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 you do not have you find everywhere

As a profoundly emotionally illiterate person, I have been rocked by how much my feelings have fluctuated during this time. (I have no emotional coping mechanisms! Someone help me!) One day, I feel bright and hopeful; we’re outside and Moses is crawling in the grass and the sun is warm and healing on our necks. The next day, I am in the pit of despair; a fragment of a grim news story repeats on an endless loop. I feel that life will never be normal again, that we’ll never be able to hug anyone without a stab of fear, that we might all be homeless. This is how it goes for me right now. Up and down, up and down.

We are presently healthy, which is a mercy, and we are learning how to both work full days while minding the boy. Every day has its own share of minor victories and minor struggles. And I enjoy Guion so, so much, which is also very helpful. He is a tremendously valuable partner, chef, problem-solver, and parent. I would surely perish without him.

. . .

Why Fish Don't Exist - By Lulu Miller (Hardcover) : Target

I have a book recommendation for you as well. It’s just the thing for this time of seclusion and meditation on the inherent chaos of life.

Lulu Miller’s new book Why Fish Don’t Exist is radiant. I read it ravenously, devouring most of it in a single sitting. Her 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. Highly recommended.

. . .

Provision

W.S. Merwin

All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
Of rain
From memory
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands
What you do not have you find everywhere

. . .

moses-outside49762484286_3b1a449cd0_k

Here is a baby who is almost a boy who very much wants to be walking. He will stand and bounce from time to time, but he has not yet developed much interest in taking steps. He has been forced to content himself with crawling around in the grass and trying to sneak as many nibbles of grass, mulch, and flowers as he can. He is busy, curious, and solemnly observant of the natural world. His favorite plants are red Japanese maples and boxwoods, which he loves to reach out and grab. We tried to get him to play with privet and Japanese hollies, which very closely resemble boxwoods, but he can’t be fooled. He is only interested in boxwoods, like the true Virginia gentleman that he is.

. . .

Currently reading

  • The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: Found a cheap copy; wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
  • John McPhee Reader: A selection from many books by one of the greatest essayists of our time.
  • Gulf Music, Robert Pinsky: Time to read through all of the poetry books we own but I have not yet touched.
  • The Immoralist, André Gide: I’m not very interested in this.

An even fuller week

Thursday night: Tiny Nettles concert in honor of Lulu and her birthday.

Friday night: The sisters arrived! (Plus Eva and Alex, not featured here.)

Saturday morning: Post-race malaise.

Saturday night: Dinner at Monsoon with the fam. Brothers Pratt here.

This past week I:

  • Attended a surprise birthday show for Lulu, in which Tiny Nettles played; ate the best (and longest? Most intestinal?) baked ziti ever, by Greg.
  • Turned 24; received tulips, chocolate, and a beautiful leather leash (for the dog, not me) from my dear husband.
  • Welcomed my sisters, Alex, and Eva for the weekend.
  • Ran the Charlottesville 10-miler, didn’t die.
  • Ate a celebratory dinner at Monsoon with family and friends.
  • Enjoyed the company of many friends at The Local for drinks; felt so very blessed by each one of them.
  • Went to the Gordon Avenue book sale, the best bi-annual book sale ever.
  • Met a new calligraphy client to start on another job.
  • Observed Palm Sunday; was reminded of that feeling during the Passion reading, “Wait, why do I have to be the crowd? I don’t want this part; it’s the bad guy’s part… Oh, wait. Right.”
  • Watched Guion finish his master’s thesis, provided some opinions on last lines and em dashes; felt so proud of him.
  • Felt very happy.

Love you all very much. There’s a complete set of the weekend’s photos on my Flickr and Grace also published a very nice weekend re-cap, if you’re hankering for more.