Best nonfiction I read in 2021

So much good nonfiction consumed this year. I learned so much! I will talk your ear off about all of it!

1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe

An American tragedy and capitalist parable of how worshiping money will turn you—and your entire family, if you’re the Sacklers—into monsters. In Patrick Radden Keefe’s capable hands, this book reads like a thriller, and yet it’s admirably researched and brilliantly told. Highly recommended.

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2. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

A slim, humbling book with the much-needed call for us to be people adept at the art of thinking (especially the kind of slow System 2 thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow). This is not the kind of thinking that humans are particularly skilled at, preferring to dwell on the instinctual System 1 brain, but slow thinking is a facility needed now more than ever. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, writes with compelling clarity, and I picked this up with a great desire to be refreshed by his own clear thinking after enjoying his most recent book, Breaking Bread With the Dead (review of that below). Mission accomplished. I feel humbled and challenged by his wisdom.

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3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker

Riveting, gut-wrenching account of a family unusually afflicted by mental illness. Robert Kolker shares the Galvin family’s story with restraint and skill, blending their personal histories with the history of schizophrenia. Two takeaways I had while finishing the book: (1) There is still so much we don’t know about the human brain, and accordingly, the treatment of schizophrenia has changed very little since the 1960s, and (2) women bear the enormous load of a family’s emotional and physical needs, time and time again.

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4. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine

An unreal and singularly compelling history of Soviet Russia. Yuri Slezkine unites the rare capabilities of a scholar and a storyteller in this appropriately epic-length history, which pivots around the House of Government, the massive housing complex for the socialist/communist faithful. It is a massive book, but incredibly readable from start to finish.

Slezkine is particularly adept at zooming in and out on his subjects. At one moment, he relates the intimate thoughts, letters, and diary entries of individual people; at the next, he pans out and assesses human history, religion, and culture in broad strokes. Along with direct quotations and painstaking research, he spends a great deal of time analyzing Soviet literature, showing us what it reveals about ascendant revolutionary beliefs.

Throughout this history, Slezkine argues that Soviet socialism and its attendant fantasies of true communism were the latest in a long line of millennarian sects (mimicking many features of Christian apocalyptic cults, among other religions). This was a revelatory lens for me through which to better understand Russian communism. The Russian insistence on the coming utopia and the abolishment of the family and private property as the path to social enlightenment can be found in every chapter of the revolution. Slezkine makes it easy to understand how such a charming-sounding fundamentalist vision could result in the brutality, inhumanity, and absolute disregard for human life that characterized the Russian revolution.

Recommended especially to young progressives who think Marx is a cool avatar and that socialism is super-rad, bleating it’ll be different this time…

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5. In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

In a series of essays focused primarily on art, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects on artists and moments that have affected him profoundly, including a number of provocative American women photographers, Knut Hamsun (always), Ingmar Bergman, short stories from the Old Testament, Kierkegaard, and Emma Bovary. Knausgaard writes with his characteristic openness, an honesty that often veers into uncomfortable realms, and this is perhaps why I enjoy him as much as I do. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his style and self-deprecating wisdom is refreshing to me, time and time again. My only small quibble is that the format of the book—square with heavy glossy pages, so as to display the photographs well—makes for an awkward reading experience for a book with so much text. I am happy, however, that I bought it, as I hope to return it in time.

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6. Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs

“Reading old books is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor. I happen to think that this kind of training is useful in helping me learn to deal with my actual on-the-ground neighbors, though that claim is not central to my argument here, and in any case there’s nothing inevitable about this transfer: I know people who are exquisitely sensitive readers of texts who are also habitually rude to the people who serve them at restaurants. But surely to encounter texts from the past is a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference.”

