciate what Ross has done.

This is not a biography of one of music's most notable and notorious figures who is a strident anti-Semite. Instead, "Wagnerism" is a sweeping, surprising survey of just how pivotal his work has been not just in terms of music, but how much his ideas affected the visual arts, literature and politics. Ross traces Wagner's impact on a whole host of other creators and thinkers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Willa Cather, sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick and, infamously, Hitler. "Wagnerism" isn't a light read. It weighs in at nearly 800 pages. But it offers a portal into something of a secret history of the 20th century.

ELLIOTT: So four good choices for fans of history. I recommended "Race Against Time." We also heard Emiko Tamagawa talking about "Roadside Americans," Diaa Hadid, who recommended "Night Letters," and Anastasia Tsioulcas recommending "Wagnerism." And you can find the full list of NPR Book Concierge recommendations online at npr.org/bestbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.