Over the past few years, I’ve put together a list of this year’s best non-fiction, with special attention to books that taught me things I didn’t know. It has been an exceptional year for serious books; maybe being locked up is good for creativity. Never have I had so much trouble getting my list down to 15. Nonetheless, here are my picks, all highly recommended, presented in random order – as usual, no tyranny of the alphabet! – and ending with my choice for the best non-fiction book of the year.
Mary Roach, “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law”
We all understand that we are not supposed to assault, infringe, steal or damage property. But what happens when these rules are ignored by plants and animals? A fun adventure through science, law and human complexity. Just beware of the footnote which gives, uh, too much information on how bears survive hibernation.
Alexander Wolff, “Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home”
Trying to understand his family’s history in Berlin, the author is painfully struck by the LebenslÃ¼ge – “the self-delusion that keeps going” – in which this story has been wrapped. Much of the story is dark, as the shadow of the Holocaust is everywhere. Bibliophiles will be mesmerized by the details of the old publishing industry.
Olivette Otele, “European Africans: an untold story”
This lively and nuanced synthesis reminds us that there have been Africans in Europe for millennia. Based on the lived experience of his subjects, Otele sided with those who saw racism as a late invention to legitimize the slave trade. The sudden attention to race affected African-Europeans in various ways; some of the better educated supported slavery. Otele also notes the existence of powerful institutions – the early church and the Roman Empire, for example – in which skin color was less important than loyalty.
Jan Lucassen, âThe history of work: a new history of humanityâ
Maybe work hasn’t always been a chore.
Julia Galef, “The Scout Mentality”
Galef argues that too often we are soldiers (determined to fight for our beliefs) and too rarely scouts (determined to uncover the truth, even if it goes against what we think). Money quote: âA key factor that keeps us from being in the Scout mindset more often is our belief that we are already there. A book that fully deserves the praise it receives.
Cynthia Barnett, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans”
In this astonishing volume, Barnett tells much of the history of the world, both natural and human, through the study of seashells.
Jeremy Dauber, “American Comics: A Story”
A long-standing interest in me, but still, I had never thought about – for example – how WWII boosted the comic book industry, due to the need for portable and good reading material. walked on the front; and it was nice to remember the role of âundergroundâ comics in the battle against censorship.
My only complaint: the insufficient attention given to the great black designers who helped build the industry. (A gap the reader can easily fill by pairing this book with Ken Quattro’s excellent 2020 volume âInvisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books.â)
Marie Favereau, “The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World”
A magnificent book, difficult to summarize. Suffice to say that in their politics, their administration, their family life and, yes, their war, the Mongols were much more complicated than you might think.
George Makari, “Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia”
Suppose we haven’t always been afraid of “the other”? Dismissing the common explanation that suspicion of foreigners is hardwired, Makari instead traces it back to the often violent encounters inherent in, say, colonialism and immigration. It is not necessary to share the thesis to be absorbed in this animated adventure through psychiatry, biology, literature and history.
Anne Searcy, “Ballet during the Cold War”
The Americans and the Soviets imagined that their 1960 dance exchange would be good propaganda. They were wrong: âFar from being a universal language, ballet is an art form with unique dialects around the world. This means that the public has found fault with the superstars on the other side. (Actually released in 2020, but I didn’t read it last year; the volume surely would have made my list if I had.)
Benjamin M. Friedman, “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”
By religion, Friedman thinks primarily of Protestantism, and American Protestantism in particular, where he finds the roots of many of the assumptions on which the modern economy is built. Famous preachers from Jonathan Edwards to Henry Ward Beecher to Carl Henry make appearances, but Francis Wayland gets the turn of the limelight.
Carole Hooven, “T: The story of testosterone, the hormone that dominates and divides us”
A controversial book, but agree with it or not, Hooven argues the importance of T with a humility, humor, and grace not often seen in our cultural battles these days.
Kei Hiruta, âHannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanityâ
Arendt and Berlin, which I have read with pleasure for a long time, are two of the most important intellectual figures of the 20th century. That they didn’t love each other is not news. Hiruta digs into reasons: personal, political, perhaps gendered, but above all centered on ideas.
Andrew Sullivan, “Out On a Limb: Selected Writing 1989-2021”
The declining voice of our last great opponent: a thinker who has dedicated his career to the proposition that even those with whom he agrees can be wrong. It was not so long ago that such voices were admired.
It’s nice to see with new eyes Sullivan’s beautiful 2006 play on the distinction between fundamentalism and mystery; and if you’ve never read it, I heartily recommend his haunting 2017 essay “America Isn’t Made For Humans.”
And, finally, the best non-fiction book I have read this year: Maria Tatar, “The Heroine With 1001 Faces”
Why don’t we talk about the âheroine’s journeyâ? Tatar convincingly argues that as folk tales and myths pass through the generations, female characters are diminished and even erased. The closer we get to the original source, the more important women are – and, often, the more frightening old stories become. (Bluebeard, for example.) Throughout, Tatar avoids controversy and displays a nice sense of humor; part of his discussion of recent folk tales is titled âSpinsters Seeking Justiceâ.
This is my list for 2021, and there are a lot of volumes that I’m sorry I had to leave out. Good reading!