An impressively slim book that packs a powerful argument for attending to books of ages past. Why? So that we may have character, grace, and foresight; so that we may resist the high informational density of our time in favor of greater personal density for ourselves. Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor, writes with tremendous sensitivity and wisdom, and I was struck by how deftly he weaves together a whole host of quotations and references, spanning from the Aeneid to Frederick Douglass to feminist literary theory. An incredibly worthwhile and challenging book and one that I hope will stay with me for a long time, keeping the temptations of screens at bay and pulling me deeper into the words of men and women who are no longer with us.

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7. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell

“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”

I am not smart enough to read straight philosophy, but I am glad that Sarah Bakewell is, because she explains ideas so well, with such fluidity, poise, and mastery. In this book, Bakewell gives us a tour of the existentialist movement in Europe, principally through the biographies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and gives us a brilliant primer on the philosophy itself, as expressed through some of its other luminaries (such as Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty). I feel more educated, having finished it, and also more thoughtful. Warmly recommended.

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8. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders

In this charming collection, Saunders shares his favorite Russian short stories and reflections on why and how these stories work, much in the form of his lectures at Syracuse. He is personable, funny, and thoughtful, and I felt like I got to take a mini-MFA class with him. I’d already read most of these stories before, but it was such a pleasure to revisit them again with Saunders, benefiting from his careful attention and instruction. It is perhaps neither here nor there, but Saunders also strikes me as incredibly kind and wise, as a human being, and there’s good life advice buried in here, alongside his sage counsel about writing better stories as we learn from the masters. Recommended for all writers.

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9. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Grisworld

Impeccably, patiently researched. Eliza Griswold writes in that detached, traditional style of third-person journalism that I miss so much these days (it is a rarity). Griswold is barely in the book at all, admirably; she writes so that she can get out of the way and tell the tragic story of the Haney family, whose lives and livelihoods were ruined when fracking came to their tiny Pennsylvania farm. Through much suffering, sickness, and lawsuits, Griswold tells the larger narrative of what fracking threatens to do to similar families and towns across Appalachia.

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10. What Are We Doing Here?: Essays, Marilynne Robinson

“So, beauty disciplines. It recommends a best word in a best place and makes the difference palpable between aesthetic right and wrong. And it does this freely, within the limits it finds—cultural, material, genetic. Another paradox, perhaps, a discipline that is itself free, and free to make variations on such limits as it does choose to embrace. Beauty is like language in this. It can push at the borders of intelligibility and create new eloquence as it does so.” — “Grace and Beauty”

If I trust anyone to tell us what we are doing here, it may be Marilynne Robinson. Her wise, far-ranging mind considers American history, Christian theology, redemption of the Puritans, and a smattering of politics in this heady collection of essays. (Her tribute to President Obama and their sweet friendship was a particular delight.) It was a pleasure to read someone with her depth of thought, wit, and high vocabulary on topics that are dismissible at first glance as dry and unappealing. In her talented hands, everything becomes a subject of wonder.

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Honorable mentions

  1. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter
  2. Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman
  3. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
  4. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe
  5. Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy P. Carney
  6. Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, Daniel Medelsohn
  7. The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon
  8. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland
  9. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, Natasha Trethewey
  10. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer
  11. Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
  12. The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, Primo Levi
  13. Earth Keeper, N. Scott Momaday
  14. The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, Emily Anthes
  15. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
  16. Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener

Best nonfiction I read in 2016

The best nonfiction I read in the past year.

1. Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson

Brilliant. What, I wonder, must it be like to have Anne Carson’s mind? What does she think about while eating breakfast or tying her shoelaces? Perhaps eros and every shade of its meaning from Sappho to the present. This perfect little book of criticism seems to be just skimming the surface of Carson’s genius. It is a sublimely measured and controlled product of literary theory, exploring why and how eros has been a motivating force for poets and writers, and an important book for all writers and readers.

2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

A gorgeously written and riveting portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and the Western doctors who are trying to save their child. Fadiman’s skill lies in her ability to create a tremendous sense of sympathy for both sides: the anxious and independent Lee family trying to help their daughter amid a culture they don’t understand (or trust) with a language they do not speak versus the smart, hard-working American doctors who are continually frustrated by the cultural barriers to delivering effective care. It ought to be required reading for health professionals (and probably often is), but it’s also a heart-opening look into the Hmong people in the United States, the myths we hold dear about Western medicine and indigenous medicine, and the challenge of trying to understand someone whose worldview is entirely separate from your own.

