I enjoy reading nonfiction, and in 2021 roughly a quarter of what I read fell under that category. Whether it was a collection of nature essays, a book about the dictionary, or an examination of the fantasy genre, I read a variety of nonfiction books that made me look at the world in a new way.
So in no particular order, here are my favorite nonfiction books that I read in 2021:
- The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds
by Jon Dunn
For years, nature photographer Jon Dunn has loved hummingbirds. So finally, he travels from his home in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland and heads to the Americas, traveling from Alaska to the southern reaches of Argentina to see some of the world’s most beautiful birds. Many species of hummingbird live in tiny niches that are threatened by climate change and overdevelopment, and its impossible to know how many species of hummingbirds have already been lost. During his travels, Dunn reflects on hummingbirds and their place in human history and culture.
- Upstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
In this collection of essays, Oliver ruminates on nature and our relationship with it- how the natural world rejuvenates us, how our children are often missing out by not being exposed to nature, or how things change with or without us. Oliver was primarily known as a poet, and her essays reflect it. They provide unvarnished truths about the world that are emotional without being manipulative about it.
- Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less
by James Hamblin
Skincare is a multi-billion dollar industry that uses our insecurities against us in order to sell more and more products. It’s also an industry that’s not really regulated, and so anyone can put whatever ingredients they want into a lotion and sell it without having to prove their claims. Hamblin, a doctor and journalist, decided to take a look at skincare and found that it’s less about keeping clean than it is about making ourselves feel a certain way. Some studies seem to indicate that our obsession with skincare may be causing more harm than good, with evidence showing that over-cleansing can lead to allergies and certain auto-immune disorders. Hamblin also looks at the nascent study of the human microbiome, which has ramifications for our health that we’re only just beginning to understand. It may be that, when caring for our skin, less may be more.
- The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games
by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Though science fiction and fantasy have been mainstays of popular culture for decades, Black characters haven’t had much of a role in the most popular stories. That is slowly changing, but there are still problems that Black characters– particularly female Black characters– face in their stories. In The Dark Fantastic, Thomas discusses the journeys of several Black female characters in stories like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, BBC’s Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries to explain the concept of the Dark Fantastic, and how even prominent Black characters struggle to be more than supports for white characters.
- Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
by Kory Stamper
When she was growing up, Kory Stamper never thought she would work for Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. But after a college class on Medieval Icelandic family sagas unearthed her love for the English language and its words, she ended up jumping at the opportunity to go into one of the nerdiest fields imaginable: lexicography. While working for the dictionary, she discovered that the dictionary is not what most people think it is. It is not the guardian of a language, meant to fix it at a certain point in time. The dictionary is a living and ever-changing thing that describes the changes in language as people use words differently over time. Brimming with humor and wry observations, Word by Word provides a wealth of insight into the English language and the dictionaries we too often take for granted.
- On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes
by Alexandra Horowitz
We might think we notice all the details when we’re walking around our neighborhoods, we actually miss a wealth of information and detail that could, if we only noticed it, provide a wide array of stories that would make us appreciate our surroundings more. Alexandra Horowitz realized that she was missing out on a lot, and so set out on a series of walks around ordinary neighborhoods with eleven experts in various fields- from her toddler son (an expert in noticing little things) to a geologist, a doctor, and a blind person among others. In so doing, Horowitz learned a lot about her neighborhood, and how special even the little things are, leading her to appreciate ordinary things even more.