Best nonfiction I read in 2018

2018 was a banner year in nonfiction for me. I read so much great stuff that it was difficult to choose. Here are my top 10 favorites from the year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions (which are all also worthy of your time and attention).

The Gene: An Intimate History

1: The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those infuriating people who happens to be at the top of his (non-literary) professional field and a brilliant writer. I’ve loved everything he’s published (both his other books and his essays, which often appear in the New Yorker), and I devoured this gorgeously written and riveting history of genetics. It’s written for the layperson but constructed with all the force of his analytical, medical mind. I read it ravenously on a plane, flying from here to Minneapolis, and deeply resented anyone trying to speak to me as I finished it. (Amazon)

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

2: Plainwater: Essays and Poems, Anne Carson

Anne Carson works on me like a drug. I’m always in the mood for her, and I can never get enough. Her free-wheeling mind and her absolute, inviolable independence as a writer and thinker are addictive.

This, like much of her work, is a multifaceted collection, featuring a long poem, short “talks,” travel diaries with various lovers, and meditations, among other things. It does not disappoint. (Amazon)

Known and Strange Things: Essays

3: Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

I might be a bit in love with Teju Cole now. (It’s OK; Guion knows.) I feel like a fangirl, like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for half an hour?

This is a beautiful, engaging collection of essays, spanning so many subjects—and so many that I am already delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, the aforementioned Anne Carson (!), etc. His style and captivating logic worked on me in a powerful way. This is a collection I regret not owning, as I would press it urgently into the hands of everyone I met. (Amazon)

Gravity and Grace

4: Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil

Although I had already encountered most of these essays in an anthology of Weil that I read last year, it was a renewed pleasure to read this free, unfiltered version of her earliest work. Her mind is powerful; you can fall into it like a dark pool. And her way of thinking is one that we need now more than ever. (Amazon)

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners

5: The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser

This book randomly called to me at the library book sale this year, and I’m so glad that it did. I knew nothing about it, but I was intrigued by the title.

Margaret Visser, a professor at the University of Toronto, provides a delightful tour through the history of table manners, from ancient Greece to 20th-century North America. I especially loved her meaningful reflections on culture: how we form it and how it forms us. Her style is meandering, and she seems to find it difficult to focus on one topic, but I liked her vast, wandering approach, and it seems fitting for the subject matter. Recommended for casual history buffs and students of human culture. (Amazon)

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

6: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan

Before he became famous for his real-food polemics, Michael Pollan was puttering around in his New England garden.

This book, published in 1993, is a pure delight and total inspiration to a gardener of my ilk (invested in a garden that balances itself with nature, values native plants, eschews foolish hybrids, and strives to eradicate the lawn in all its iterations). His presentation of a gardener’s ethics was also deeply motivating. I hope to return to it again and again in my gardening life, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys nurturing plants and a small plot of land. (Amazon)

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

7: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen

Utterly gripping. Anyone who naively thinks that history is progressive, that we’re all moving forward in an enlightened direction, should spend a little time with this book.

Masha Gessen writes with all the force and the authority of an excellent researcher, journalist, and Russian native. The book is a clear, salient introduction to Russia’s troubled recent history (1980-present), and it sticks with you after you put it down. (Amazon)

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

8: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

In a series of high-profile interviews, interspersed with personal and national history, Ari Shavit tells a story of Israel and all of its victories and failures, challenges and complexities.

It is perhaps impossible to find an objective source on what Israel was and what it has become, but this excellent book comes close. Shavit is uniquely positioned, as the great-grandson of one of the first colonizing Zionists, as a former detention camp guard, as an anti-occupation journalist, to handle this narrative. Perhaps this is the only way to learn about such a vast, seemingly unsolvable conflict: stories handed down from one person to another, arranged loosely around a long, troubled timeline of the Jewish people. (Amazon)

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

9: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt

American sculptor Anne Truitt keeps a loose-limbed diary, including thoughts about her work, inspiration, motherhood, ambition and provision. The result is a readable, motivating record of a driven artist. She was once a nurse and trained as a creative writer, and both of her capacities for generosity and creativity shine through in this lyrical, finely crafted journal. (Amazon)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

