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Best nonfiction I read in 2021
A banner year for learning new things
So much good nonfiction consumed this year. I learned so much! I will talk your ear off about all of it!
1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe
An American tragedy and capitalist parable of how worshiping money will turn you—and your entire family, if you’re the Sacklers—into monsters. In Patrick Radden Keefe’s capable hands, this book reads like a thriller, and yet it’s admirably researched and brilliantly told. Highly recommended.
2. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs
“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”
A slim, humbling book with the much-needed call for us to be people adept at the art of thinking (especially the kind of slow System 2 thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow). This is not the kind of thinking that humans are particularly skilled at, preferring to dwell on the instinctual System 1 brain, but slow thinking is a facility needed now more than ever. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, writes with compelling clarity, and I picked this up with a great desire to be refreshed by his own clear thinking after enjoying his most recent book, Breaking Bread With the Dead (review of that below). Mission accomplished. I feel humbled and challenged by his wisdom.
3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker
Riveting, gut-wrenching account of a family unusually afflicted by mental illness. Robert Kolker shares the Galvin family’s story with restraint and skill, blending their personal histories with the history of schizophrenia. Two takeaways I had while finishing the book: (1) There is still so much we don’t know about the human brain, and accordingly, the treatment of schizophrenia has changed very little since the 1960s, and (2) women bear the enormous load of a family’s emotional and physical needs, time and time again.
4. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine
An unreal and singularly compelling history of Soviet Russia. Yuri Slezkine unites the rare capabilities of a scholar and a storyteller in this appropriately epic-length history, which pivots around the House of Government, the massive housing complex for the socialist/communist faithful. It is a massive book, but incredibly readable from start to finish.
Slezkine is particularly adept at zooming in and out on his subjects. At one moment, he relates the intimate thoughts, letters, and diary entries of individual people; at the next, he pans out and assesses human history, religion, and culture in broad strokes. Along with direct quotations and painstaking research, he spends a great deal of time analyzing Soviet literature, showing us what it reveals about ascendant revolutionary beliefs.
Throughout this history, Slezkine argues that Soviet socialism and its attendant fantasies of true communism were the latest in a long line of millennarian sects (mimicking many features of Christian apocalyptic cults, among other religions). This was a revelatory lens for me through which to better understand Russian communism. The Russian insistence on the coming utopia and the abolishment of the family and private property as the path to social enlightenment can be found in every chapter of the revolution. Slezkine makes it easy to understand how such a charming-sounding fundamentalist vision could result in the brutality, inhumanity, and absolute disregard for human life that characterized the Russian revolution.
Recommended especially to young progressives who think Marx is a cool avatar and that socialism is super-rad, bleating it’ll be different this time…
5. In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays, Karl Ove Knausgaard
“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”
In a series of essays focused primarily on art, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects on artists and moments that have affected him profoundly, including a number of provocative American women photographers, Knut Hamsun (always), Ingmar Bergman, short stories from the Old Testament, Kierkegaard, and Emma Bovary. Knausgaard writes with his characteristic openness, an honesty that often veers into uncomfortable realms, and this is perhaps why I enjoy him as much as I do. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his style and self-deprecating wisdom is refreshing to me, time and time again. My only small quibble is that the format of the book—square with heavy glossy pages, so as to display the photographs well—makes for an awkward reading experience for a book with so much text. I am happy, however, that I bought it, as I hope to return it in time.
6. Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs
“Reading old books is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor. I happen to think that this kind of training is useful in helping me learn to deal with my actual on-the-ground neighbors, though that claim is not central to my argument here, and in any case there’s nothing inevitable about this transfer: I know people who are exquisitely sensitive readers of texts who are also habitually rude to the people who serve them at restaurants. But surely to encounter texts from the past is a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference.”
An impressively slim book that packs a powerful argument for attending to books of ages past. Why? So that we may have character, grace, and foresight; so that we may resist the high informational density of our time in favor of greater personal density for ourselves. Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor, writes with tremendous sensitivity and wisdom, and I was struck by how deftly he weaves together a whole host of quotations and references, spanning from the Aeneid to Frederick Douglass to feminist literary theory. An incredibly worthwhile and challenging book and one that I hope will stay with me for a long time, keeping the temptations of screens at bay and pulling me deeper into the words of men and women who are no longer with us.
7. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell
“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”
I am not smart enough to read straight philosophy, but I am glad that Sarah Bakewell is, because she explains ideas so well, with such fluidity, poise, and mastery. In this book, Bakewell gives us a tour of the existentialist movement in Europe, principally through the biographies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and gives us a brilliant primer on the philosophy itself, as expressed through some of its other luminaries (such as Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty). I feel more educated, having finished it, and also more thoughtful. Warmly recommended.
8. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders
In this charming collection, Saunders shares his favorite Russian short stories and reflections on why and how these stories work, much in the form of his lectures at Syracuse. He is personable, funny, and thoughtful, and I felt like I got to take a mini-MFA class with him. I’d already read most of these stories before, but it was such a pleasure to revisit them again with Saunders, benefiting from his careful attention and instruction. It is perhaps neither here nor there, but Saunders also strikes me as incredibly kind and wise, as a human being, and there’s good life advice buried in here, alongside his sage counsel about writing better stories as we learn from the masters. Recommended for all writers.
9. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Grisworld
Impeccably, patiently researched. Eliza Griswold writes in that detached, traditional style of third-person journalism that I miss so much these days (it is a rarity). Griswold is barely in the book at all, admirably; she writes so that she can get out of the way and tell the tragic story of the Haney family, whose lives and livelihoods were ruined when fracking came to their tiny Pennsylvania farm. Through much suffering, sickness, and lawsuits, Griswold tells the larger narrative of what fracking threatens to do to similar families and towns across Appalachia.
10. What Are We Doing Here?: Essays, Marilynne Robinson
“So, beauty disciplines. It recommends a best word in a best place and makes the difference palpable between aesthetic right and wrong. And it does this freely, within the limits it finds—cultural, material, genetic. Another paradox, perhaps, a discipline that is itself free, and free to make variations on such limits as it does choose to embrace. Beauty is like language in this. It can push at the borders of intelligibility and create new eloquence as it does so.” — “Grace and Beauty”
If I trust anyone to tell us what we are doing here, it may be Marilynne Robinson. Her wise, far-ranging mind considers American history, Christian theology, redemption of the Puritans, and a smattering of politics in this heady collection of essays. (Her tribute to President Obama and their sweet friendship was a particular delight.) It was a pleasure to read someone with her depth of thought, wit, and high vocabulary on topics that are dismissible at first glance as dry and unappealing. In her talented hands, everything becomes a subject of wonder.
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter
Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman
The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe
Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy P. Carney
Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, Daniel Medelsohn
The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, Natasha Trethewey
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer
Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, Primo Levi
Earth Keeper, N. Scott Momaday
The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, Emily Anthes
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener