As the calendar turns to 2021, here are 15 nonfiction books worth considering. This roundup of titles covers race, history, science and more.
‘Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Rebecca Wragg Sykes argues that we’ve spent too much time studying the way Neanderthals interacted with Homo Sapiens and too little studying the way Neanderthals interacted with each other. So she tells us how they lived, treating them not as one of evolution’s failures but as our close behavioral cousins.
“The fate of the Neanderthals has monopolised enormous amounts of attention,” she writes, “yet it may be the least interesting thing about them.”
‘An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do and Who We Are’
“I’ve often despaired at my ignorance toward my own species,” writes Camilla Pang, who was diagnosed at age 8 with autism spectrum disorder. Whether or not you agree with Pang that humans are basically code, her sharp-eyed observations about behavior, emotion and relationships should help us understand ourselves a little better.
‘Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War’
The fascinating story by Steve Inskeep tells of the nation’s first abolitionist presidential candidate and the wife who was rarely beside him but relentlessly pushed his career.
Frémont the explorer named San Francisco Bay the Golden Gate; Frémont the general was a favorite of the Republican party even after Lincoln was president.
‘If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future’ by Jill Lepore
Simulmatics was an early effort in the 1960s to harness computer-drive analytics to predict the behavior of voters and consumers.
The company didn’t do the work all that well, but it made a lot of influential friends and anticipated the world we inhabit.
‘Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom’ by Ilya Somin
Suppose the right to exit is more important than the right to vote? Whether switching jobs, moving to different states or crossing international borders, Somin argues, the ability to change our lives by changing our surroundings is a vital and personal freedom too often taken for granted.
‘Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights’ by Gretchen Sorin
Gretchen Sorin weaves together gruesome tales of Black accident victims, the way Black affluence led corporations to try to profit from integration, and much more.
An overlooked tour de force.
‘Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt’ by Alec Ryrie
Perhaps, contrary to common assumption, the loss of belief over the past three centuries has been driven less by the advance of science than by the rise of a kind of emotionalism with which we’re nowadays all too familiar: anxiety and anger as things go wrong.
‘The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes’ by Zachary D. Carter
Author Zachary D. Carter has come under fire for downplaying his subject’s attraction to the eugenics movement, but that aside, this biography not only of Keynes but of Keynsianism is consistently fascinating, and manages to deploy the jargon of the profession in ways that always illuminate rather than confuse.
Highly relevant to the moment.
‘Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior’
This provocative tome by Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird makes you rethink a broad set of prior assumptions.
‘The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World’ by Virginia Postrel
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Virginia Postrel offers a bold retelling of history through an emphasis on cloth — cloth as decoration, cloth as currency, cloth as ritual and much more.
One of the most extraordinary volumes in years.
‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’ by James Nestor
Who knew that nearly all of us breathe wrong, to the detriment of our health? Or that the culprit might be “dysevolution” caused by the development of speech?
A bit overconfident in places, but a fascinating view of a function we take for granted.
'The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life’
Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, but here’s what to like about this controversial volume by Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Richie Poulton: Reams of data and plenty of controlled experiments.
‘The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous’
This book by Joseph Henrich is the rare case of a volume that deserves all its many accolades. The title says it all.
One can quibble over details (for example, some of what he says about the Western church), but overall, it’s a remarkable tome that makes a powerful case.
‘Silver, Sword and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story’ by Marie Arana
A fascinating retelling of the continent’s history from a series of different perspectives.
Arana notes that most who write about Latin America assume a commonality based on culture and miss the continent’s deep and abiding divisions based on skin color. A sad, grand, important volume.
‘Why We Swim’ by Bonnie Tsul
So many of us are drawn to the water, for recreation, for beautiful vistas, for food. And then there’s those who go to swim.
In elegant prose, Tsui explores her own love of plunging into the water, and combines history, psychology, and interviews to explain the same emotion in others. Also, why humans are like salmon.
Bill Gates' favorite books of 2020
Many traditions fell away in 2020, but here’s one that’s stayed: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ annual book list.
‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ by Michelle Alexander
“Like many white people, I’ve tried to deepen my understanding of systemic racism in recent months,” Gates wrote. “Alexander’s book offers an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system unfairly targets communities of color, and especially Black communities.”
‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’ by David Epstein
“If you’re a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you,” Gates wrote. “In this fascinating book, (Epstein) argues that although the world seems to demand more and more specialization — in your career, for example — what we actually need is more people ‘who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.’”
‘The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz’ by Erik Larson
In this “brilliant” book, which covers the years 1940 and 1941 in war-torn England, Gates wrote, “Larson gives you a vivid sense of what life was like for average citizens during this awful period, and he does a great job profiling some of the British leaders who saw them through the crisis, including Winston Churchill and his close advisers.”
‘Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine’ by Bijal P. Trivedi
“This book is truly uplifting,” Gates wrote. “It documents a story of remarkable scientific innovation and how it has improved the lives of almost all cystic fibrosis patients and their families. ... I suspect we’ll see many more books like this in the coming years, as biomedical miracles emerge from labs at an ever-greater pace.”
‘The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War’ by Ben Macintyre
“This nonfiction account focuses on Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who became a double agent for the British, and Aldrich Ames, the American turncoat who likely betrayed him,” Gates wrote. “It’s every bit as exciting as my favorite spy novels.”