10: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

More than 30 years ago, before we could even conceive of a personal internet or carrying powerful computers around in our pockets, Neil Postman made a chilling prediction the state of American discourse and politics in 2018. Donald Trump is so purely a product and consequence of the Age of Television. It is a gripping and somehow affirming read, backing up all that I have felt this year about wanting to get away from TV, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of it. Although it’s “old,” it reads quickly and is well worth your time. What remains to be seen is whether we can recover from our addiction to entertainment. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  3. Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector
  4. How to Write an Autobiographical  Novel, Alexander Chee
  5. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  6. Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf
  7. Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax
  8. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  9. At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman
  10. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott
  11. Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson
  12. Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa
  13. Calypso, David Sedaris
  14. Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski
  15. The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
  16. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell

Previously: The best poetry I read in 2018. Up next: The best fiction I read in 2018.

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

Best books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?

Best nonfiction I read in 2015

I consumed a lot of excellent nonfiction this year, and this was a particularly difficult list to make. So many gorgeous, mind-expanding books!

1: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia

An enormous and spellbinding work of art, history, and memoir. Rebecca West travels to the former Yugoslavia with her husband in the late 1930s, on the cusp of World War II, and produces this gigantic and gorgeous book of her travels and observations. West, who is brilliant and yet endlessly entertaining and quick, sees the clouds gathering over Europe from the vantage point of the Balkans and produces this remarkable record of that pregnant historical moment. Their travels are chaperoned by Constantine, a Slavic Jew, who is a fascinating character in himself, and they are often unfortunately joined by his appallingly horrible German wife, Gerda, who is an outspoken Nazi sympathizer (which surely makes for a horrific marriage between them, at the very least). West is game for any adventure, however, even with such a dizzying array of characters and cultures.

Her style is breathtakingly beautiful and can win over even the most lax armchair historian (like myself), and she’s also devilishly funny and eloquently sarcastic. She, like most people of her time period, can be prone to racial stereotypes and overgeneralizations of people (she loves to use the word “sluttish,” for instance, to refer to people or art or cultures that she finds distasteful), but I think, on the whole, she comes down on the side of fairness and humanity more often than not. I will rave about this massive, unexpected treasure to anyone who will listen. It was worth every minute spent in its jam-packed pages.

2: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Gut-wrenching and terribly, beautifully composed. Essential reading for all Americans, especially us white ones, because we are still steeped in such shameful ignorance. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s repeated refrain of “the body,” in this letter to his son, was especially powerful and eye-opening to me, to consider the ever-present threat to the only thing you truly have, your physical self, if you are a black American. Until we so-called white Americans can acknowledge and bear our mutual, omnipresent complicity in perpetuating racism in a systematic, universal way, nothing will change in this country.

3: H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

The main thing that needs to be said is that this book is as incredible as everyone says it is. Helen Macdonald comes to terms with her beloved father’s sudden death in an unusual way: She adopts a goshawk. Goshawks are, I learned, one of the bird world’s finest killing machines, and training one to hunt with a human is no easy feat. In this marvelous book — half-grief memoir, half-hawk-training-narrative — Macdonald wrestles with the belief that animals can heal us, and finds that they can, but also discovers that animals can invert us, revealing our most dark, sad selves; a relationship with a wild thing can make us wild, a creature foreign to other humans and to ourselves.

Her prose is perfect, luminous; I couldn’t get enough. (It’s evident that she is also a poet; she knows how to make language bend and sing for her.) H Is for Hawk is gorgeously written and smart and heartbreaking; it elicited tears from me, and wry grins, and a hopeful, thoughtful perspective on the mystery of death and of the connection between two living things.

4: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Having recently lost a beloved grandmother and now watching my parents (and parents-in-law) wrestle with end-of-life care decisions for their parents, Atul Gawande’s book was very relevant and poignant to me. As a general surgeon, he writes with medical context and experience, but he also writes as a son watching his father die. Gawande is willing to ask the hard questions and to do so with grace and eloquence. What is important toward the end of our lives? Is there a better model for elderly care? How can we improve the quality of our lives when the years ahead are few? Gawande addresses these questions with sincerity, tact, and feeling, and I think this book ought to be required reading for any child with aging parents.

