2021 Staff Picks: Nonfiction
Our expert staff members look back at the year and share their favorite titles.
2021 by Price, DevonGet this item
I really like this book and really needed it. The voice is so different than most "self-help" books in the best, most refreshing way. Recommended by Becca.
2021 by Newitz, AnnaleeGet this item
Four Lost Cities is the best kind of popular writing about archeology. The author accessibly lays out how urban history is being transformed by both in-the-field excavation and insights from other disciplines. Obvious parallels to our own era of climate change and extreme inequality are acknowledged but not belabored; Newitz trusts their readers to make the connection. Bonus: Cahokia, Illinois's own "lost city" is on the itinerary. Recommended by Andrew.
Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free: And Other Paradoxes of Our Broken Legal System2021 by Rakoff, Jed S.Get this item
The most shocking thing I learned from this book is that prosecutors really control almost all sentences. How? The short answer is that almost nobody actually gets a trial and the plea bargains offered as "the best you're going to get, so take it today" often happen before a defense attorney even gets familiar with how strong or weak a case is. Recommended by Christie.
The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science2021 by Kean, SamGet this item
Sam Kean is scrupulously fair as he describes one case of striking scientific misconduct after another in this historical survey. Always attentive to the forces that led his subjects to behave badly, he never resorts to sensationalizing his material, nor does he need to. Recommended by Steven.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life2021 by Saunders, GeorgeGet this item
If you're interested in writing and/or reading short stories, this book is time well spent. It's a masterclass on reading, analyzing, and writing, taking apart stories by classic Russian authors beat by beat to discover what they achieved and how. I found it inspiring and fun: so fun that I even did the homework Saunders assigns at the end! Recommended by Liz.
2021 by Green, JohnGet this item
Green is best known as a YA writer so I went into this adult nonfiction title with some skepticism, but it was really lovely. It was exactly the book I needed at the moment I read it. He reads the audiobook, and I highly recommend it as well. Recommended by Becca.
2021 by Abdurraqib, HanifGet this item
This book knocked me out. Abdurraqib explores the “multitudinous nature of Blackness” through the lens of Black performance. And it’s the way he does this, which is something of a marvel, combining trenchant social commentary, thrilling history, and poignant autobiographical details, that makes this book something unique and rare. Recommended by Chris.
2021 by Grant, Adam M.Get this item
I loved this book because it's an investigation of something that we all surely know but have a hard time admitting: there is so much that we don't know. This book reminded me of the importance of listening like I'm wrong, and how there is wisdom in admitting what we don't know. Recommended by Paul.
2021 by Tawwab, Nedra GloverGet this item
The best self-help and self-care book of the year for me. Filled with specific language and actionable examples, this book will teach you how to gracefully set healthy boundaries in all aspects of your life and feel healthier and happier. Recommended by Megan.
2021 by Sanneh, KelefaGet this item
I’ve been reading and enjoying Sanneh’s music criticism for years, so a full book of the stuff was one of the highlights of my reading this past year. His insights on the various contemporary genres he focuses and distills here are consistently dynamic and illuminating. Best of all, the book is teeming with great biographical details, where Sanneh further reflects on the music that has affected and intertwined with his own life. A remarkable achievement. Recommended by Chris.
2021 by Dobbs, MichaelGet this item
This history of how Richard Nixon and his cronies reacted to the unfolding Watergate crisis has a unique “fly on the wall” feel because most of it is based on actual recordings made in the White House. Readers would need a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy for the tormented, tragic figure of Nixon as he is portrayed in this richly detailed account of his struggles. Recommended by Steven.
2021 by Kolbert, ElizabethGet this item
A top notch science writer sets out to see how human beings are trying to reverse the havoc they've wrecked on the natural world. Kolbert's fascination with the ingenuity on display is infectious; so, unfortunately, is her growing sense that little of what's broken can actually be fixed. Recommended by Andrew.
2021 by Burkeman, OliverGet this item
Oliver Burkeman is the thinking person’s self-help writer; more classic philosophy than pop psychology. His message—that no one can ever do all they want with the time they are given—came to me like soothing balm. This book made want to read his first book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, a second time. Recommended by Steven.
2020 by Gordon, AubreyGet this item
Gordon discusses what might be the last socially acceptable form of bias: fat discrimination. This one is a bit of a cheat because it came out in November 2020, but it didn't make it onto our list last year, so I knew that I needed to include it here. Also, if you're not listening to Aubrey's podcast, Maintenance Phase, you're really missing out. Recommended by Becca.
2020 by Schalansky, JudithGet this item
My goodness, the ambition, erudition and creativity of Schalansky’s genre-defying book--to say nothing of its ultimate achievement--was such a unique literary delight. A work exploring extinct things that reminded me at times of W.G. Sebald, Jenny Erpenbeck, maybe even Jorge Luis Borges, and yet uniquely itself--somehow both liminal and grounded. Recommended by Chris.
2020 by Engelhaupt, ErikaGet this item
Erika Engelhaupt puts the “gross” in “engrossing” in this fast-paced examination of the science behind morbid, gruesome, disgusting, and disturbing things. Most of the short essays here are amusing and engaging. I’d say this book is more creepy than gory, but it’s definitely a whole lot of fun. Recommended by Steven.