The year is almost over, which means it’s time for yet another favorites post! I’ve already shared my favorite audiobooks of the year – go check that out if you missed it – and today, I’m talking about nonfiction. If you’ve been around this blog a while, you probably know by now that I read a ton of nonfiction. This year, I read a little less than I normally do, but I also read fewer books overall, so it kind of evened out.
But, even though I didn’t read quire as many nonfiction books as I usually do, I still read some really great ones. So, (in no particular order), here are my ten favorite nonfiction books from 2020:
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
This was the third year in a row I’ve read a Walter Isaacson biography (last year was Einstein and the year before that was Leonardo da Vinci). I just really love the way he writes, and this was no exception. For nonfiction, it’s just really engaging and overall, great reads. I’m not sure why I didn’t read this sooner, because it’s been sitting on my shelves for ages, but I am glad I finally read it. I just really love Ben Franklin in general, and this is a great biography of him. I had meant to read it with his autobiography, but that didn’t work out, so hopefully I’ll fit that in next year.
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Over the past few years, I have been getting really into science books. Last year, I learned about dinosaurs and zombifying parasites and plagues (in hindsight, that last one was not the best timing). This year, I chose to learn about genes. Having inherited a lot of weird shit, I kind of wanted to understand more about why. And this was really fascinating. It was all about how genes work and function and why animals (including humans) pass down what they pass on to their offspring.
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride, PhD
I wrote a whole post about why I read this book- you can read it here – so I won’t talk about it too much here. But this helped me through a rough time in my life, and I learned a lot about why I struggle with the things I struggle with, and how I can move on from them.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
This was super interesting. It’s also really short, so worth a read. Timothy Snyder is a well-known Holocaust historian. He draws upon what he knows about the rise of Hitler and Stalin and what we can learn from that to help us in the context of what’s been happening for the last four years. As a history nerd who immediately noticed parallels between the last four (or five) years and the lead up to WWII, this was right up my alley. It also makes a good little guide for how we can stop repeating the same mistakes, and not fall into the trap of authoritarianism.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
This was definitely one of the best books I read this year. The writing blew me away, but I also loved how powerful the story is. You might know Chanel Miller as Jane Doe, the woman who was assaulted on Stanford’s campus and wrote an anonymous letter to her attacker. In this book, she takes back her story. She’s not Brock Turner’s victim, she’s a survivor. I just really loved her message and also the way she tells it. Given the nature of this book, I’m not sure she’ll be writing another one. But if she does, I will absolutely read it and will probably love it.
Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
I know this was a pretty popular book this year with everything going on in the world. And it absolutely should be. I was already planning on reading it this year, so it turned out to be perfect timing. For a while now, I’ve been actively trying to read books that fill in the gaps in my education. I actually have a degree in history, but just feel like there’s so much left to learn. And this book made me realize that gap is a lot bigger than I thought it was. Not only was there so much discussed in this book that I didn’t know about, there are things I was taught that aren’t exactly correct. History was definitely written by white men, and we need books like this to actually learn about all sides of history. Thanks to this book, I now have a list of topics I want to read more about.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I can’t say this book blew me away with writing or structure or any of those things. I didn’t love reading it quite as much as some of the other books on this list. However, it is on my list because of how important this story is. The second I finished it, I remember just feeling incredibly grateful that this story was told. Because it deserves to be told. Henrietta Lacks has improved every single one of our lives, even though she had absolutely no idea how much she was impacting others. Her cells were taken without her permission or knowledge, and exploited in the quest for some of the biggest advances in modern medicine. And even though that’s kind of terrible, the best we can do now is make sure everyone knows her name and her story.
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow
I really love true crime, but this book felt a little different. It’s not just a story about Harvey Weinstein and the horrible abuses of power he committed over many years. It’s also told by the reporter who broke the story. I listened to the audiobook, which was really interesting in that it contained some of the actual recordings used in Ronan Farrow’s investigation. This is basically the story about the beginning of the #MeToo movement, and the necessary change in a culture that many times forced women to endure abuse.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD
Yet another book about science that I read to improve my own life. I have never, ever had great sleeping habits. One of the biggest challenges for me when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago was learning to get more sleep. If it was an option to not sleep, I would take it. I’m just not one of those people who loves to sleep. So, I thought maybe understanding why we sleep and how it might benefit me – and also how I can improve my habits – might help. And it kind of did. I’m definitely trying to be a lot better about sleeping and having a schedule (being a grown up sucks). But, also, I would just like to learn how to sleep with one half of my brain at a time like a dolphin so I can always be reading.
Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart
Last, but not least, is probably the weirdest nonfiction book I read this year. Hey, last year was zombifying parasites, I needed some weird science in 2020. Have no idea when or how I came across this book, but I’m kind of glad I did. If you’re like me, you probably don’t give too much thought to earthworms. But they’re responsible for so much. They help make the earth nicer for us, and are kind of cool little creatures. I enjoyed learning about them a lot more than I expected to.
That’s it for my favorite nonfiction books of the year! It was kind of fun to look back on what I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t say it was my best year for nonfiction, but there were definitely some hidden gems and surprises.
Did you read any nonfiction this year? What was your favorite?