5: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

If you think the US justice system is fair and not implicitly racist, think again. Michelle Alexander’s well-researched and devastating book argues that the War on Drugs has created an enormous prison caste system, composed primarily of black men. The United States is 5% of the world population but 25% of its imprisoned population, and the majority of those prisoners are minorities. Increasingly, white Americans have had to come to grips with the fact that we live in a foolishly innocent parallel universe, in which we are largely ignorant of the racism and widespread unconscious bias that permeate law enforcement and the courts. We naively believe that (a) if someone ends up in jail, he deserves to be there and (b) that there is a sense of colorblind fairness in policing, sentencing, and convicting. Nothing could be further from the heartrending truth. (It is particularly sad and notable that this book came out five years ago, before the well-publicized spate of grotesque police violence against black people. What does it take to make us pay attention?)

The evidence Alexander presents to back up her case is vast and impossible to ignore. And the historical and legal context that she provides is very valuable and eye-opening, particularly for readers curious about the implications of court cases and criminal justice legislation. I think the book could have benefited from clearer framing. She mentions this a few times, but Alexander is not talking about the entire criminal justice system; rather, she focuses on the War on Drugs and its vast implications for creating our age of mass incarceration. This is a strong, readable, and important work of scholarship that demands sweeping policy change.

6: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Soetsu Yanagi

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

A perfectly expressed treatise on the theology of craft, specifically the characteristics of Japanese and Korean folk art. This book had been on my to-read shelf for years, and I am pleased to say it did not disappoint. Yanagi elevates the artistic and spiritual merit of wabi sabi work, especially pottery, and draws on Zen Buddhism (with dashes of Christian mysticism to appeal to Western readers) to form his philosophy of art. It’s clear, cogent, and elegantly simple. All I could think when finishing was, When I go back to Japan, I’m taking a whole suitcase just for ceramics.

7: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

This is probably the first nonfiction horror book I’ve read. And it’s worth the existential dread and terror, because that might be the only thing that will make humankind act at this point. (The part of humankind who cares about science and what it’s been telling us for decades, i.e., how can any intelligent person possibly vote for politicians who deny climate change? But that is neither here nor there.) Here, Elizabeth Kolbert presents well-researched and solidly written accounts of extinction — and displays the considerable evidence that we are careening toward the sixth great episode of the decimation of biological diversity on Earth. The Sixth Extinction will make you sad and will make you begin to preemptively mourn the death of all the beautiful life on our planet, but it may also make you want to stand up and shout about it. Happy to hear that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

8: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Superbly researched and written. This book won the Pulitzer when it was published, in 2006, and although that was nine years ago, it is still incredibly relevant and helpful as we watch the rise of ISIS (Da’esh). I marveled at the depth and breadth of Wright’s research.

9: Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

What a lovely book of wisdom: for writers, specifically, but for human beings, in general. Rilke shares thoughts on writing, art, grief, love, and solitude with his characteristic blend of honesty and power. It is a shame it took me so many years to get to this little book. It will be a pleasant thing to return to in times of discouragement or confusion.

10: The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays

In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I want to say about being both a free-thinking progressive and a self-identifying Christian. Five stars for a handful of the essays, which are luminous and so wise. A few I found a bit dry and tedious (the obsession with John Calvin is something I don’t totally understand), but overall, recommended particularly to American Christians, especially the ones who want to use their minds.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt (a quote here)
  2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
  3. Women in Clothes, ed. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
  4. Hold Still, Sally Mann
  5. The Diary, vol. III, Virginia Woolf
  6. Oranges, John McPhee
  7. A Life in Letters, Anton Chekhov
  8. A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West
  9. Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  10. White Girls, Hilton Als
  11. No Good Men among the Living, Anand Gopal
  12. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz
  13. On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss
  14. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves
  15. The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum
  16. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
  17. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum
  18. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon
  19. The Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig
  20. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
  21. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  22. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso
  23. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott
  24. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison
  25. The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits
  26. The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey

What were some of the best nonfiction books you read in 2015? I’d love to hear about them.

Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

2014 was a banner year for me in excellent nonfiction, so this was an extremely challenging list to make. It’s worth noting that every book in the honorable mentions category is also fantastic. Without further ado…

1. Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

I write the worst reviews for the books I love the most. I have nothing coherent to say; all I can do is gush. And just say: Read this book, if you do anything at all.

