Today’s post covers my favorite non fiction books of 2020. If you’ve noticed my World of Books section, you’ll notice I update my site each year with my favorite reads.
Most people know I’m passionate about reading and recommending books that are thought-provoking. Reading across many genres is a lifelong habit, but today’s post is about one of my favorite genres: non-fiction.
I post my top non fiction reads each year. Check out my top 10 non fiction books from 2019 if you’d like more suggestions.
In 2020, my reading goal was to read 52 non fiction books in one year.
My total number of non fiction reads was 54 books out of a total of 153 reads in 2020.
In 2021, I’m tackling the same challenge again, but this time I will focus more on science and history and try not to read as many biographies.
Why read non-fiction?
As a lifelong learner who is inquisitive about everything and with all the fake news that’s out there these days, it’s now more important than ever to learn across a range of topics and to read alternating points of views to get a well rounded perspective of subject matter.
My reads in 2020 included topics ranging from science and technology, law, women’s studies, the human body, and biographies.
Simply put, writers should read. You can’t write well if you aren’t willing to pick up a book.
Non fiction allows writers to collect facts for their own writing, while fiction helps writers to explore their imagination and how other writers see the world or imagine the world.
Being able to educate yourself is the best gift you can give yourself.
My top 10 non fiction books of 2021
The most interesting topic I read about in 2020 was, ironically, viruses and bacteria. I started 2020 on Richard Preston’s Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come after ending 2019 on Steffanie Strathdee’s The Perfect Predator, an engrossing tale about a scientist’s hunt to find a cure for her husband when he falls deathly ill to an antibiotic resistant superbug called “Iraqibacter“, aka Acinetobacter baumannii.
This was before COVID19 hit the world. I’ve always been interested in this topic because I wanted to be a microbiologist or work with viruses when I was younger. After COVID19 hit Taiwan in late January, I started reading as much as possible. Some might think this strange but it is oddly comforting to know the whole story with something that frightens you. Thus Black Death at Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague by David K. Randall, The Body by Bill Bryson, and The Story of Typhoid Mary were all consumed fairly quickly. I finished with Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
As if COVID19 wasn’t enough, the world was shocked again in 2020 by the 8 minute and 42 second murder on FB with George Floyd. That month, I took a deep dive into racial injustice and racism in America. I started with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and then moved into a number of fiction reads by Coates and other Black authors, including Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Top 10 non fiction reads of 2020
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Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is a well researched and riveting look at the lives of the women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in 1888. I thought it was fascinating! If you’re looking for more information on Jack the Ripper, this book isn’t for you. He’s barely mentioned in this book. The Five focuses completely on the victims of his murderous sprees.
Victorian England was not a pleasant world for the working class, especially if you were a woman. Rubenhold provides extensive research and notes from social observers of the time to create the dark world that these women moved through. What an eye-opening look at life in Victorian England.
“The fibers that have clung to and defined the shape of Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane’s stories are the values of the Victorian world. They are male, authoritarian, and middle class. They were formed at a time when women had no voice, and few rights, and the poor were considered lazy and degenerate: to have been both of these things was one of the worst possible combinations.“The Five: The Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Women by Hallie Rubenhold
Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston
“The Ebola war wasn’t won with modern medicine. It was a medieval war, and it went down as a brutal engagement between ordinary people and a life form that was trying to use the human body as a means of survival through deep time. In order to win this war against an inhuman enemy, people had to make themselves inhuman. They had to suppress their deepest feelings and instincts, tear down the bonds of love and feeling, isolate themselves from or isolate those they loved the most. Human beings had to become like monsters, in order to save their human selves.”Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston
Everyone should have to read this book. Honest, beautiful, raw writing and social observations about what it means to be Black in America. He weaves his own memoir through his observations, sharing his fear of childhood in Baltimore, what it was like to attend Howard University, and my favorite part of this book when he visits Paris and how different life is there.
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure thatracism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
A ‘MUST READ’ FOR EVERYONE OVER 40 YEARS OF AGE.
Being Mortal is written by surgeon Atul Gawande’s exploration of the relationships that doctors have with patients who are nearing the end of life. It’s hard to write a review on this book because it covers so many different topics: how we care for our senior citizens, how doctors deliver devastating and life-ending news to patients, and how medicine has improved life and how it has also failed mostly in how we care for our seniors at the end of life.
“A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
The series and this book showcase how two police detectives caught the Colorado serial rapist while demonstrating what first responders should and shouldn’t do with victims of sexual assault.
