Best non-fiction books read in 2019?

Brian G Turner

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As most of my current reading is non-fiction these days, I thought I'd start a thread focusing on this area of books for others to share their favourites and recommendations. :)

I read 35 non-fiction books this year, of which my two stand out favourites were:

Rubicon by Tom Holland, which provides a wonderfully lively history of the Roman Republic. It's a long book written in a succinct and lively style, and Holland manages to make many of the sometimes extreme characters and events really come to life in this, something most history books fail to do.

Home by Francis Pryor focuses on the actual people of Britain's prehistory, rather than the stones and bones that obsess most archaeologists. This makes for a warm exploration of prehistoric Britain, in which he's not afraid to apply some common sense and imagination alongside his decades of experience.
 

Stephen Palmer

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Brian, you are a star! :D

So, here's my list...

1. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons For The 21st Century - a return to form for this most brilliant of cultural commentators.
2. Richard Byrne, Evolving Insight - fascinating look at the relationship between insight in great apes and in human beings.
3. Clive Finlayson, The Smart Neanderthal - groundbreaking look at Neanderthal culture from a true expert.
4. James Lovelock, Novacene - another smack-in-the-forebrain from our greatest iconoclastic scientist, who turned 100 this year.
5. Frans de Waal, Mama's Last Hug - a look at what emotions animals may feel.
6. Edmund de Waal (no relation to the above!), The Hare With The Amber Eyes - extraordinary family memoir.
7. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast & Slow - brilliant exposé of how we do and do not think, written by Nobel award winner.
8. Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin, The Glass Bathyscaphe - delightful and thought-provoking look at the history of glass and glassmaking.
9. Laurence Bergreen, Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation Of The World - seat-of-the-pants history, full of incident.
10. Xi Zhiyuan, Paper Tiger - grim, albeit sometimes uplifting, but always genuine survey of the political situation in China.

Really good year for thought-provoking books!
All my reviews can be found in the 'Just Finished Reading' section on my blog.
 

Stephen Palmer

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Home by Francis Pryor focuses on the actual people of Britain's prehistory, rather than the stones and bones that obsess most archaeologists. This makes for a warm exploration of prehistoric Britain, in which he's not afraid to apply some common sense and imagination alongside his decades of experience.
That's a really terrific book, I loved it.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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Paul Elie, Reinventing Bach. Fascinating history of how Bach became the icon he is today through recordings. Also a partial history of the classical music recording industry.

Glenn Gould, The Glenn Gould Reader. Turns out that, besides being a piano-playing genius, Gould was also an excellent essayist.

John Updike, More Matter: Essays and Criticism. Reviews, essays, autobiographical pieces. Updike's nonfiction is consistently a joy to read.

Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page. Excellent book on prose styles and the "music" of writing.

Philip Ball, Beyond Weird. The best and clearest book I've read on quantum theory, especially good on very recent developments.

Barry N. Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins. Malzberg's collected SF criticism.

Alec Nevala-Lee. Astounding. Collective biography of John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Isaac Asimov.

Michael Schumacher, Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics. Bio of the comics legend.

Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza. Short biography and meditation on Spinoza's philosophy, particularly as seen through the prism of his conflicted relationship to his Jewish background.
 

Av Demeisen

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Philip Ball, Beyond Weird. The best and clearest book I've read on quantum theory, especially good on very recent developments.
Agreed. Best book on the topic without equations. And in the first few chapters Ball alerted me to Leonard Susskind's The Theoretical Minimum: Quantum Mechanics.
 

Wyrmlord

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She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, a look behind the NYT investigating on Harvey Weinstein. It's this generation's All The President's Men.
 

Hugh

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In order of reading:

Alexei Sayle: "Stalin Ate My Homework" if you know anything about 60s/70s UK Marxism it's hilarious.

Wanda Newby: "Peace and War"
essential complementary reading if you enjoyed Eric Newby's "Love and War in the Apennines".

Ben MacIntyre: "The Spy and the Traitor"
the smuggling of KGB double agent Oleg Gordievsky out of Moscow into Finland.

Peter Coyote: "Sleeping Where I Fall"
autobiography of 60s California, communes, Hells Angels etc. Seriously heavy.

Grevel Lindop: "Charles Williams, the Third Inkling"
biography. Lengthy.

Nicholas Murray: "Aldous Huxley, an English Intellectual"
biography

Francis Pryor: "Home"
hypotheses concerning UK prehistory

Soko Morinaga: "Ongoing Lessons in My Own Stupidity"
gruelling zen training in Japan immediately post WWII. wonderfully simple writing.

John Wain: "Sprightly Running"
autobigraphy. attended Oxford in the late 40s, attended Inklings meetings etc.

Laurie Lee: "A Moment of War"
1937 Spain, The International Brigade, gripping.
 