Arctic Dreams is a masterful account of the natural, scientific, historical, and cultural landscape of the Arctic. Lopez writes beautifully and conscientiously and yet with a researcher’s painstaking attention to detail. The book was published in 1986, and so I’m late to the party, but I found it just as moving and relevant as if it had been written yesterday.

Essentially, I think it’s perfect; all I could ever want in a book of nonfiction. From a passage near the end of the book:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be where one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of a contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”

2. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Riveting, brilliantly researched and written. The Unwinding may be the truest portrait of post-financial crisis America that we have, and as such, it should be cherished and honored. By taking a simultaneously macro- and micro-level view of a deconstructed America, George Packer shows us what this country is made of. I still feel as obsessed with this book as I did when I finished it, many months ago. Highly recommended to all US residents.

3. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say;’ but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

A gorgeous collection of essays and lectures on poetry, meaning, and inspiration. Mary Ruefle’s style combines many of my favorite elements in an essayist: mystical asides, plenty of literary allusions, mini-anecdotes, and snippets of history and fact. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Her lecture on reading (“Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World”) had me in total raptures. I started writing down quotes from it and then slowly realized that I was just copying the entire piece verbatim. (We read Proust in the exact same way—one volume a year, in our twenties, because an older man told us it was the only thing that mattered—I feel that we might be soulmates, Mary and me!) I also loved her joint lecture on Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank; her meditation on fear; her lecture about theme and sentimentality; an exposition of the irreverence of art.

Read it; savor it; thank God we have poets such as these.

“Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicated things—the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe—what else is there?”

(With gratitude to Celeste for telling me about this book and lending me her much-loved copy.)

4. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The Noonday Demon is an important, comprehensive, compassionate book about depression, the seemingly ubiquitous plague of modernity. As always, Andrew Solomon is gracious and thoughtful in his portrayals of real stories (continually and gently humanizing the face of the illness, both with his own experience and the experiences of others), and thorough and incisive in the sweeping scope of his research. After chapters of the various methods of reckoning with depression (whether physically or philosophically), the book ends with powerful, raw honesty and light.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over and I have to grit my teeth to stay on the sidewalk until the light turns green; or I imagine how easily I might cut my wrists; or I taste hungrily the metal tip of a gun in my mouth; or I picture going to sleep and never waking up again. I hate those feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”

5. The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

I first read this book many years ago, and I finally bought myself a copy, because I loved it so much. Re-reading this book — Thomas Merton’s collection of the proverbs of ancient Christian hermits/mystics in North Africa — brought a renewed sense of pleasure. This little book served as a powerful reminder to me, in my general throes of doubt and mistrust, that Christianity was and is beautiful and mysterious and humble.

6. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

For many years now, this elusive little book has haunted my to-read list. A handful of my favorite writers and critics were always dropping oblique references to The Poetics of Space, but the library didn’t have a copy, and so I kept putting it off. Foolishly, I now acknowledge. I finally bought myself a busted old copy and read it with a great deal of reverence and delight.

In this charming and surprisingly readable text, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard discusses the intersection between poetry, imagination, and buildings — and does it in such a way that makes you want to constantly scope your surroundings for hidden meaning. He draws inspiration from nature, dreams, Rilke, Baudelaire, a great deal of lesser-known French literature, smatterings of Thoreau, and his own experience.

I am often intimidated by philosophy, but here Bachelard fashions it into a welcoming arena. Nothing is too minor or mundane for him. As he says, “I am moreover convinced that the human psyche contains nothing that is insignificant.” Images, after all, are simple; we experience them every second and no weighty scholarship can improve their reception. Bachelard is concerned with this topic, how the imagination processes space and transfers it to memory, to art, to awareness.

It’s a beautiful book, and upon finishing it, I wish I had read it more slowly.

7. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

I am admittedly obsessed with the poet Mark Doty, particularly after his memoir about dogs and grief (Dog Years), and so I was elated to find this slim volume at the library.

I read the entire book while on a train to DC, and I don’t think I looked up once. I was completely engrossed. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty commands his notable powers of language to discuss a small Dutch still life painting from the 17th century. And from there, how this painting stirred his heart and mind regarding art, life, and death.

It is a difficult book to recommend, because everything I say about it seems distant and disengaged, but it is tremendously beautiful and moving. I’d like to read it again right now instead of doing anything else.