For myself, I was told that ‘a lot of women drink too much and then cry rape later’. That was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever heard from an officer. I freely admit that it discouraged me from following up or moving forward with what happened to me.
“Only about one-fifth of women contact police after they’ve been raped, according to national surveys. The stigma of the crime remains a serious barrier to speaking out. Women are afraid that friends or family might discover what happened. Or they are afraid of not being taken seriously.”T. Christian Miller, Ken Armstrong
A guide from start to finish regarding everything you need to know to travel the human body. This book is very clever with Bryson’s traditional wit and charm included in each chapter. He offers loads of facts, data, and trivia for readers.
Bryson is one of the world’s best known travel guides. It’s clear now he can guide us through anything. The Body: A Guide for Occupants should be required reading for all of us. Perhaps it would help people better understand basic science that we all need to know.
WASH YOUR HANDS!
To make one’s hands safely clean after a medical examination requires thorough washing with soap and water for at least a full minute—a standard that is, in practical terms, all but unattainable for anyone dealing with lots of patients. It is a big part of the reason why every year some two million Americans pick up a serious infection in the hospital (and ninety thousand of them die of it). “The greatest difficulty,” Atul Gawande has written, “is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands.”Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants
The bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco in 1900 and raged through San Francisco’s Chinatown for four years. It was the first plague epidemic in the continental United States. California’s governor, Henry Gage, denied the existence of the plague for two years. This allowed the plague to spread.
“It appears that the ‘commercial interests’ of San Francisco are more dear to the inhabitants than the preservation of human life,” he wrote in a long letter to a friend in Washington.David K. Randall
What does it take to become an astronaut? Colonel Chris Hadfield lays it all out out for us from start to finish, detailing the lengths he went to to become the first Canadian astronaut in space and all the mistakes and lessons he learned along the way.
Each chapter is a lesson that we can use in our own lives. There are plenty of chapters in his book, but these are the ones that stuck out to me as being most relevant:
- Being Prepared
- Handling Criticism
- Aim to be a zero!
“It’s about keeping your team focused on the goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”On Leadership, Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
A remarkable historical account of leadership and loyalty during a brutal period in time. I see why it is a finalist for non fiction.
I enjoyed learning about family and the personal relationships included in this novel. There is a lot to take in and think about.
“The speech set a pattern that he would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism. “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour,” he said. “It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.”Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
What an incredible wild ride and an absolute beast of a book! Montefiore covers the Romanov line of tsars from 1613 to 1917. That’s 300+ years of history in a single 784-page novel.
The cast of characters is colorful and wow, Russian history – incredible. I can’t think of a single topic that wasn’t covered and that didn’t affect the family. Sadistic rulers, sex scandals, conspiracy, murder, dancing dwarves, bad health, the building of armies, unbelievable acts of torture, backstabbing family members, lots of sex, and a lot of violence and drama – but I’d expect nothing less from The Romanovs.
“Power is always personal: any study of a Western democratic leader today reveals that, even in a transparent system with its short periods in office, personalities shape administrations. Democratic leaders often rule through trusted retainers instead of official ministers. In any court, power is as fluid as human personality.”Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs 1613-1918
Here is the rest of my non-fiction list of books for 2020
Enjoy! And don’t forget to add me on GoodReads!
Science, Technology, and Health
- Unstoppable: Harnessing Science To Change The World by Bill Nye
- Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zhuboff
History and Law
- Stonewall by Martin Duberman
- Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alxievich
- A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell
- Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac
- Tarot by Mary Packard
- Factfulness by Hans Rosling
Women’s Studies and Feminism
- The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West
- Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne
- Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
- Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas
- Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Mayhem in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
- Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule
- If You Tell by Gregg Olsen
- The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
- The Dark Heart: A True Story of Greed, Murder, and an Unlikely Investigator by Joakim Palmkvist
Autobiographies, Biographies and Memoirs
My top 10 biographies in 2020
- Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
- Somebody To Love: The Life and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne
- Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
- Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
- Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton
- Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life by Donald Spato
- Open Book by Jessica Simpson
- Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
- The Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough
- Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me by Howie Mandel
- Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
- Out of the Silence: After the Crash by Eduardo Strauch
- Epic Solitude by Katherine Keith
- Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home by Nando Parrado
- Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl by Virginia Lee Barnes
- Engineering the Human Mind: An American Teacher in China by Loretta Li Ming Bedford
- The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
- Me: Stories of My Life by Katherine Hepburn
- Between a Heart and a Rock Place by Pat Benatar
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