Your best non-fiction books of the decade?
November 8, 2019 6:47 PM   Subscribe

Which non-fiction of the past ten years should I not miss? I'm looking for books that you're pretty sure you'll still be recommending thirty years from now.

The only book I'd definitely put on my list so far is David Graeber's Debt. I'm sure I'm missing a few, though.
posted by clawsoon to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
Orlean’s The Library Book would be on my list. Two memoirs would be Lab Girl and Westover’s Educated, but they are in my zones of interest.
posted by childofTethys at 7:02 PM on November 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

Currently reading the Library Book which childofTethys mentioned already and which I second as a recommendation.
posted by acidnova at 7:05 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

It just squeaks in, having been written in 2010: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
posted by Janta at 7:46 PM on November 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy come immediately to mind.
posted by praemunire at 8:10 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, also sneaks in under the wire with a 2010 publication date.
posted by bassooner at 8:21 PM on November 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

Feel free to join the Non-Fiction Club on fanfare! I started it so I'd have a place to log my books and to encourage me to clear my backlog. There's a book I'm in the process of finishing that I'll probably post on tomorrow or Sunday called "The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: a 21st century bestiary" Which is one of the most beautiful and well thought out non-fiction books I've read, Built on Bones is also something I will rave about forever- But this book, Trees in Paradise, is maybe the best book I've ever read. I'll be watching this thread with interest!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:25 PM on November 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

For me,
Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2018)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates (2015)
Behave by Robert Sapolsky (2017)
I also loved Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (2009)
posted by maya at 8:29 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis's portrait of the critically important, unsung career civil servants undergirding the US federal government and how they're faring under Trump's historic maladministration. Sounds topical, but it captures a disturbingly pervasive lack of long-term thinking that's much deeper than the current government, and will be reverberating through American life for decades to come. Quotes, previously.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:21 PM on November 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I found Tom Reiss's The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo , about the swashbuckling father of Alexandre Dumas, a great read, and it won the Pulitzer for biography that year. I have only ever heard praise from everyone I've ever recommended it to.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 9:46 PM on November 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

posted by j_curiouser at 12:23 AM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
posted by bluebird at 12:33 AM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forche.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 1:35 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would say the work of Helen Thorpe: Just Like Us, Soldier Girls, and The Newcomers.
posted by huimangm at 2:35 AM on November 9, 2019

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was published in 2009. A tough read at times but also tough to put it down.
posted by cp311 at 3:06 AM on November 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Keith Richards, Life
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree

And I second Wilkerson, Coates, and Nothing to Envy.
posted by sallybrown at 4:15 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Only Plane In The Sky: An Oral History Of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff came out this past September and is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time.

Also, another vote for The Library Book by Susan Orlean.
posted by bookmammal at 5:06 AM on November 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan describes a period with many parallels in the modern world.

The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson has lots of new-to-me information pertinent to botany and gardening.

Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alex Langlands I offer with some trepidation. He examines the wider knowledge, beyond technical skill, that was needed to be an expert and how that is in danger of being lost. It is admittedly eccentric.
posted by Botanizer at 5:31 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is an indigenous woman and a botanist –and she writes incorporating both perspectives about plants and our relationship with the natural world. She's a beautiful writer and this is one of the most profound books I've ever read.
posted by leslies at 6:24 AM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The one book I'll add with trepidation - because it's a textbook - is Wallace Arthur's Evolution: A Developmental Approach. It's the clearest and most complete discussion of above-the-gene-level evo-devo I've read.
posted by clawsoon at 6:57 AM on November 9, 2019

Bettyville by George Hodgman. I read a lot of memoirs and this is the best one I’ve ever read. It is funny and sad and tender. It’s a beautifully-written and evocative and I can not recommend it enough. I’ve recently started reading it aloud to my fiancée and now she loves it as much as I do.
posted by diamondsky at 7:10 AM on November 9, 2019

