I don’t even remember how many years it has been since I first set my goal to read at least one nonfiction book a month. It started out as a way to motivate myself to read more nonfiction, because it used to be something I enjoyed, but just wasn’t picking up all that much. That has definitely changed, and it has become a new habit. I still have a goal of picking up at least one nonfiction book a month, but I rarely have to think about it anymore and generally do read more than one nonfiction book a month.

I have really been enjoying reading so much nonfiction, and have learned a lot. This year, I did set myself an additional goal of reading 25% nonfiction. And, as of right now, I am at over 30%. So it’s safe to say I read quite a bit of nonfiction this year. A lot of which was really great. I obviously can’t fit all of them on my favorites of the year (there is actually only one of these on my overall favorites), so today I wanted to share my top ten nonfiction books of the year.

Black, White, and the Grey by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano

I feel like I’ve been talking about this one quite a bit lately, so I’ll keep it brief. This is a dual memoir written by a Black chef (Bailey) and a White entrepreneur (Morisano) who came together to open a restaurant and became friends in the process. It was kind of a cool, fun read. I hadn’t read anything like a dual memoir before, and thought that was really creative and worked very well for this story. I also like how the authors address deeper topics such as race, but kept the book mostly about opening their restaurant and developing a close friendship. Just a really lovely read.

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

This is another book I have already talked about a lot, but this book was so, so good. This was the fourth Isaacson biography I had read, and the first three were all about men that I’d already heard of (da Vinci, Einstein, and Ben Franklin). This one was excited because I was learning about a woman I was not familiar with at all, but who had worked on so many really cool, life-changing things. She even won the Nobel Prize last year for her work on MRNA technology.

It was also fun to read because I love learning about science-y things and this definitely described a lot of cool technology. Including MRNA and the slightly terrifying CRISPR technology, which has the potential to create super humans. So that’s fun.

Grant by Ron Chernow

I have been delving into biographies a lot in the past few years, and have really been enjoying them a lot. I had heard really great things about this one, but was not expecting it to be a favorite for this year. Because as much as I enjoyed Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, it didn’t stick with me like some of the other biographies I’ve read have. And I was more excited to read that one than Grant (for obvious reasons).

But wow, this one was good. I really didn’t know too much about Ulysses S. Grant going into this book (other than that his middle name was literally the letter S). But he was fascinating to learn about. I might be a little biased having dedicated so much time to this book (the audiobook is literally two days long), but I learned so many cool things about Grant and am a little annoyed I didn’t learn more about him in school. Especially since I have actual college degrees in both history and American studies and don’t remember him being brought up a single time.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

This one is a must-read! It was written by a DREAMer (which refers to undocumented aliens who arrived in the US as minors), who later attended Harvard. Which is amazing. And then she decided to do something even more amazing and travel around the country gathering stories from undocumented Americans and writing them down in this book.

I still can’t get over how good this was. It took me a while to get through it – even though it’s fairly short – because I felt like I had to give it the attention it deserved. The stories in this book are hugely important and just felt like something everyone should read. I happened to be born in America, so I did not have experiences quite like this. Neither did my dad, who is an immigrant, but wasn’t undocumented. I am so glad Karla Cornejo Villavicencio took the time to write these down, and she did it in such a beautiful way. I’m honestly a little sad she hasn’t written anything else I can read, because I loved this so much.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Reading this was almost like reading a thriller, and I loved it. I did fall into an internet rabbit hole of watching Mount Everest videos last year, so finally getting to this book was probably inevitable. It is a thrilling and heart wrenching first-hand account of the biggest disaster in Everest history – a surprise storm that resulted in the deaths of eight people as they descended from the summit.

Krakauer is a journalist who just happened to have attempted Everest with that group and reached the summit earlier that day. He wrote about his experience being on the mountain that day, and it was pretty heartbreaking to read. But also really good. I hadn’t stayed up late reading for a while until I got to this one (because if I stopped, I was leaving several people stranded on a mountain top, and how was I supposed to sleep?).

Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall

I consider myself a feminist, and I am working on making myself a better anti-racist. But this book was kind of a wake up call that I am not as good at either of those things as I thought I was. Because for some reason, I didn’t connect that there are some different issues where the two societal problems intersect. Basically, women of color do not have the same issues as white women a lot of the time, and feminism as a whole isn’t doing all that great a job of addressing that.

