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

What I have left out is the interstitial time

Richmond Park
Richmond Park, this past summer.

“Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”

— John McPhee, a letter of advice to his daughter, quoted in his 2013 New Yorker piece