8. How Fiction Works, James Wood

How Fiction Works

Sometimes you read a book and you can’t escape this constant refrain: This book GETS me.

James Wood, at the very least, gets me, and this little book on the art of fiction was tremendously charming.

For literary nerds like myself, Wood provides a great deal of delight in How Fiction Works. Honestly, I enjoyed it for a few vain, puerile reasons: (1) It’s deeply confirming when a respected writer and critic shares your taste, (2) the way your brain lights up when you actually get all of the allusions, and (3) the sense of reassurance that comes from knowing you are a snob, utterly.

But it’s pleasant and very readable, and the book made me pay attention to fiction in a way that I didn’t think was possible anymore, outside of English classes at college. In short, recommended to anyone who reads.

9. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

“Now America has among the highest percent of working mothers of any country. They work among the most full-time hours. They clock the most extreme paid work hours. They do so despite laboring in some of the most demanding and unforgiving workplaces with the most family-unfriendly policies of any developed country on Earth. And, compared to mothers in other countries, American mothers spend among the most time with their children, sacrificing sleep, personal care, and leisure time to do so.”

This book is essential reading for every American woman.

Let’s hear it for US moms. No wonder they are so strung out all of the time.

I had no idea how truly backward our country was, when it comes to workplace policies for women and families, until I read Overwhelmed. I had an idea of the injustices, but not how deeply they extended.

Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling utterly overwhelmed, all day, every day.

I was riveted by this book, and I can’t stop thinking and talking about it even now. Schulte provides fresh, honest examples of the state of American working moms, along with insightful research and interviews. She paints a frankly horrific portrait of the state of family policy in this country. (Her time with Pat Buchanan also left me with the strong feeling that he might, in fact, be very evil and that the GOP is, at the very least, living in a fantasy America that does not exist and perhaps never existed.)

Politics aside, every US woman who has children or is thinking of having children ought to read this book. It’s a rousing call to improve both our family policies and our family lives. High praise to Schulte for her research, authenticity, and important message.

One can only hope and pray that our governments and our corporate cultures take notice. Immense change is needed in the ways we work, love, and play, and Schulte has — significantly — hit a nerve here.

10. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

I still talk about this book all the time, and yet part of me wishes I hadn’t read it, because I like seafood. And now I have all of these deep, ethical qualms about eating it at all.

Paul Greenberg likes seafood too, but his interests extend beyond mere taste. Rather, in this excellently written and deeply researched book, he explores the future of fish, namely the four that we fish and eat the most: salmon, bass, cod, and tuna.

Without some drastic policy changes, the fate of these four fish looks rather grim. Greenberg is a great storyteller, on top of being a first-rate reporter, and this book will change the way that you think about and eat fish.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker
  2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace
  3. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  4. Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard
  5. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  6. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  7. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  8. My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel
  9. Citizen Canine, David Grimm
  10. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam
  11. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  12. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul
  14. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  15. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
  16. The Control of Nature, John McPhee
  17. Unapologetic, Francis Spufford
  18. Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman
  19. After the Music Stopped, Alan S. Blinder
  20. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior
  21. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs
  22. Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller
  23. A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans
  24. Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg
  25. Just Kids, Patti Smith

What were your favorite nonfiction books you read in 2014?

Previously: Top 10 books of poetry in 2014. Coming up next: Top 10 books of fiction I read in 2014.

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013

I read 125 books in 2013, down somewhat from last year. But as far as I can tell, here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read.

1. My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

I think I’ve already said everything I wanted to about this marvelous little book, but the critical thing is that it saved me. I felt like I could keep believing in Christianity after reading Wiman’s memoir of faith. So, if you’re ever in a place like me and find yourself deep in doubt and ennui, turn to Wiman. He has some beautifully perfect and powerful things to say about being a modern believer in an ancient religion.

2. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Topping out at about 1,000 pages, Far from the Tree was my Big Tome of the year. The fact that I, a childless person, so enjoyed this book about parents and children speaks to Andrew Solomon’s gift as a writer and storyteller. The book is also riveting and frightening to me, as a childless person, but Solomon writes with honest hope about what he calls “horizontal relationships” between parents and children — that is, children who differ markedly from their parents (e.g., parents to kids who are transgender, deaf, or autistic; have dwarfism or Down syndrome; are criminals, etc.). Solomon spent 10 years researching this book, and his meticulous attention to his subjects is filled with grace and understanding. Each chapter tackles a separate identity and how those parents and children have learned to live and love through their differences. It’s a momentous book on a rarely discussed topic.