Bick

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I only read a few non-fiction, but I liked Peter Crouch's How to be a Footballer, especially.
 

Av Demeisen

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Nnedi Okorafor Broken Places & Outer Spaces, her first non-fiction book.
 

pyan

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Bill Bryson: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

I buy very few books 'automatically', because of the regard I hold for their author - Bill Bryson has not let me down yet.
 

Victoria Silverwolf

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Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960's by William L. O'Neill (1971)

The author covers a tremendous amount of material in 428 pages. Mostly politics and the Vietnam War, inevitably, but everything from sports to fashion as well. He has a gift for pithy phrases, and isn't afraid to hand out praise and condemnation where he sees fit. All in all, a history book that is as readable as any work of fiction.

Cheech Is Not My Real Name . . . But Don't Call Me Chong! (2017) by Cheech Marin, with John Hassan. As you can tell, it's an autobiography of one half of the famous comedy team.

The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic (2015) by Ginger Strand, a double biography of writer Kurt and scientist Bernard, concentrating on the time they both worked for General Electric, Kurt in Public Relations and Bernard in the research lab (the so-called "house of magic") working on weather control.

Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey (2018) by Mark Dery, a biography of that creator of weird little books and other strange things.

My Life and Times (1926) by Jerome K. Jerome, an autobiography by the fellow best known for writing Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889).

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (2008) by J. G. Ballard, written at the end of his life.

In the Darkroom (2016) by Susan Faludi, author of the feminist classic Backlash. It begins with the author visiting her estranged father in Hungary after many years, after that parent has undergone male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Besides dealing with transsexualism and other such issues, it considers other topics concerning identity, such as the romanticizing of the glory days of Hungary before the First World War. Quite a fascinating book.

Our Angry Earth by Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl, a 2018 reprint of a 1991 nonfiction book about the planet's many environmental problems, with introduction and afterword by Kim Stanley Robinson. The bottom line is that the situation isn't going to get any better, or even stay the same, without some serious action being taken.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece (2018) by Michael Benson, a detailed account of the creation of my favorite film of all time.
 

Stenevor

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The Fall of the Roman Empire - Peter Heather
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Sebag Montefiore
Ivan the Terrible - Pierre Stephen Robert Payne
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West - Hampton Sides
Empire of the Summer Moon - S C Gwynne
Mayflower - Nathaniel Philbrick
Albions Seed - David Hacket Fischer
A Commonwealth of Thieves - Thomas Keneally
 

Guttersnipe

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton
Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman
Working IX to V by Vicki León
Nordic Gods and Heroes by Padraic Colum
 

Extollager

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Just noticed this thread.

Early in the year I read Scott Marshall's Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life. The author seems conscientiously to have run down whatever material he found available to trace Dylan's life as Jew and Christian. My impression is that he wants Dylan to be a Christian still; I'm not so sure he is. Marshall might also have said a little more about Dylan's 1970s interest in non-Jewish, non-Christian matters, which, however, don't seem to have left a lasting mark on the artist.

Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery turned out, on this second reading (the first was in 1988), to appeal most to me in only several pages on tradition, liturgy, etc.; much of it was a bit over my head. The book did play a part in my spiritual autobiography.

John Wain's Sprightly Running, mentioned above by Hugh


came in for a second reading. I enjoyed all of it, especially the Oxford material, and, within that, perhaps especially the pages on the eccentric bibliophile Meyerstein.

Horatio Clare's Orison for a Curlew was a short travel book, a search for an elusive bird

Andrew Delbanco's The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the War for America's Soul -- good aside from a few perhaps strained references to today's society

Prescott's Conquest of Mexico as sumptuously illustrated by Keith Henderson!

Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy was a book on historical spirituality that I'd owned for many years. At last I read it. It was good. It was cited late in his life by C. S. Lewis as one of ten influential books:


Alan Jacobs's The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, and The Narnian (a biography of C. S. Lewis) were very readable -- I'll want to look up more by this author.

This thread is for best nonfiction books read in 2019, but I'll mention a deplorable book again, John Mack's Abduction, which I comment on at this posting and others:


Piers Brendon's The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s -- this is the kind of history I can read, emphasizing what life was like rather than a lot of analysis of social "forces" in abstract terms

Chris Arnade's Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America needs to be read by progressives and conservatives (if there are any) alike.

C. V. Wedgwood's A Coffin for King Charles -- I'll probably read more of her books -- this was something for my 17th-century project

Arthur Machen's Hieroglyphics -- a stimulating book about reading, read now for the second time.

MacIntyre's The Spy and the Traitor -- this was something I followed up on after seeing a mention here at Chrons. What a great read!

That's actually the bigger part of the nonfiction I read last year, not "the best," a highly selective enumeration, but -- whatever!
 
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