The Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year

By | January 1, 2020

10. “Imagination” by Jim Davies …”How does your imagination actually work?” This is a question I have never asked, and Jim Davies fascinating book is not only the best science book of the year, but surprisingly accessible even if Science isn’t your strongest subject.

9. “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado …There were several strong books about abusive relationships this year (check out number 3 on this list), but Machado’s is probably the most experimental ever written. Machado has a lot on her mind, and you never know where each chapter will take you. One of her most unique themes is the reluctance she felt to admit her girlfriend was abusing her because she didn’t want people to stereotype LGBTQ relationships. This sense of protecting something bigger to yourself–even to the detriment of yourself–can be found in 2019 media from “Mindhunter” to “Bombshell.”

8. “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” by Casey Cep …Cep manages to juggle several intriguing storylines here from the wild Alabama murder case that Harper Lee became interested in writing about (perhaps it would’ve been her “In Cold Blood”) and also a semi-biography about Lee herself, especially her mysterious later years. Cep is such a talented storyteller, you almost wish she could tag in for Lee and write the book she would have. Still, this is probably as close as we’ll ever get.

7. “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race” by Thomas Chatterton Williams …I’ll admit that Williams is preaching a message that I desperately want out there, and it’s never been more necessary–with certain elements of the left now as content as Alt-right types to reinforce the concept of race and the soft segregation of “staying in your lane.” [Things have regressed so badly, I’ve seen actual tweets advocating the idea that interracial relationships are a form of cultural appropriation.] With subtlety, Williams offers a thoughtful exploration of race in 2019; it’s not the rebuke of political correctness, identity politics, and wokeness that some people might be expecting (or wanting), but rather a nuanced thesis wondering exactly how much those things are actually helping rather than just escalating an identity arm’s race with the rightwing.

6. “Choked” by Beth Gardiner …Much of the world’s air quality is poisonous, and will almost certainly cause health problems including fatal lung disease like cancer. That is the big, bold takeaway from Gardiner’s terrifying book. Sometimes, the topic of climate crisis feels so massive that it’s easy to get lost in melting ice caps half a world away, and forget that the air you breath is killing you due to unprecedented air pollution. That 40% of the world’s population lives in two countries (China and India) that are among the worst countries in the world for contaminated air would give anyone the chills.

5. “The Shadow War” by Jim Sciutto …Sciutto takes on the worthy goal of trying to be the Paul Revere for our “shadow war” with China and Russia, which only they seem to be playing. It’s almost surreal how much of America’s foreign policy has been shaped by the Middle East over the last several decades, and both political parties seem to believe “the Cold War is over,” when China and Russia clearly haven’t gotten that memo. In fact, there’s not an American-antagonistic country in the world that could keep their lights on without China and Russia’s support (Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria), and I would argue these are the only real problems for America in the world. [Bernard Henri-Levy also tried to sound the alarm in “The Empire and the 5 Kings.”] One minor quibble: I wish Sciutto had spent a little bit more time on China completing hijacking America’s film industry from studio funding to theatrical distribution.

4. “Falter” by Bill McKibben …The subtitle for this book is “Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” meaning “are we doomed as a species?” A book about the half-dozen ways humanity could doom itself in our lifetime may sound alarmist, but McKibben is trying to wake people up. He tells you in the foreword that he’s not interested in giving you false hope–which is actually refreshing since too often there will be a book about climate crisis that makes it look like changing your light bulbs will save the planet, and then people go back to sleep. Even if I don’t share McKibben’s pessimism on everything he discusses here (for a scientist, McKibben is surprisingly paranoid of new technologies like CRISPR, which may actually be necessary to counter the genetic effects of “forever chemicals” that too many Americans are inhaling on a daily basis), his real target is the Libertarian culture of selfishness that has made people unwilling to even accept that there is a duty to society. At one time, people could smoke on airplanes and create so much smog with their cars that you couldn’t see Los Angeles, but a sense of duty changed that. McKibben lays out the case that too many big things aren’t happening because of a 50-year “Libertarian” campaign put out by big business that says all that matter is what’s right for the individual…which almost guarantees nothing gets done on a macro-level.

3. “No Visible Bruises” by Rachel Louise Snyder …I can’t say I’ve ever thought about the macro-effects of domestic abuse, but Snyder makes a convincing case that it’s actually behind everything from most mass shootings to domestic terrorism; making the case that this is a silent public health crisis greater than the opioid epidemic or gun violence in destroying people’s lives. What’s even more striking is how readable this book is, as Snyder uses effective storytelling to put a human face on this problem. The majority of the book’s first half is centered on a single, horrific case of private violence in Montana that ended in tragedy–and these sections read a little bit like “The Executioner’s Song” in their plain storytelling power.

Yes, I’m aware that Norman Mailer is a very ironic and/or unfortunate author choice in discussing a book on spousal violence, but “Song” was a great book about the lives of those touched by rural Western violence. This is another. And if you don’t open yourself up to the uncomfortable a little bit, you may not get the full benefit of Snyder’s most illuminating section: the second part of her book focuses mostly on the abusers themselves. For obvious reasons, these unsavory characters are rarely ever the focus of books on abuse, but we also don’t learn much that way.

2. “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” by Mike Isaac …The fate of a “unicorn” may not be as important as the rest of these topics, but Isaac’s riveting account of the tug of war between Uber’s cunning original CEO/co-founder Travis Kalanick and the fake “nice guy” venture capitalists that eventually ousted him reads like a thriller. By the end of the book, I felt sorry for Kalanick and was shocked to find myself identifying with him…which is close to a miracle given what I heard about him beforehand; only a gifted writer could flesh out a “character” with such an image problem. And it doesn’t hurt that Isaac also gives loads of fascinating information–like exactly what it takes to get an App approved by Apple and keep it approved or NYC’s lucrative taxi-medallion racket–that serves as a light history of tech and the transformation business in general. Some of the most interesting chapters take place outside of America, as Uber tries to expand in literally hostile markets and can’t guarantee the safety of some of their drivers from India to South America.

The Best Non-Fiction Book of 2019 is “Blowout” by Rachel Maddow …As Maddow herself says, we devote lots of time to the Wall Street wizards and Silicon Valley innovators we think are controlling our lives, but what about the even more powerful, analogue villains of the oil industry? She makes the convincing case that just because we want these shadowy, polluting titans to be yesterday’s news doesn’t mean their power is any less than it’s ever been.

There’s lots of huge topics featured in this list (air pollution, abuse, traitors willing to sell America out for a buck, corporate intrigue, and the end of humanity as we know it), but it feels like this book combines nearly all of them. Trump’s collusion with Russia is the story, but it’s only part of the story as the entire sordid history between Putin, Exxon-Mobile, and the avalanche of money in-between is laid out in Maddow’s signature investigative detail.

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