3. The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton

The Architecture of Happiness

This completely charming, intelligent, and engrossing little book is for everyone. Provided that you’ve ever lived inside a structure or been enchanted by the form of a building, Alain de Botton has some words for you. Why is it that we are attracted to beautiful buildings? Why, as he asks, do we feel different inside a McDonald’s than inside the Westminster Cathedral? This is a beautiful, thoughtful foray into the theoretical ramifications of architecture, and I want to read it all over again right now.

4. Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Pulphead

Yes, I feel a few years behind the John Jeremiah Sullivan craze, and I am embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to read it, but maybe I should say that it was worth the wait? This is an ideal collection of essays: deeply funny, honest, and far-reaching. Plainly, Sullivan is just a great writer. Favorite essays: His experience at Creation, the giant Christian rock festival (“Christian music is the only music industry that has excellence-proofed itself”); the essay about his brother’s “resurrection” after being electrocuted; and the essay about caring for “the last Confederate,” Mr. Lytle. They’re all good; they’re all perfect; they’re all delightful; you should go get a copy of this book right now.

5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

If I’m being perfectly honest with you, I’ve never been much interested in foreign poverty narratives. You know what I’m talking about: Those sentimental books by non-native writers about the noble, angelic people trapped in desperate poverty in the Third World. For these reasons, I didn’t really want to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A white journalist writes about life in a Mumbai slum? Sounds like it’s going to be out-of-touch and cheesy. But this book is so far from that — which is probably why it has garnered such widespread acclaim. Katherine Boo spends several years living with and researching the people of Annawadi, a specific Mumbai slum, and produces this book, which reads like a thrilling novel with a complex array of characters. The best part about this book, though, is that Boo displays real life with real people in Annawadi. These are people as complicated as any of us; no one is purely good or purely evil. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was so refreshing to read, and it vitalized this small, difficult part of India in my mind.

6. An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

This year, I read this book for the second time as part of my church book club. I’m an ardent Annie Dillard fan, so even though this memoir wasn’t new to me, I had to include it on this list: It’s just that good. I first read this book when I was 15, and reading it again at 25 left me with such a different impression. Instead of being pulled in by the stories of childhood adventure and discovery, as I was before, this year I was more entranced by her careful portrayal of the nuanced pain and beauty of growing up and the intricate process of figuring out who you really are. Dillard has such a fertile, curious mind; she’ll always be a writer that I turn to year in and year out.

7. How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Artists and writers love to portray death in all sorts of romantic and eloquent images and phrases, but what is it really like to die? Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland wants to tell you, in this little book, his classic account of what happens to our bodies at the end of our lives. It is rare that we get to hear about death from someone who is actually in the business of living and dying, and Nuland writes with unsentimental clarity and precision. Recommended, because it’s going to happen to you and me one of these days.

8. Overdressed, by Elizabeth L. Cline

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book does for the fashion industry what Michael Pollan and his ilk did for the food industry. Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline researches the dark side of the cheap fashion business, which comprises the vast majority of the clothes that are purchased in the United States. A dramatic shift has occurred in the way that Americans consume clothing. Much like food, we now spend more money on clothes than ever before and have far bigger wardrobes than we actually need, and yet the clothes are vastly poorer quality. We see clothes as disposable items, which has created a powerful fashion industry that is unethical, wasteful, and unsustainable. I do believe that Overdressed is a book that every clothes-consuming American should read. It’ll change the way you think about what you wear.

9. Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Finishing the book Delusions of Gender really took the wind out of my sails. Rather than making me proud to be a woman — o, the happy, beleaguered sex! — the barrage of studies and debunked gender myths has only made me more dejected, more frustrated, more hopeless. Gender roles and stereotypes are all so ingrained. You are already disadvantaged in the workplace, in math and in science, in general living and everyday safety by having been unfortunate enough to have been born a woman. That’s all you had to do to lose, just be born.

