Best nonfiction I read in 2020

A year for consuming information! Not much else to do when you’re trapped at home, am I right? Here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read this year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

1. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”

Beautiful, gracious, and healing. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s natural wisdom feels like a balm (particularly in these grim times). Her writing is also lovely, merging a scientist’s knowledge with a poet’s sensibilities. Many essays circulate back to her goal of being a good mother — a seemingly pat phrase that Kimmerer endows with new and meaningful life. Mothering, for her, is deeply connected to how she mothers not only her two daughters, but also how she mothers the plants and animals in her care — and is then, in turn, mothered back by the Earth. She gracefully draws on wisdom from her people, the Potawatomi Nation, and makes so much of that wisdom accessible and applicable to her readers. Her insight on how we can restore healing, reciprocal relationships with the Earth is one that all of us would do well to heed. A gem of a book.

“We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”

(Get a copy)

The White Album

2. The White Album, Joan Didion

I get it now: why everyone raves about Joan Didion. She is that good. Whip-smart, pitch-perfect prose in unfussy essays that present one of the clearest portraits of the 1960s in America. (That scathing little piece on the women’s movement! It got to me.) (Get a copy)

The Years

3. The Years, Annie Ernaux

Marvelous. A brilliant record of a life and, more broadly, a record of tumultuous, defining decades in France from 1940 through 2000. Ernaux, at least here translated into English, writes with beautiful, spare prose, handling the use of “we” with breezy facility. I am very impressed. (Get a copy)

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

4. A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan

An incredible accomplishment. I cannot fathom the time, commitment, and energy it must have taken to create a book of this magnitude and scope. Through the life of the tenacious antihero John Paul Vann, Neil Sheehan explains the doomed American engagement in Vietnam with compelling, unflinching clarity. I am not typically interested in war histories, but this appropriately massive biography (of both Vann and the Vietnam War) held my interest for all of its 800 pages. It is a humbling and relevant tome that describes the catastrophic failures of leadership and American hubris that led to the inevitable disaster in Vietnam. Highly recommended. (Get a copy)

Notes of a Native Son

5. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

As timely as ever. (Get a copy)

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society

6. Notes on the Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa

“We all like to escape from objective reality into the arms of fantasy. This has also been, from the beginning, one of the functions of literature. But making the present unreal, changing real history into fiction, has the effect of demobilizing citizens, making them feel exempt from any civic responsibility, making them believe that they are powerless to intervene in a history whose script has already been written, acted and filmed in an irreversible way. Along this path we might slide into a world without citizens, only spectators, a world where, although democratic forms might exist, society has become a sort of lethargic society, full of passive men and women, that dictatorships seek to implant.”

Searing! Just the kind of jolt I have been hungry to receive, feeling adrift on a sea of empty modern essays that appear to be angry but have no philosophical core, no thoughtfulness, no ultimate impact. Mario Vargas Llosa rails against a “culture of spectacle” in the West and all its attending consequences, especially for arts and letters, religion, journalism, and sex. (His essay “The Disappearance of Eroticism” was one of my favorites in this collection.) He writes with conviction and clarity, and although I do not agree with all of his positions, I take many to heart.

“Light literature, along with light cinema and light art, give the reader and the viewer the comfortable impression that they are cultured, revolutionary, modern and in the vanguard without having to make the slightest intellectual effort. Culture that purports to be avant-garde and iconoclastic instead offers conformity in its worst forms: smugness and self-satisfaction.”

(Get a copy)

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

7. Arab and Jew, David K. Shipler

An insightful journalist’s overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from a writer who is neither Jewish nor Muslim and who spent many years reporting in Jerusalem for the New York Times. It is obviously a snapshot of the conflict from the early 1980s (with an update to many chapters written in the early 200s), but even then, it is a useful and fair-minded portrait of the virtues and vices of both sides of the conflict. A difficult work to write, for sure, and an impressive and far-ranging book, drawing mostly from scores and scores of interviews from men, women, and children, whether Israeli Jews, Arabs, Druse, Bedouin, and Palestinians. (Get a copy)

The John McPhee Reader (John McPhee Reader, #1)

