Though nonfiction is often regarded as dry and dull, the best nonfiction books are as interesting as the best novels. And the cool thing is that the stories are true.
According to my StoryGraph information I read thirty-seven nonfiction books in 2020, ranging from a book about how the language use on the internet changes everyday English language usage to the nature of time, to memoirs to a history of the Viking Age. So in no particular order, here are some of the best nonfiction books I read in 2020.
Note, I read these for the first time in 2020, but they weren’t necessarily published last year.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
In this collection of essays, Macdonald begins with simple-seeming things– the behavior of a single type of bird or a childhood memory– and builds on them until these apparently simple things are revealed to be both complex and universal. Her writing is elegant and humorous or elegiac when it needs to be, but is never overwrought, even when dealing with hopeless subject like the destruction of forests or the deaths of beautiful animals.
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
David Starr Jordan was a man obsessed with bringing order to chaos. When the 1906 San Francisco earthquake nearly destroyed his vast collection of fish specimens from around the world, he looked as the disruption, and calmly set about putting everything back into order– which included sewing name tags to each of the preserved fish. When Lulu Miller came across his name, she soon developed her own obsession with his brand of order after a poor decision sets her life spinning out of control. Part biography, part memoir, Miller’s dual stories are intertwined in ways you don’t expect, but that come together in a breathtaking fashion.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
In this brief and graceful book, Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist discusses the puzzle that is time– how it flows, how we experience it, and how we have yet to fully comprehend it. And we might never figure it out entirely. With his elegant prose, Rovelli brings complex theoretical discussions down to a layman’s level without being insulting. The audiobook, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, is especially engaging.
The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife
Though he started out as a rough and tumble teenager whose last resort was joining the army, the path of Christopher Skaife’s life eventually took him to the storied Tower of London, where he was apprenticed to the previous Ravenmaster. Years later, Skaife took over the care of the ravens who live at the Tower. It’s a complicated job, day in and day out, and the ravens have their own personalities and quirks. Though he wasn’t an ornithologist by trade, Skaife has fallen in love with ravens and that love shines through in this candid account of life with ravens at one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science by Seb Falk
Though the popular perception of the Medieval ages is that they were a time where learning died, supersition ruled, and no one did anything clever until the Renaissance came along. But in the past few decades, more and more historians are pushing back against this idea, pointing out that this era brought us soaring Gothic cathedrals, the first mechanical clocks, as well as the beginnings of some of the world’s greatest universities. In this admittedly dense history, Falk shows how scientists and thinkers across Europe were engaging in scientific exploration and translating texts from as far afield as China. With a solid foundation of evidence and stories, Falk shows just how bright the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ really were.
The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth by John Garth
Though it’s impossible to say for sure where Tolkien drew his exact inspirations (and Tolkien himself discouraged the notion of a biographical reading of any work of fiction), there are certainly places and landscapes that must have been in the back of Tolkien’s mind when he sat down to write his beautiful stories. In The World of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth takes a look at the places and landmarks would have seen during his life, and shows how they might have become the inspirations for places like the Shire, Lorien, or the Misty Mountains. Thanks to its numerous photographs, illustrations (some of Tolkien’s own), and paintings, this book is a must-have for fans of Tolkien’s legendarium.
Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Until Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece, Wolf Hall, and its sequels came out, Thomas Cromwell was a relatively obscure figure in the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell’s influence, however, was not obscure. And thanks to Mantel’s focus on him and now with MacCulloch’s exhaustively-researched biography, a modern audience can see just how much Cromwell influenced the political world of the Tudor court.
Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price
Thanks to popular culture, we think we know who the Vikings were: fierce, horrifically violent warriors who sailed from Scandinavia in the late 700s, pillaged and plundered for three hundred years, and then disappeared into the tides of history. But the history of a society is always more complex than popular culture portrays, and in Price’s examination of the underpinnings of the Scandinavian cultures that sent raiders and settlers to the Mediterranean, Britain, Iceland, and beyond.
5 thoughts on “Best Books of 2020: Nonfiction”
Mantel’s trilogy is one of my all-time favorites. I read The Mirror and the Light twice. The MacColluch biography is incredibly detailed, but dense. It took me a while to get through it.
I loved reading that Tolkien book. I see you read that one on Cromwell, have you read the Hilary Mantel trilogy? I want to read them this year.
I completely agree with you, quality non-fiction is worth seeking out. The older I get the more I enjoy it. I didn’t read as many good ones in 2020 as I’d have liked, so thanks for this list, gives me some ideas for this year.
I’m really excited to find copies of The Light Ages and the Order of Time. I think they’re fascinating topics I’ve love to learn more about. As for Tolkien, I’ve always heard that he drew inspiration for those from his time in The Great War and from Anglo-saxon history. I also heard that C. S. Lewis whom he was great friends with inspired a lot as well.
The Light Ages and The Order of Time are great! Highly recommend.
Yes, WWI definitely influenced Tolkien’s work. You can see the shadows of the real-life No Man’s Land in the Dead Marshes, and the shelled and dead lands of Mordor. And his love of Anglo-Saxon history and literature inspired his stories from the very beginning– his tale of Earendil the Mariner was initially inspired by a single line from an Anglo-Saxon poem, and language and spirit of the Rohirrim was drawn straight from Anglo-Saxon history. And CS Lewis was a big inspiration for Treebeard. 🙂 (sorry to geek out. I get started on Tolkien, and I find it hard to stop….)