And yet, while reading the book, I was filled with a frantic, Sisyphean energy to do all of these things:

  • Stand up taller!
  • Make eye contact with men!
  • Take a math class!
  • Benchpress something! (Is that a thing? Is that what you call it?)
  • Study for and take the GRE!
  • Have a baby girl just so I can NOT buy her anything pink!
  • Write a children’s book with a female lead! (And with a boy character who is nurturing and gentle and needs to be saved, like Peeta.)
  • Punch a wall!

Which just made me feel more tired and more despondent. We still live in a country in which women live in fear of men on a daily basis — a feeling that most men would be hard-pressed to even sympathize with. It’s a sad state of affairs. But Fine’s book explores the ways that we’ve been misled to think that men and women are “hardwired” to act in certain ways. Rather, we’ve all been insidiously cultured to act in certain ways — even from the womb. It’s fascinating, and it’s a great book, even if you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.

10. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf, and I love when she’s in love. Most famous people’s letters are desperately boring, but Vita and Virginia couldn’t be boring if they tried. Recommended even for those who only have a passing interest in Woolf.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Deborah Needleman
  2. The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
  3. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
  4. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  5. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas
  6. American Sphinx, Thomas J. Ellis
  7. The Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson

Up next: Best 10 fiction (novels, poetry, and plays) books I read in 2013.

Top 10 nonfiction books of 2011

While I’m preparing my more in-depth reviews of the top 10 fiction books I read in 2011, I thought I’d give you my list of the top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2011. One of my reading goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and I think I more or less accomplished that aim. Here are some brief thoughts on the 10 best of them.

Out of Africa

10. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

What a life! This classic memoir is crazy and makes you wish you had been around to hang out with Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, on her coffee farm in Kenya. Her stories from her pioneering life there are so outlandish that they are occasionally unbelievable. Who keeps young lions as pets? Who hosts a dance-off between warring tribes in their backyard? Who starts a romance with a dashing Brit who later dies in a tragic accident? Isak Dinesen does. And she is well worth your time. She also wrote the book in her second language, which is incredible, because she is damn good with the pen. (I still haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely on my list now!)

Nothing to Envy

9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick

North Korea holds our fascination like 1984 or Blade Runner did. I don’t have the energy to plumb why we are forever compelled by stories about dystopian societies run by Big Brothers, but we are, and that’s a fact. North Korea is doubly mesmerizing to us because it is real. This isn’t just a story. And yet Barbara Demick, former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, brings us North Korea through stories. She writes about the intimate lives and experiences of six North Korean citizens, all of whom later escape to South Korea (which is how she was able to tell their stories). I knew a little about North Korea, but this book absolutely floored me. There is so much I didn’t know and there is probably so much that we still don’t know about this dark, deeply sad country.

We Wish to Inform You...

8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch

Scott, a young philosopher, gave me this book when he moved to go to graduate school. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then, for about five years now. I think I put it off because, really, when are you ever in the mood to read about the Rwandan genocide? But I’m glad that I finally read it. This is a powerful and well-narrated account of the Hutu atrocities in Rwanda and its stories will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. Gourevitch is simultaneously objective and sincere, presenting the facts with a journalist’s attention to accuracy and detail and yet pausing to consider the trajectory of humanity, ethical responsibility, and the darkness of the human heart.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

7. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel, Alain de Botton

Having now read four volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I was already convinced of de Botton’s title by the time I picked this little book up. This is a delightful journey through the life, work, and idiosyncrasies of Marcel Proust, one of the world’s greatest writers and students of human nature. De Botton is funny and genuine and actually helpful in this book, part biography, part self-help manual. Even if you haven’t read part of Proust’s monolithic novel, this is a book that will be a steady guide to Proust’s life and invaluable contributions to the human experience.

Animals Make Us Human

6. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

If there was one book I read this year that said everything I’ve wanted to say, it was this one. My general personality can be summed up in one line, borrowed from Isabella Rossellini–Animals distract me. This book, by the famed animal researcher and scientist Temple Grandin and her assistant, Catherine Johnson, captured my deeply held feelings about animals and our considerable responsibility to them as humans. People sometimes make you feel ashamed for caring so deeply about animals. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt myself for volunteering my time at the SPCA. But this book instead highlighted the charge we have as “higher” beings to care for the “lower” ones. Grandin’s thorough and engaging research emphasizes that at the end of the day, creating the best life for animals means listening to and watching them and adapting ourselves to meet their needs. Above all else, gentleness is called for. All animals are far more sensitive than we think, and this is an idea that you won’t be able to get out of your head if you read this book.

