The real deal: Nonfiction books our readers loved in 2020
Regarding the Dec. 9, 2019 Monitor Weekly article, “Best nonfiction books of the year,” it’s difficult to understand how you left off a few books that are both great and important, including “Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II” by Svetlana Alexievich (a heartbreaking book); “Silver, Sword, and Stone” by Marie Arana (a painful meditation on Latin American history); “Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness” by Anne Harrington (the most thoughtful, provocative, and well-informed book on psychiatry of the past decade); “The Meritocracy Trap” by Daniel Markovits; and Robert Caro’s wonderful memoir, “Working.” How in the name of global warming could you leave “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells, the scariest, most cogently argued book on climate change by far, off your list?
I have long admired Marie Arana, whose 2019 book, “Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story,” was recommended by historian David McCullough. Arana is a writer-at-large for The Washington Post and was appointed literary director of the Library of Congress in 2019.
Why We Wrote This
Monitor reviewers make lots of book recommendations during the year. Now, our community of readers returns the favor.
Charleston, South Carolina
“Building a Better World in Your Backyard Instead of Being Angry at Bad Guys” by Paul Wheaton and Shawn Klassen-Koop offers everyday solutions to environmental degradation that range from mildly to extremely effective. Sure, it would require some basic changes in our daily routines. But exploring and implementing such “new” ideas is energizing compared with the guilt and hopelessness we often feel in the face of environmental crises.
“Eruption” by Steve Olson is an interesting and informative book about the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. The author discusses the history and science of this event, the economic effects at the local, state, and national levels, and tells the stories of those who died and those who survived.
I just finished “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” by Colin Woodard. It’s a 400-year look at the nations and cultures that shaped our continent, the migration of those cultural groups, and the resulting political and social outlooks that continue to affect our lives. For one thing, it reinforces the axiom that the personal is political. Well worth reading for anyone who aspires to run for office or help make decisions in our shared national life.
Nancy Taylor Robson
I was given “Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm” by Isabella Tree, and finished the book in eight days. Intensive farming of its 3,500 acres was driving the family bankrupt, so in 2000 the land was handed back to nature. She explains how it was done – with the challenges as well as the successes – until there were nightingales and turtledoves nesting there. I found it fascinating.
Merry Ann Peterson
I practically teethed on Zane Grey, starting with “Betty Zane,” so I wanted to read “Zane Grey’s Wild West: A Study of 31 Novels” by Victor Carl Friesen as soon as I came across it. I enjoyed reading about each of the novels and remembering favorite characters and stories. There’s a lot of history here, including clashes with Native American tribes, building railroads, and the gold rush. It was a fascinating book with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and nature – and comparisons with Thoreau, Wordsworth, and others.
Joy V. Smith
I really enjoyed Jörn Leonard’s “Pandora’s Box,” a lengthy history of World War I. It is more fair-minded, well-informed, and insightful than any book on the Great War in recent decades.
I just finished reading “Sinking in the Swamp” by two Daily Beast reporters, Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng. While admittedly critical of President Donald Trump, it provides a stark and frank look into the people that make up this administration. It also shows how difficult it is, in practice, to actually “drain the swamp” of the federal government, even when that is a primary goal of the president and his staff.
I’m reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer for the second time, and I already have plans to read it a third time. Kimmerer is an indigenous American, a botanist, and a poet. Her reverence for this planet and all living beings is provocative, heartwarming, and inspiring. This is a beautiful book. I will be giving it out as gifts until all my friends have it.
Fort Collins, Colorado
It is gratifying to see that “The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by historian Richard Rothstein is selling well three years after its publication. I was impressed with the knowledge he shared about our local, state, and federal laws making segregation possible for so long. Now it’s time to “let justice roll down like waters” for all.
Martha F. Barkley
Belgrade Lakes, Maine
I happened upon the book in which I’m currently engrossed, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean, on RBdigital, through my local public library. The history genre has never been a great draw for me. Historical fiction is different, because it pulls me along in a way that straight-up history seldom does. This is an exception. One reason I decided to give this book a chance was the blurb by The Christian Science Monitor, describing the book as “captivating” and “delightful.” And so it is.
Marsha Lynn Thomas
Roberto Calasso’s “The Celestial Hunter” deals with the mythology of hunting and sacrifice among ancient humans. Calasso may well be the most knowledgeable and insightful scholar in the world on comparative religion and mythology, and he’s one of the few original thinkers alive on a wide range of subjects. His book “Ardor” is one of the few outstanding books published on a religious subject (i.e., the Vedas) in recent decades. Anyone interested in the origins of religion, mythology, and sacrifice in ancient societies will want to pick up Calasso’s book.
I just finished Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” I enjoyed it very much. I quite often read a couple of books at the same time. Why? I don’t know. With books like “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” by Jamie Metzl, I have to take time to read something else for a while and then return. Presently I am reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Magic of Reality” and Neil R. Lightfoot’s “How We Got the Bible.” The latter is more for use in a Sunday school class as a teaching tool.
I have two books to recommend. In “Special Agent,” Candice DeLong describes tailing terrorists, going undercover against the mafia, and helping capture the Unabomber. It’s a dramatic true story of an extraordinary woman and her FBI career. “In Harm’s Way” tells of the torpedoing and sinking of the battle cruiser USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. Nearly 900 men were cast into shark-infested waters. Doug Stanton weaves a tale of courage, sacrifice, and survival.
“Race and Culture: A World View” by Thomas Sowell could hardly be a more timely read in view of the current reexamination of attitudes about race in the United States. The subtitle “A World View” is key to how Sowell dispels some of the myths that have often guided public policy and popular perceptions on the subject. I was amazed at the breadth of scholarship and depth of analysis this book offers.
Gate City, Virginia
I just finished “Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration” by Christine Montross, M.D. Wow! A psychiatrist who works with acutely mentally ill people and performs competency evaluations for the courts, she shows graphically how we not only imprison mentally ill people disproportionately, but we make their illness worse, often adding years to what should have been a minor sentence. She shows real people and how prison ruins lives. Late in the book she describes a visit to a maximum security facility in Norway, where 30 years ago the country had the same problems as the United States. Norway undertook a radical paradigm shift of its prison system, and now focuses entirely on preparing convicts to return to society. What would it take for the U.S. to undertake such reforms?
Editor's note: Reader recommendations are a regular feature in the Weekly magazine. Tell us what you're reading at email@example.com.