Best nonfiction I read in 2019

In 2019, I have craved knowledge with more than my usual fervor. I still read a bit of fiction, but it was not the memorable, moving year in novels and short stories that it has typically been.

As a happy consequence, 2019 was a banner year for outstanding nonfiction.* I am excited to share my favorites with you.

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

1. Self-Portrait in Black and White, Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams writes about the personal and public conundrum of racial identity with stunning clarity and beauty. (It didn’t have to be so beautifully written, but it was!) This was easily, handily, remarkably the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. I want to talk about it with everyone I meet. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, these are ideas worth pondering as race-obsessed Americans. Many thanks to Wei, who eagerly pressed a copy into my hands. I’d like to do the same for others. (Get a copy)

The Little Virtues

2. The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg

Human relationships have to be rediscovered every day. We have to remember constantly that every kind of meeting with our neighbor is a human action and so it is always evil or good, true or deceitful, a kindness or a sin.

Gorgeously written and wise. The moving titular essay is what drew me to it, but the rest of the collection is stirring and imaginative. I’m becoming a big fan of WWII-era Italian writers, apparently. (Get a copy)

The Braindead Megaphone

3. The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders

The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible. — “The Braindead Megaphone”

Worth reading for the title essay alone, in all of its chilling timeliness and prescience (written circa 2003, describes the media hell of 2019 perfectly), but everything in here is a delight. (Get a copy)

What If This Were Enough?

4. What If This Were Enough?, Heather Havrilesky

Living simply today takes work. It takes work to overcome the noise that has accumulated in our heads, growing louder and more pervasive since we were young. It takes work to overcome the illusion that we will arrive at some end point where we will be better—more successful, adored, satisfied, relaxed, rich. It takes hard work to say, ‘This is how I am,’ in a calm voice, without anxiously addressing how you should be. It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the window to the view outside. It requires conscious effort not to waste your life swimming furiously against the tide, toward some imaginary future that will never make you happy anyway. — “The Miracle of the Mundane”

Fresh, insightful, funny: This book stands boldly against so much of the greed and distraction and soul-crushing malaise of modern life. I wanted this to be twice as long. I do not often finish an essay collection and feel sad that it’s over, but Havrilesky is a rare oracle for our time. Warmly recommended. (Get a copy)

The Red Parts

5. The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson

I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.

Harrowing, beautifully written account of personal and familial trauma. Approached with a rare clarity of mind and forcefulness. I am silenced and in awe. (Get a copy)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

6. The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Lukianoff and Haidt present a gripping (and often disheartening) look at the intolerant intellectual environment that characterizes so many American universities today and explore its cultural causes. I appreciate that they didn’t just stop with diagnosis but concluded with practical steps that parents, schools, and university administrators can take to stem the epidemic of youth depression/anxiety and create environments that encourage freedom of thought. (Get a copy)

He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art

7. He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman

Beautiful, clear; a quick meditation on how poets reckon with their chief obsessions of death, faith, and art. Christian Wiman has a graceful humility and deep-seated wisdom that seem rare among many of his compatriots. (Get a copy)

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic

8. Dreamland, Sam Quinones

Gripping. Relayed in short, episodic little chapters, this book presents a well-researched and heart-rending account of how the opiate epidemic started in America. There are so many different players (Mexican farm boys, disreputable doctors, greedy pharmaceutical execs, sad white kids, devastated parents, law enforcement, etc.), and Sam Quinones juggles them all with ease and skill. (Get a copy)

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

9. Blood Horses, John Jeremiah Sullivan

Beautifully written, especially the horse bits. I do wish this had been either a book exclusively about horses or exclusively about his father, instead of both. But John Jeremiah Sullivan is such a delightful stylist, with a particular brand of confidential levity that I enjoy. (Get a copy)

My Private Property

10. My Private Property, Mary Ruefle

Terrifically fun and experimental little essays. Mary Ruefle, with levity and feeling, delivers just the kind of thoughtful jolt that I love in an essay collection. (Get a copy)

Honorable mentions

  1. Educated, Tara Westover
  2. Seculosity, David Zahl
  3. Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch
  4. Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, Joshua Cohen
  5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
  6. The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
  7. 300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso
  8. The Gardener’s Essential Gertrude Jekyll
  9. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  10. The Story of the Human Body, Daniel E. Lieberman
  11. Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss
  12. Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
  13. Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula K. Le Guin
  14. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
  15. A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
  16. Never Home Alone, Rob Dunn

*Because of the necessarily niche audience, I have not included in this roundup the 40 or so books I read about pregnancy, birth, and babies. Will write a separate post sharing my favorites. Later.