Jill Lepore, These Truths. A history of the United States that does not just tell the story of Europeans, or the stories of indigenous people and enslaved people as sidebars to the history of European-Americans. This is the American history book I want my children to read.
posted by Orlop at 7:19 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thinking Fast and Slow - came out in 2011 and I am still recommending it to people. A lot of it has been further popularized since it came out but the discussion of cognitive biases of all kinds is still well worth your time.
posted by crocomancer at 7:41 AM on November 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’d second Evicted. Well written and extremely eye opening.
posted by reren at 8:37 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson (2011).
posted by Rash at 8:56 AM on November 9, 2019

Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool is one of the few books I would genuinely describe as life-changing. Ericsson is the scientist who is often credited with the 10,000 hour rule, but Ericsson seems to consider that rule a simplification of his life's work, and Peak is his attempt to explain his work in a more detailed and nuanced way. Essentially, it's a grand unified theory for how people become good at things. (And great at them, if they're willing to put in the work.)
posted by yankeefog at 9:29 AM on November 9, 2019

Seconding In the Garden of Beasts, an account taken from letters and diaries of the American ambassador and his family, as well as other firsthand sources. Larson is good at stitching the raw material into a narrative that depicts the Nazi regime, Berlin in particular, and the Dodds, an unusual ambassadorial family for that time period.
posted by kingless at 9:54 AM on November 9, 2019

alex chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel essay collection.
posted by brujita at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2019

note, if you like Graeber's 'Debt', he owes a big inspiration to Margaret Atwood's 'Payback'.
posted by ovvl at 10:43 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Colson Whitehead's Noble Hustle.
posted by crush at 1:24 PM on November 9, 2019

Three books I would recommend would be:
Killers of the Flower Moon:The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann,
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe,
Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich.
posted by momochan at 6:48 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

First Bite by Bee Wilson, also her more recent book The Way We Eat Now. She's technically a food writer, but these are really great anthropological examinations (for the lay person) of diet and eating habits.

I did this as an audio book, so it may be a bit much in reading, but KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann is an amazing look at the Nazi concentration camps, from inception to liberation. He focuses only on the concentration camps, not the death camps, which were two separate types. It's a bit heavy (also, incredibly detailed and long), but a fascinating read.
posted by Hactar at 1:03 PM on November 10, 2019

An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler

Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin

Things That Are, by Amy Leach

Thank you for asking this great question!
posted by kristi at 8:02 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with those recommending The library book, it was great.

Other standouts for me:
Hunger - Roxane Gay - no easy answers in this, but the (a) truth and complexity around weight and hunger and fat and so many things.
The lonely city - Olivia Laing which is both a personal journey and an exploration of art, loneliness, creativity, outsiders and the relationships between these different things.
The arsonist - Chloe Hooper about the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Melbourne, Australia and the man who was charged with having set them.
The trauma cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein about a woman named Sandra who cleans up after traumatic events and other difficult cleaning jobs like hoarders' houses and herself has a pretty amazing life story - having been a husband and father, sex worker, drag queen, trophy wife, businesswoman - and the amazing empathy she shows to people in really difficult circumstances.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:27 PM on November 11, 2019

"i'll be gone in the dark" by michelle mcnamara has been fascinating, if you are into true crime!
posted by megan_magnolia at 8:54 AM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik — he's a great writer and covers materials science in an incredibly approachable way. The book delves into fascinating aspects of what makes things like concrete, steel, glass, and chocolate what they are.
posted by exogenous at 6:20 AM on November 14, 2019

You can have a copy of my book if you like (or anyone else who emails me). It's not introductory, but it is a pretty comprehensive account of emotions and the basic structure of the mind.
posted by leibniz at 5:18 PM on November 15, 2019

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is quickly entering the high school reading canon.
posted by lilac girl at 9:31 AM on November 16, 2019

The Feather Thief by Johnson
posted by craven_morhead at 12:23 PM on November 19, 2019

I can't believe nobody mentioned Eric Schlosser's Command and Control yet.

A terrifying deep dive into the history of nuclear weapons and their security intertwined with a minute by minute story of an accident in a rocket silo. For example, no fiction writer would ever make up an airbase, where the bomb squads practice disassembling nukes, and the practice bombs are stored together with the live nuclear bombs on the same rack, yet this is one of the least risky (!!) security incidents detailed.
posted by kmt at 1:04 AM on November 26, 2019

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