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

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2012

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, spread out across a broad range of disciplines. Here are my top 10 favorite nonfiction books I read in 2012, starting with my favorite.

Lit: A Memoir

1: Lit, Mary Karr

Mary Karr gets drunk, gets sober, and finds God — all against her best intentions and expectations. She is funny, clever, and heartbreakingly honest; essentially, everything we want out of a memoir. We want it to be lurid. We want it to fulfill every voyeuristic hope that we hold. But we don’t always expect memoirs to be so beautifully written or so incisively honest. Karr writes with disarming humility and power. This is a memoir for everyone and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I didn’t want to put it down for a second. (Buy)

The Emperor of All Maladies

2: The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee

This book is the complete history of the most well-known killer of people: Cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a decorated cancer researcher, but you wouldn’t expect him to also be a gifted historian and storyteller. The Emperor of All Maladies is the most engaging scientific narrative I have ever read. It is supremely readable and clear, even for a non-science background layperson like myself. Mukherjee tells the important story of the mysterious, elusive disease that will reach us all, sooner or later. This is an important book that begs to be read and reckoned with. (Buy)

The Second Sex

3: The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir provided us with the complete word on what women are and how they could be. This book, an essential text of feminist philosophy and the genesis of second-wave feminism, is extremely long and it is not for the faint of heart. Beauvoir starts at the beginning, and I mean the beginning — we are talking amoeba communities and frog mating practices. From there, she launches into a dizzying array of topics and disciplines and histories, exploring all of the reasons why women are the way they are and why the progress toward gender equality has been so slow and hindered. I was impressed by her humor and by the perpetual relevance of this book. This is not out of date. Women are still lagging behind men in many of the same areas (notably the workplace) that they were in 1949. But Beauvoir gives us hope, even if it is a mere glimmer, that the “curse” of womanhood may no longer rest on our heads. (Buy)

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

4: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans

It is remarkable to me that, until this book, ballet did not have a consummate history. So along came Jennifer Homans, NYU professor, dance critic, and former professional dancer. Apollo’s Angels contains the complete story of ballet, through its various phases and transformations, and is written in a beautiful, sincere style. History books are often hard for me to read, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable. Homans is a skilled and careful writer and she treats her subjects with keen attention. This book will give you more information about ballet than you probably need, but it is so delightful and inspiring that I would recommend it to anyone. (Buy)

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

5: Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch

I will already admit that this is a book that I need to reread. Clocking in at 1,184 pages, this is a SERIOUS TOME. As it should be, I suppose, regarding its ambitious scope: A complete history of Christianity. Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history is a remarkable achievement. I can’t imagine ever knowing so much about one topic. Yeah, I read the whole thing, but I feel like I only skimmed the surface of his vast knowledge. This is the book to read — to tackle, more accurately — for the complete, definitive introduction to church history. I’ve been a Christian for most of my life and I didn’t know half of the things he talked about in this book. I’d say it’s essential reading for most Christians. It’s good to know where you came from. (Buy)

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

6: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas G. Carr

Nicholas G. Carr’s short, incisive survey of Internet history and its corresponding neuroscientific research is quietly terrifying. I almost expected it to be scarier. But here I am, typing my thoughts into a blog, on the Internet, so I guess it didn’t scare me as much as I had hoped. It did reinforce, however, my desire to spend less and less time on the World Wide Web. I have certainly felt the sense that he describes, the truly great horror, that the more time we spend online, the less human we become. I feel better about myself when I’m not online: Clearer, simpler, happier. Living unplugged is a rapidly diminishing lifestyle, but I’d like to pursue it, to the best of my ability. This book will reinvigorate that desire — to sit outside, to read a thick novel, to think in a deeper, clearer way than the Internet allows. (Buy)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

7: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick

Why do we, as human beings, so deeply desire to know, to catalog, to archive? James Gleick examines a range of familiar scientific innovations, corresponding mathematics, and the resulting cultural implications. We live in the supposed “Information Age,” but what does that mean? And how did we get here? He writes beautifully and this is an incredibly engaging account, even if most of it was over my head. The Information is a relevant, scientific memoir of our civilization’s undying passion to record, remember, transmit. (Buy)

The Liar's Club

8: The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr

Yes, this was the year that made me a Mary Karr fan. I have never read a sadder childhood nor a purer memoir. After I devoured and loved Lit, I thought it would be a good idea to backtrack and read Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, the story of her violent, traumatic, and yet humorously heartbreaking childhood in Texas and Colorado. It certainly does not disappoint. At times, I found myself getting confused by its parallels with The Glass Castle (Jeannette Wells’ very similar-sounding memoir of her own girlhood among destructive, poor, alcoholic parents — both Wells and Karr have mothers who are constantly drunk painters, for example. BUT Karr did it first. And better, if you can make tragic childhood memoirs a competition. Wells came out with her memoir 10 years after this book was published). Anyhow. Read it. Love it. Feel like you might have a chance at being even a mildly decent parent, because at least you’re not these people. I liked Lit better as a whole, but this, wow, equally great. (Buy)

Speak, Memory

9: Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Another memoir, I know, but this is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, waxing on and off about his childhood and life. We weave between his lush, florid descriptions of familial interaction; a parade of names; a barrage of places and vivid memories. The flow of his language almost makes us feel as if we were chasing butterflies alongside him. And then there is the sudden and beautiful insertion of “you” 200 pages in, referring to his wife, Vera, his only audience, the only one who matters. Oh, Nabokov! Always leaving me breathless. (Buy)

Flaubert and Madame Bovary

10: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Francis Steegmuller

A perfectly written and extremely readable double-biography of Gustave Flaubert and his fictional alter ego, Madame Bovary. This was the ideal companion for my re-reading of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary this past year, and I recommend it heartily to anyone with even a passing interest in Flaubert, French literature, or the process of writing a great novel. Well done, Steegmuller. (Buy)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence
, Adrienne Rich
On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas

Coming soon: Top 10 works of fiction I read this year.