Among other things, I have enjoyed complaining about how nonfiction is defined by what it is not (fiction), which is hardly a definition at all—it's just about everything in the world. For our purposes here (narrowing down the year's "best" nonfiction books to 20, an absurdly small and somewhat arbitrary number), we fortunately have other best books of the year so far lists to carry some of the load: history, biographies & memoirs, and cooking, food & wine, to name a few. Still the first half of 2019 has been a bounty for true tales. Here's a closer look at 10 of our favorites, with links to the rest below.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
Heads-up to your inner Gilgamesh: "The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree." Starting with that sentence, Macfarlane explores not only the physical world beneath our feet—from catacombs to caves to nuclear waste facilities to the land underneath Greenland shrinking ice cap—but also the realm of "deep time," a parallel expanse of past and future almost unimaginable to human intellect, but also irresistible to contemplate. Like this one-of-a-kind book. And we love the jacket by Stanley Donwood, who creates Radiohead album covers in his spare hours.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
With the pacing of a thriller, and an intricate, yet compulsively readable storytelling structure, Keefe’s exhaustive reportage brings home the terror, the waste, and the heartbreaking futility of a guerrilla war fought in peoples’ homes as well as in the streets. Say Nothing captures the devastation of veterans on both sides, uneasily enjoying the peace that finally came while wondering if they had fought the good fight or been complicit in murder all along.
Assisting with the research for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood inspired Harper Lee to embark on her own true crime masterpiece. Casey Cep finishes what she started in Furious Hours, which recounts the unusual case that so captivated the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (and it is a doozy, involving a serial-killing preacher and a vigilante who meted out some rough justice—and both were represented by the same attorney!).
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris
If you think grammar isn't fun, you haven't read Mary Norris. In her first book, Between You and Me, Norris regaled us (for real) with from tales from The New Yorker’s copy department, punctuated with humor and style (sorry not sorry). Greek to Me is a paean (somebody stop me) to Greece—its thousands of years of history, culture, and most importantly, it's language alphabet, which so deeply influenced our own. Even if it does have two Os.
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt PhD
Through research in courtrooms, in prisons, on the street, and in coffee shops, Eberhard - a Stanford professor of psychology and MacArthur genius grant-recipient - shows us the subtle, sometimes dramatic, repercussions of bias in how each of us interacts with the world around us. The good news? We're not hopelessly doomed by our innate prejudices. Biased reminds us that racial bias is a human problem—one all people can play a role in solving.
The Last Stone: A Masterpiece of Criminal Interrogation by Mark Bowden
In 1975, Bowden (Black Hawk Down, among others) was a young Baltimore reporter covering the disappearance of two sisters, 11 and 13. The investigation dead-ended until 2013, when a cold case detective chanced upon a curious statement given by a man named Lloyd Welch, who was serving time for a series of unrelated but similar crimes. Welch is also a compulsive liar, but not a skilled one—and as five detectives untangle his ever-changing stories, they get closer to solving an unspeakable crime. The outcome might not be a total surprise, but the ride-along is well worth the time.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
A minute-by-minute account of the explosion and meltdown of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four, which you may know as the worst nuclear disaster in the history of unintentional nuclear disasters. In 1986, the USSR was still so buttoned up that little information about the accident leaked beyond its borders, not to mention the human consequences. Higginbotham describes how the influence of the Communist Party facilitated and compounded the catastrophe: The pressure of arbitrary deadlines and quotas was so great that corners were cut (and lied about) at every level, resulting in flawed plans, construction materials, and operating procedures. The cognitive dissonance was so great that the station managers refused to believe the scale of the disaster—even though they were on site themselves, receiving eyewitness reports there was nuclear fuel burning in the open air and irradiated workers were burned and dying.
All that Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes by Sue Black DBE FRSE
A forensic anthropologist whose first job was an apprenticeship in a butcher's shop Dame Sue Black has lived close to death almost her entire life. But while the subject matter is dark—human dissections, deaths of loved ones, crime scenes, mass fatalities, etc.—All That Remains is not a dark book. Instead it's filled with (Black?) humor and a clear-eyed practicality often lacking when it comes to a subject that rightly freaks us out.
Have you seen the video of Mama, a dying, 59-year-old chimpanzee who receives one last visit from a biologist who had worked with her years before. (If you haven't, go watch it and come back, after you stop weeping.) Primatologist de Waal uses the event to explore the emotional lives of animals and the similarities to humans'; in the way that we have no organs that other animals don’t have, the same is true for our emotions.
The superbugs are coming, and there's nothing we can do about it. Or is there? Steffanie Strathdee and Tom Patterson were on vacation when Patterson fell ill. What seemed like food poisoning was revealed to be a life-threatening, drug-resistant bacteria. Coincidentally, they both worked at the UC San Diego medical center, where Strathdee went to work identifying the ailment, and finding a remedy for her husband. The Perfect Predator is a timely, gripping, real-life medical thriller.
More of the best nonfiction of 2019 so far:
- Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen
- An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
- Horizon by Barry Lopez
- Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan
- Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives by Mark Miodownik
- Every Tool's a Hammer: Life Is What You Make It by Adam Savage
- Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
- Norco '80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan
- Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer
- Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt
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