I’m very glad I read this book and saw ways that I can be better, and I’m excited to learn more so I can keep growing as a person. I’m probably also going to reread this book at some point, just as a reminder. If you’re interested in anti-racism literature or think you’re a pretty good feminist, definitely read this.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

Not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but in addition to doing twelve reading experiment posts this year, I also watched every single film nominated for an Academy Award in the first few months of the year. (Yes, all of them. Even the shorts and the foreign films.) I will say that I do not agree with Nomadland‘s win. But that might be because I decided to read the book first.

And the book was so much better than the movie. It was so fascinating to see how these “nomads” live and create lives that seem so free. I would honestly be kind of terrified to do what they do, so I definitely give the people props for being that brave. Also, living in an earthship (google it) sounds amazing. so I wouldn’t rule out doing that one day.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Full disclosure, I started this book in December… of 2019. But I had to put it down because it was making me mad. Not because it wasn’t good – I was really enjoying it – but because once we got into early 2020, it became pretty hard to read about past presidents who had led America through some of our hardest times. So I put it down until a few months ago, when it finally felt like this book probably wouldn’t make me scream next time I saw the news.

This book was basically mini biographies of four presidents who got us through turbulent times in our history: Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), Teddy Roosevelt (WWI), FDR (WWII), and Lyndon B. Johnson (the Cold War). I thought it was a great way to spotlight some great historical figures, and it was interesting to bring them together in this context. But still slightly upsetting after what we’ve been through.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this one, especially after seeing it pitched as an “experimental memoir”, but I ended up really liking it. The experimental format was interesting (though I do think I want to revisit this one so I can appreciate that a bit more). But it was the content of this memoir that really struck me.

This book is about the author’s experience in an abusive same-sex relationship. Not something I have personally experienced, but I can identify with people being dismissive of abuse simply because it’s being perpetrated by someone they perceive as harmless. And that’s not okay at all. It’s still abuse, and the victim is affected just as much as if they were being abused in a more common dynamic (in this case, a straight relationship). I really appreciated how the author is trying to bring more attention to an often overlooked issue, and I liked this book a lot. Definitely planning on reading more by Machado.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Honestly, I was not expecting to enjoy this quite as much as I did. I think part of it might have been due to the audiobook – Obama’s voice is just really soothing (maybe in contrast to a certain someone else). It was also a little bit fun to relive my first election experience as a voter (I was nineteen in 2008, and Obama was the first candidate I ever voted for). And it was honestly really nice to remember when voting felt exciting and not terrifying. Possibly because I am now older, but I’m pretty sure the change was due to other reasons.

Either way, I really enjoyed reading this. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but as someone who was just starting to get into politics and participate during this time, I thought it was great!

And that is it for my favorite nonfiction of 2021! I hope you enjoyed this post! We have one more favorites post left his year – any predictions as to what will be on it?

I’d love to hear from you: do you like reading nonfiction? What was your favorite this year?

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7 thoughts

  1. I want toread more Non-fiction coming year, so definitely going to check some of these out!
    Do you recommend A Promised Land for a non-american?

    1. If it’s something you’re interested in, sure. I know US politics are in international news a fair amount, so you might be familiar with a lot of what’s discussed in this book. It might not have the same impact on you, though. For me, one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed this was that it was a little nostalgic, being my very first election. You might find it interesting, though!

  2. I read so much great nonfiction this year. I was quite surprised when I looked back and added up my favorites – it was far more than the fiction. (that’s partly because I did a lot of rereading this year and did not count those. But still.)

    My top 2021 release was What Happened To You? by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey. Really fascinating on trauma and brain development. Another on my list was The Moralist, a biography of Woodrow Wilson, who was actually president during WWI, which leads me to wonder why Teddy Roosevelt gets that credit in Leadership. Maybe it was the Spanish-American War? Anyway, Wilson was another case entirely – I recommend the book for a detailed examination of the disastrous peace conference, which gave rise to much of our troubled world today.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your list, and I also would like to read more of these, especially Nomadland and The Undocumented Americans.

    1. What Happened to You? is definitely on my list! Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much! I have personal experience with how trauma affects brain development, so I’m definitely curious to read that one. That might be going on my 2022 reading list. Thanks!

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