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

Monday Snax

Family + Dublin
My family + our surrogate dog, Dublin.

Thanksgiving girls
Girls of Thanksgiving. L to R: me, Dana, Grace, Emily, Kelsey, and Nicole.

Proper Pratt siblings
Pratt siblings on our best behavior. Win is so stoic.

Ah, Thanksgiving. It was so ideal. The weather was divine; the food, miraculous; the company, perfect. As always, it is difficult to get back into the weekly routine, but I feel sufficiently rested and hopeful. I left ineffably thankful for our families. And I got to spend plenty of time with dogs, which was naturally another thing to be grateful for. Photos from the holiday weekend on my Flickr.

Snax with leftover turkey and cranberry sauce:

The Extraordinary Syllabi of David Foster Wallace. Kind of thankful I’m not taking a lit class with DFW. Although I think it is totally wonderful that he assigned The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Slate)

Women Who Write Like Men and Men Who Write Like Women. A somewhat interesting corollary to my thoughts on this matter? So, it turns out that men and women do actually use pronouns differently, and so we can overgeneralize and say that there are some “men who write like women” and some “women who write like men.” Haven’t processed the implications of this, but it’s still interesting. (Full Stop)

Joan Didion on Stage. More Didion (because I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking right now, probably). And because she is snarky and cool. (The New Yorker’s Book Bench)

Living with (Millions) of Books. Houses without books look soulless. (English Muse)

Jonathan Lethem’s Alphabetical Absolutism: How Writers Keep Their Books. Photographs of contemporary writers’ bookshelves. I liked Junot Diaz’s thoughts on the matter of buying more books than one can read in a year. (The New Yorker’s Book Bench)

Peter Jellitsch Draws the Wind. Now that’s a crazy endeavor. But how cool is this? Very. (Fox Is Black)

Bicycle Portraits, Part III. This looks like a beautiful book. Would make a gorgeous gift for the avid cyclist in one’s life. (Miss Moss)

30 Tech Gifts Under $100. It seems all people want these days are gadgets, so this is a small but helpful gift guide for design-friendly digital-age presents. [Side note: Can I talk about how much I hate the asterisk in the Design*Sponge title? I always want to leave it out, even though copy editor rules tell me you’re supposed to punctuate a title the way a firm punctuates it. Still. I think it is stupid, Bonney. Even though your gift guides and your general website are great.] (Design*Sponge)

Constellation Calendar. Ooh, love. Even though I can’t identify a constellation to save my life (except probably Orion’s belt). (Unruly Things)

The Class Comforter. The sweetest. I would like to have that job/get someone else in my office to have that job. (Sweet Fine Day)

Monday Snax

Dead orchard
Spooky peach trees.

Afternoon in Crozet
Guion on a Crozet farm road.

A peaceful, efficient weekend. Back to the book sale again; ran a lot of errands; Guion was on tour with Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Camp Christopher in D.C. and Princeton.  One of the highlights of the weekend was a photo session with the incredible Kristin Moore, who took us out to Chiles Peach Orchard in Crozet for a fun afternoon among the spooky/awesome dead trees. Kristin is so sweet and encouraging and she made us feel OK about being in front of the camera, despite our overwhelming awkwardness.

My paternal grandfather passed away this weekend. He was a happy man who flew helicopters and told jokes, but I did not know him very well. It is a strange feeling, to acknowledge that you feel so empty and detached about your grandfather’s death, but my heart is heavy for my father and his siblings. They feel something for him that I never got the chance to, and for that, I am sad. Rest in peace, Papa John.

Snax with a box of clementines, which are easily the main reason winter is passable:

Faroes. Good friend Ross McDermott went on an adventure to the mystical and hidden Faroe Islands and his photographs of the trip are just incredible. It looks like such an enchanted place; I want to go! (Ross McDermott’s Flickr)

Palmetto Bluff. Meredith visits this amazing inn in South Carolina. I’m a sucker for hanging moss; it makes me want to go read a dozen Eudora Welty stories. (Meredith Perdue)

LIFE Magazine’s 20 Worst Covers. You have to respect a magazine with the ability to make fun of itself. These are pretty horrendous. (LIFE)

Our Bella, Ourselves. As a self-respecting woman with a functional brain, I have a lot of disdain for all things Twilight. But this is a very interesting perspective on Bella Swan–the weak, useless, defenseless, and indecisive “heroine”–as a mirror of her fanbase. Teen girls love these books, because they see something of themselves in Bella. Sad, but maybe true? (The Hairpin)

2011 Holiday Card Roundup, Part 4. If I were a rich woman, I would spend an unforgivable amount of money on cards like these. (Oh, So Beautiful Paper)

Calligraphy Inspiration: Kathryn Murray. So pretty and whimsical. To have such control over one’s nib! (Oh, So Beautiful Paper)

Joan Didion’s Packing List. That is very efficient, Ms. Didion. I approve. (English Muse)

Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life. A sound and compelling argument for reading thick novels even when your life is insane. (The Millions)