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Best non fiction books of 2019 for contrarians and the curious

2019 was a good year for books that made one think — from Steven Strogatz's take on the powers of calculus to Tyler Kepner's account of the history of baseball.

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One reason I love books is that there are some arguments and ideas that simply cannot be presented in a couple of thousand words, to say nothing of being squeezed into social media posts. The year 2019 was a particularly good one for books that made me think. No, I don’t read every book the industry has to offer, but I do peruse hundreds each year. Below are my 15 favorites from the twelve months just past, all of them serious efforts. I by no means agree with every point made by every author, but each work on this list fully engaged me, and, in some way, caused me to see the world a little differently.

To avoid the tyranny of the alphabet, the first 14 are listed in random order. At the end is my pick for best nonfiction book of the year.

  • Steven Strogatz, “Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe” — An argument that we underestimate the extent to which the modern world is built on mathematics in general, and calculus in particular. Delightfully written, with only a handful of difficult concepts. (And you’ll also learn how to calculate the speed of light while sitting at home … by using cheese.)
  • Orlando Patterson, “The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament” — Everybody wonders what makes Jamaica so different. The prominent Harvard sociologist dares to ask. Dares to answer, too. (Bonus: A meditation on the transubstantive value of cricket.)
  • Tyler Cowen, “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero” — My fellow Bloomberg Opinion columnist makes the list for a second year in a row because for a second year in a row he has made me think hard about an issue where I would have expected to be on the other side. (I’m not anti-capitalist; I just tend to celebrate small business.)

Also read: Why do we think the way we think? These 10 books could help explain


  • Gretchen McCulloch, “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language” — The lifelong, unrepentant Grammar Curmudgeon in me keeps lamenting the state of the language. Best to know where the changes are coming from. McCulloch diligently, if tragically, traces the evolution from Old Internet (say, the OK Boomer crowd) to New Internet. Particularly good on how social media has made informal rather than formal writing the cultural norm.
  • Dan Moller, “Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism” — From the stunningly lucid first line to the homey examples (restaurants, sand castles), this is the best book on libertarian philosophy in years. Moller manages to walk the thin line of favoring self-reliance (and neighborliness) without going Ayn Rand on us.
  • Akiko Busch, “How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency” — An engaging guide to both the philosophy and methodology of what the author calls “slipping out of the picture.” Busch combines history, science, and her own joy in nature as she argues for resisting the lure of crowds and fame but even of awareness of self. (Never have the thirty seconds before medical sedation kicks in been made to seem quite so vividly attractive.)
  • Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South” — It turns out that white women on the plantation were not helpless, passive spectators in the slaveocracy. They were active participants in the oppression, and in many cases they behaved more cruelly than the men toward the human beings they owned.
  • Harold Bloom, “Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism” — The famed literary critic, who died this past October, wrote more books than most people in middle age have had birthdays. Here he leads us on a fascinating journey through the great poetry and prose to which he devoted his many decades of brilliance, using everything from Shakespeare to the Bible to May Swenson to reflect on his life – and to teach us home truths about ours.
  • Antonin Scalia, “On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer” — Whatever your views on the late justice’s jurisprudence, there is much to be learned from this collection of writings by him and about him. He was a fine prose stylist, and is quite strong and sharp on such issues as why it’s important to resist the urge to try to model government on the Bible.
  • Tyler Kepner, “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” — I’ve been a fan and amateur historian of the game since I was young, but I somehow never realized how absorbing baseball’s history would look if viewed as a series of changes over time in the way the ball is thrown to the batter.
  • Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration” — The title says it all. I devoted a column earlier this year to this excellent book, an extended argument in the form of a graphic novel. Don’t expect to be persuaded; do expect to be forced to rethink.
  • Tom Holland, “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World”— The historian argues that even as the West grows more avowedly secular, our ethical positions, right up to #MeToo, are deeply imbued with a Christian view of the moral world.
  • Robert MacFarlane, “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” — It’s a cliché but still true: The story grabs you and never lets go. MacFarlane, an inveterate chronicler of geography, leads us through the caverns and depths beneath the surface of the globe – and also through the caverns and depths of literature, of our own souls, and perhaps of our future as well. Never have I thought so deeply about what lies far below our feet.
  • Tom Nicholas, “VC: An American History” — Whatever your view of venture capitalists, it’s worth studying where they came from. I had a vague familiarity with the role of U.S. postwar policy in the creation of the species, but I learned a lot more from Nicholas. And I’d never thought about their precursors in the old whaling industry!

Finally, my choice for best nonfiction of the year:

  • Jane Brox, “Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives” – I have a confession to make. Until I picked up this volume, it had never occurred to me that silence had a history. But it does, both as concept and as practice. Brox makes use principally of two examples: the monastery and the penitentiary. We see how the rule of silence helped build the scholarly and reflective aspects of the monastic life but became a tool of oppression to the imprisoned. Also, a nice bit on how today’s constant sense of the passage of time is ruinous to the need for quiet.

That’s this year’s list. As always, happy reading.


Also read: In era of Chetan Bhagat, Netflix & Twitter celebrity, the undiscovered author has lost


 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for your recommendations. One more addition from my side: ‘The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter’ by Prof. Paul J. Steinhardt might complete the list.

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