3. The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon

An utter delight. Lady Shonagon is the Heian era (circa 1000 AD!) predecessor to Lydia Davis. I devoured this beautiful book of poetry, court gossip, fragments, and little stories. It is moving and strange and eerily modern.

4. The Journals of John Cheever

What a perfect writer; what a tormented human. His journals read beautifully and show themselves to be intended for publication (which they were, and which fact lessens that stinging feeling of voyeurism you get from reading dead people’s diaries). The journals present a stirring and often heartbreaking window into his life and his demons: alcoholism, a lifelong and covert wrestling with homosexual desire, and his tireless ambition to be great, to be remembered. The entries are undated, except for the year, which creates an odd but pleasant sense of seamlessness. He is always harder on himself than he is on other people (even with his frequently desired/despised wife, Mary), and there is a touching humility and brokenness that marks these pages.

The Argonauts

5. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers so much ground (love, pregnancy, childbirth, queer family identity, death, feminism, conformity, space) in so few pages. I felt hooked by her prose, and I am looking forward to reading more from her. She has a poet’s enviable precision.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

6. The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon

I am not a cook and may never be very interested in making food, but if anything could bring me close to that aim, it is this book. How delightfully bizarre and dramatic and wonderful. I really love the funny, florid styling of American men writing in the 1960s; for all their inherent sexism, there is something about their (à la James Salter, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, by turns) elaborate delight in the world and the expansive adornment of sentences that charms me. Capon is eminently charming and a great joy to read — even if you have no interest in making lamb stew or in its sacramental analogs.

7. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer

An impressively incisive and concise history of America’s involvement in Iraq under the George W. Bush administration. With his characteristic mix of deep research and excellent interviews, George Packer presents all the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. I feel grateful for it as a history lesson, as I was relatively too young to understand all of the intricacies of the war while it was happening (and yet some could argue it is still happening). Particularly, I came away with a better understanding of how murky this war was to begin with and how it did not cleanly divide people along party lines. George Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.

The Souls of Black Folk

8. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

Powerful and chastening, considering how many challenges still lie ahead of Americans with regard to racial equality. The battle is not over. Du Bois’s style is moving and affecting, occasionally flowery, but his mix of history/policy recounting and personal anecdotes is very effective.

What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy

9. What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Robin DiAngelo

Particularly after this devastating election season, this thoughtful and wise book should be required reading for all white-identifying Americans. What tremendous progress could be made if we could authentically and humbly reckon with all of the ways that we support the system of white supremacy in our country — and then work to dismantle it, following the lead of people of color.

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

10. Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter provides the much-needed, hard-hitting response to Lean In — one that is, notably, grounded in reality. Sheryl Sandberg’s call to women to be ambitious in the office was respectable, but 99% of American women aren’t going to become Silicon Valley billionaires, and “leaning in” doesn’t actually do anything to change the miserably biased, inflexible conditions that the vast majority of working mothers find themselves in. Slaughter is calling for a social overhaul, not a capitulation to the patriarchal corporate order. Unfinished Business is grim — and it further makes me doubt my ability or desire to have children, recognizing again and again how deeply penalized working mothers are — but it is necessary. This is also a book that I’ll call required required reading for all American mothers and all CEOs.

 

Honorable Mentions

  1. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick
  2. Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner
  3. Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos
  4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  5. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  6. Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey
  7. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante
  8. Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  9. Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck
  10. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
  11. The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
  12. The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney
  13. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
  14. Basin and Range, John McPhee
  15. The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, James Wood
  16. The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich
  17. On Writing, Eudora Welty
  18. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag
  19. The Fire This Time, ed. Jesmyn Ward