This book list was really difficult for me to narrow down. I read a staggering 90 nonfiction books this past year (thanks to repeated lockdowns), and the first draft of the greatest ones was a list of about 30. I painfully cut out some really enjoyable books. Those that remain are the best of the best.
Like I said in the sibling article to this one (best fiction of 2021), I get most of my books from my local library sent to my Kindle as ebooks. There are always long waiting lists on new books, so I am usually a year or two behind the hottest trends. Which is really okay with me, because I can weed out those books that are just temporary hype and focus on those that really stand the test of time.
So, here are my top 10 favorite nonfiction books I read in 2021, which may or may not have been published this year, in the order I read them. Look closely- for some I wrote a full book note that will be linked in case you want to know even more.
Top 10 Nonfiction Books Read in 2021
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Robin Wall Kimmerer
This book underscores the importance of a diversity of voices in science. Robin Wall Kimmerer sees nature unlike any other scientist I have ever met, thanks to her heritage as a Native American (she is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation). America has lost so much value and perspective in suppressing those people who have been here the longest; Kimmerer is bringing some of that back to the cultural forefront. It is nonfiction but at times feels magical.
This is what we field biologists live for: the chance to be outside in the vital presence of other species, who are generally way more interesting than we are.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World– And Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Hans Rosling was an amazing statistician and communicator; I first heard of him through his funny and informational TED talks (here’s a good starter). Factfulness demonstrates how you (probably) have an extremely outdated and simplified view of the world. This was an enjoyable, fact-based read, giving reason to know that the world is getting better, and why it may not feel like it.
When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.
Four Hundred Souls
edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
A history of America as you’ve never read it before. I listened to the audiobook, which was read by a full cast. Four hundred years of African American history beginning with the arrival of the first ones in 1619, before the Mayflower. Four Hundred Souls should be required reading for American high school students.
There is no better word than we.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures
Mushrooms are amazing! And Merlin Sheldrake has a great name for a mushroom biologist. Whether you are a biologist or not, this book is fascinating. It also has a magical feel to it despite being nonfiction. It presumes no prior knowledge, so dig in and prepare to learn about a foreign branch of the animal kingdom.
Mycelium is ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet
This book was so honest and vulnerable. Writing mostly in the heart of the pandemic, John Green documented what life was like in those dark days. With a lonely and reflective mood, Green dwells on the joy found in the little things.
History, like human life, is at once incredibly fast and agonizingly slow.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story
This is a pandemic book, published in 2021. Because of its timeliness, I wanted to read it right away, while the injustice of the US government’s response to the pandemic was still fresh in my mind. I expected this book to make me angry. It did, but it also made be believe in the power and courage of individuals. Michael Lewis told the story of those who stood up for their science when no one was listening.
“When you go into the details of the cases, you see it’s not bad people,” he said. “It’s bad systems. When the systems depend on human vigilance, they will fail.”
The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred
This book is another argument for diverse voices in science. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shares her story of a career in science— full of prejudice and unequal opportunity. Any minority—(trans)gender, religion, race— they are all disadvantaged in the world of science. And it should not be that way.
Access to a dark night sky—to see and be inspired by the universe as it really is—should be a human right, not a luxury for the chosen few.
In The Dream House: A Memoir
Carmen Maria Machado
A difficult book, but so powerful. Carmen Maria Machado pours every difficult detail of her life onto these pages. Trigger warnings for trauma and abuse. But also quality warnings for creativity, vulnerability, and truly beautiful writing.
In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.
This is the best self-help book I’ve ever read. Habits are behind many of the decisions we make throughout the day, because we simply don’t have the mental energy to be novel all the time. Therefore, habits are responsible for much of what our lives look like. James Clear gives us the information and strategies we need to break bad habits and form good ones. He also writes an amazing, short, weekly newsletter (sign up here).
I wrote a whole book note on this one.
Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
The End of Everything (Astophysically Speaking)
Just as this list must come to an end, the universe will eventually do so as well. The question is: how? Katie Mack, a brilliant astrophysicist, gives us the 5 possible answers with surprising humor and levity for the discussion of the end of literally everything.
I wrote a whole book note on this one.
[The possibility that the universe might suddenly blink out of existence] is, of course, one of the most fun things I’ve ever worked on, hence this book. I’m not sure why I like it so much. It may be a bad sign.
The Psychology of Money
Although it didn’t quite make my top 10, this book was extremely useful and educational for every single person who has to handle money (which is everyone). Check out my book note for the highlights.
Financial success is not a hard science. It’s a soft skill, where how you behave is more important than what you know.
I hope this list gave you at least one good nonfiction recommendation. I would happily read any of these books again. Here’s to a new year with a whole new set of books to read! Check out the companion to this post with the best fiction books of 2021.
See them all together on my Bookshop list.
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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