8. The John McPhee Reader

A master class in essay writing. A marvelous introduction to the depth and breadth of John McPhee, a journalist’s journalist, one of the finest living nonfiction writers. It is perhaps preferable to read these books in full, rather than the snippets that are presented here, but this is a great way to encounter McPhee for the first time, in this well-edited sampler of his greatest hits. I was familiar with a good number of these selections, but the book piqued my interest in several books of his that I haven’t read yet (particularly The Pine Barrens and A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles). Enthusiastically recommended, especially to would-be essayists and those with boundless curiosity about the known world. (Get a copy)

9. Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller

“When I give up the fish, I get, at long last, that thing I had been searching for: a mantra, a trick, a prescription for hope. I get the promise that there are good things in store. Not because I deserve them. Not because I worked for them. But because they are as much a part of Chaos as destruction and loss. Life, the flip side of death. Growth, of rot.”

Incandescent! I read ravenously; Lulu Miller’s winsome prose is addictive. The complicated story of scientist David Starr Jordan merges with Miller’s own life and years of grappling with Chaos. As anyone who has listened to her radio work knows, she is a reporter and writer with seemingly infinite stores of empathy and creativity, and all of her gifts are on display in this remarkable book. (Get a copy)

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

10. The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed

Although much of the book repeats the phrase “we simply cannot know,” Annette Gordon-Reed is a talented storyteller and historical analyst. Parsing through letters, little details, cultural mores, and flights of sociological reasoning, Gordon-Reed presents a strong case for a meaningful (and unlikely coercive) long-term relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I felt especially moved by her continual repetition of the fact that Jefferson and Hemings were individuals, not universal emblems of a stereotype (e.g., white slave owner, black enslaved woman). They were both deeply complex and at times confusing and contradictory. The Hemingses of Monticello often reads like a Russian novel, with an ever-growing cast of complicated characters, many of whom share the same name and often a bloodline. I started reading this hefty history during the early days of COVID-19 lockdown, and it made me appreciate how much my city of Charlottesville has witnessed and endured. There are many histories buried on this ground, and many tales of endurance and hope. Sally Hemings and her remarkable family are a testament to the endurance of the human spirit, and I hold their memory dear, thanks to Gordon-Reed’s deep, insightful, and ultimately moving history of their time at Monticello. (Get a copy)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Essays One, Lydia Davis
  2. Decreation, Anne Carson
  3. The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon
  4. The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch
  5. When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, Naja Marie Aidt
  6. Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell
  7. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Katy Butler
  8. The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas
  9. Intimations, Zadie Smith
  10. In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado
  11. Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith
  12. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  13. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard
  14. Underland, Robert Macfarlane
  15. Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino
  16. Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas
  17. The Astonished Heart, Robert Farrar Capon
  18. Interior States, Meghan O’Gieblyn
  19. Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton
  20. Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez
  21. Design for Cognitive Bias, David Dylan Thomas
  22. The Library Book, Susan Orlean
  23. Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne
  24. Cross-Cultural Design, Senongo Akpem
  25. Prayer Plainly Spoken, Stanley Hauerwas
  26. Elevating Child Care, Janet Lansbury
  27. The Montessori Toddler, Simone Davies
  28. Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren

10 best books I read this winter

Winter is a time for burying yourself under a faux-fur blanket by the fireplace and disappearing into books while your German shepherds whine for attention. Here are the 10 best things I read this winter.

The Complete Stories

01. The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

The marvelous strangeness of Clarice Lispector is a never-ending delight. I read her Complete Stories with deliberate patience, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. The delicious sorcery of Lispector is that she changes you. I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory, all-encompassing logic. In the excruciating darkness of the world, during which I still felt weighed down by the election, I read Lispector and thought, At least we still have this.

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

02. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t just love this because there’s a German shepherd on the cover. I’m utterly smitten with Joy Williams and with this collection of stories, which are incredibly strange and gorgeously written. The Visiting Privilege is dense with delights, with characters who are at once familiar and foreign.

War and Peace

03. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

I devoted myself to re-reading War and Peace over the winter, and it was the perfect thing. It was my first time with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s celebrated translation, and it was as purely enjoyable as everyone says it is. It is immensely readable and spiritually nourishing. We may never have a genius like Tolstoy again. What a pleasure it is to live in a world where art like this exists and can be returned to again and again.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

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

If there’s only one book you read about America’s involvement in Iraq, it should probably be this one. George Packer writes an impressively incisive and concise history of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration and presents all of the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. 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.

A Streetcar Named Desire

05. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

This is the third time I’ve read this play, but every time feels like the first time. Don’t care if that sounds cliché; it’s true. It kills me every time. It’s a superbly readable play, a play that seems to be intended to be read, and I recommend it to everyone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

06. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

Here is a saying worthy of all to be received: Read DFW avidly. And then do not read him, for five or six years. And then read him again. The pleasures are manifold in this collection of essays.

Giovanni's Room

07. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a star-crossed couple in Paris. I’m always grateful to be reminded of James Baldwin’s extraordinary gifts with each encounter. He has such range and impressive economy of language.

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

08. Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan

They don’t make journalism like this anymore. In this incredibly researched and riveting book, Susan Sheehan follows a woman with schizophrenia for the better part of two years. It’s a gripping and heart-rending portrayal and calls into question most of our commonly held assumptions about mental illness and psychiatric care.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

09. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

Guion got to hear Lydia Davis, Queen of my Heart, speak at UVA this fall. In the lecture, she said that she loved to refer to Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences when she wrote or when she felt stuck, if merely to be reminded of the extraordinary variety of English and all the innumerable ways one can put a sentence together. I studied and devoured this delightful and useful book. I keep it on a shelf at work and turn to it in moments of crisis.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde

A powerful and extremely relevant collection of essays and lectures from Audre Lorde. It is galvanizing and exciting to read her work back to back in this fashion; I had only ever read snippets and quotes before. And I am neither the first nor the last to say this, but Lorde is an essential member of the American feminist canon. It’s a good time to shut up and listen to her.

It’s going to be a beautiful spring for books, too. What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

Putting things in order

Friday night

“I always liked to arrange things. I guess it’s my only real vocation. By putting things in order, I create and understand at the same time.”

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector

In a similar fashion, I am calmed and comforted by arranging. I feel a strong correlation between the appearance of my home and my mental state. But I like this extra component that G.H., in Lispector’s fashioning, adds: that order brings both the ability to create and understand. I have always felt this innately but never made the direct connection. I enjoy creating, but unlike stereotypical “creative types” (e.g., my sister, an artist who thrives amid piles and piles of objects), I have always needed the prerequisite of order. Otherwise, for me, there is no creation. There is no understanding.

There were a few famous novelists stalking around town last week. On the way home from the library the other day, I feel fairly certain that I saw our old landlord haranguing one of these novelists on a street corner. Old Landlord was talking and gesturing and Famous Novelist was listening silently, tight-lipped, while Old Landlord’s patient dog was sitting by a hydrant. I wanted so badly to pull over and eavesdrop. I don’t even know if I saw what I thought I saw, but I wanted to see it, and so now I have.

To end on a grave note: This is the only thing we should be talking about right now. Black lives matter. Say it every day.

And then, fellow whites, let us think about this for a moment, in humility.

I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect in the personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.

— James Baldwin, “The Price May Be Too High” (1969)

Black in America: Essential reading list

We read to broaden our minds, and nowhere does this seem more vital right now than for white America to read black America. Following is a list of books that have challenged, enlightened, and inspired me.

Have read and heartily recommend

James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.
James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.

Nonfiction

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
  • White Girls, Hilton Als
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, Beverly Daniel Tatum

Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.

Fiction

  • Go Tell It on a Mountain, James Baldwin
  • Another Country, James Baldwin
  • The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  • The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Passing, Nella Larsen
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • Cane, Jean Toomer
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  • Native Son, Richard Wright

Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.

Memoir/Autobiography

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.

Poetry

  • Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis
  • Selected Poems, Rita Dove
  • Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove
  • Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney
  • Against Which, Ross Gay
  • Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  • Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
  • Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey

And I still have a good many books that I want to read, including the following.

Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.
Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.

On my reading list

  • Collected Essays, James Baldwin
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
  • Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  • Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, James Baldwin
  • Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
  • Blacks, Gwendolyn Brooks
  • The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
  • Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, Peniel E. Joseph
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
  • Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, Diane McWhorter
  • Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas
  • The Street, Ann Petry
  • Citizen, Claudia Rankine
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright

What would you add to either of these lists?