Eating Animals

5. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

I dare you to read this book and continue to eat chicken afterward. Or any meat, for that matter. While Foer isn’t my favorite novelist, he is a skilled writer and this is a skillful account of his journey into vegetarianism, spurred by the birth of his son. Compounding years of research, Foer covers every major meat source for the American public–and will make you never want to eat factory-farmed meat again. The topic of food is rife with emotion, horror, and ethical balance, and Foer carefully plays on all of these topics in Eating Animals. Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, this is a book that I think everyone should read, if only to think a little more carefully about the powerful decisions we make whenever we put something into our mouths.

Dog Years

4. Dog Years, Mark Doty

Yes, I know, it’s got “dog” in the title and dogs on the cover, but this is the best memoir I’ve read all year. Mark Doty is a celebrated American poet and this is his beautiful and sad story about navigating grief. Doty writes about the years between the loss of his partner, Wally, who died of AIDS, and the subsequent gain and loss of a dog, Beau. The memoir is about all of the difficult, dark issues of grief and comfort, of solitude and community–and about the more complicated issue of how dogs can offer us something that no humans can. Doty writes with heartbreaking honesty and skill. He is not sappy. He is not self-indulgent. He is humble and honest and every line of his prose speaks with sincerity and strength. It is a book for the brokenhearted and for those who will one day be brokenhearted, because, as Doty gently reminds us, no one escapes.

New Seeds of Contemplation

3. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

Ah, Merton, it is good to return to you, the mystical forefather of modern Christian contemplative thought. I read Merton when I was a teenager, but my father-in-law reintroduced him to me via Merton’s edited collection, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, which is the most profoundly affecting volume on the humility of the spiritual life I’ve ever read. This book, which is actually one of Merton’s older books, is a journey into the life of a contemplative. Merton strips away all of the pride and self-importance from the increasingly rare Christian discipline and makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can enter in to such peace and fluid communication with the divine, too. But you won’t get there by trying. Merton constantly reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are able to do anything, even contemplation itself.

Moonwalking with Einstein

2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer

I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I read it and I think it’s the book that I’ve recommended to the most people this year. Joshua Foer, younger brother to Jonathan Safran Foer (mentioned above), got an assignment from Slate to cover the U.S. Memory Championships. (This is a real thing that happens.) People gather to exhibit feats of memory, like repeating back two stacks of shuffled cards in order or citing the 600th digit of pi or memorizing a poem in five minutes. Foer assumed this event was for savants, but then he met a competitor who told him, “Train with me for a year, and in one year, you will be the next U.S. memory champion.” Foer laughed at him, saying he couldn’t remember a shopping list or his girlfriend’s birthday. But he took him up on the challenge and began training. Then, a year later, Joshua Foer is crowned the U.S. memory champion. This is that story, but even more broadly, it is a story about the history of the human relationship with memory and an encouraging polemic that our brains are much more powerful than we can even begin to know.

Half the Sky

1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book simultaneously ripped my heart out and made me passionate to ACT. I have not read a book all year that made me sob like this book did; I had to put it down in numerous places and then proceed to totally lose it for 10 minutes. How could I sit here and read this in the safety of my home? A college-educated woman with a job who did not live in daily threat of rape and violence? Of social injustice and inequality? How was it fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all. But by the end of this book, I felt that there was hope, that the plight of women and girls around the world could actually improve. Unlike many books about the world’s grave injustices, Half the Sky does not unnecessarily dwell on the hopelessness of the situation and the towering challenges that face women around the world today. Rather, this book explains the extent of the problems women face worldwide, and then shows hopeful examples of local women changing their communities for the better. It doesn’t talk about what rich Americans can do to swoop in, presumptuously thinking they can fix another country’s problems. Rather, the book focuses on what we can do to empower women in their own communities to change the way that women are treated. Small steps, but they’re on a path of greater justice and equality for the countless marginalized women and girls worldwide.

Honorable Mentions

For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton