Best of 2018: Non-fiction Books

It’s that time of year again! I always love taking December to reflect on the things I’ve loved most throughout the year and sharing them with you all. It’s an excellent way for me to see what I needed and connected with in the past year and use that knowledge to better understand myself and my growth and it gives you something to look back on in the future and remember the person you were. As always, these are just the things that stuck out to me the most. It’s a blend of what I thought was exceptional and things that resonated with me. This year, I read a lot more books than usual and watched a little less TV, so I’m doing more book posts and fewer TV posts. My book lists will go up on Sundays, TV lists on Thursdays and I hope you’ll join me in sharing some of your own favorites from the year – I’m always looking for recommendations.

It was a fantastic year of nonfiction for me. I definitely have strong preferences on the types of books I’m likely to pick up – typically memoirs/biographies or anything that examines societal systems – and that shows in this list. I loved reading about so many incredible women, some familiar and some unfamiliar to me, and am excited to continue that trend in 2019.

1. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor Regardless of your interest in the law or Supreme Court, you should read this memoir. I didn’t know anything about Justice Sotomayor before reading this and now I’m hoping she writes a follow up after she retires (which will hopefully not be for many years). I love her measured but still approachable writing style, it suits someone in her position and with her predisposition to look at systems and the world holistically. I love the sense of community that fills this book, from her biological family to the extended network of people she has come to know and count as her own. We see the people who helped shape her and the value she places in human connection. Her comfort with complexities and contradictions in people and understanding that success and mistakes need not be exclusive make her an extraordinary judge and seemingly a terrific person to know and have in your corner. It is a beautiful look at an extraordinary life that has lead to extraordinary achievement.  

2. Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister Realistically, I was always going to like this book. Rebecca Traister’s previous book All the Single Ladies was one of my favorite nonfiction books last year and the subject matter of this book immediately appealed to me. Even with high expectations, this book managed to surpass them. It was exactly what I needed to read at this particular moment in time. I am always going to be interested in historical and sociological looks at the construction of culture and the world we’ve built and Traister’s writing consistently draws me in. But I also appreciated the commitment to intersectionality and the impact race makes on the expression and perceived acceptability of anger (and the way it can mitigate anger if you’re closer to power).  Overall, It inspired me and made me feel hopeful for a future in which more women embrace their anger and use it to fuel change. We don’t have a shortage of things to be mad about these days but we do have plenty we can do to use that anger to better ourselves and bring about the future we want, even if we’re not the ones who directly benefit.

3. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine My degree is in social psychology with a focus on gender and sexuality, this book is just about perfectly tailored to my academic interests. So take that as a declaration of all the bias and external knowledge that I brought to my reading of this book. It is smartly researched, easy to follow and understand, and a wonderful look at the complicated ways biology and society contribute to our understanding of gender and upholding of gender roles and rules big and small. Most excitingly to me, she talks about some of the failures of science in the way we research gender. We cannot separate the work we do from the world in which we live. As researchers, we bring our own set of biases to our experiments and reporting, and that is something that is absolutely critical to keep in mind when talking about something like gender that affects the real experiences of people outside of a laboratory setting. It fit so well with my worldview that I can’t be at all objective about its merits but if this is an interest of yours, I would wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try.  

4. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo If you’re looking to be better as a person and to start having difficult discussions about race that we’ve historically found it easier to avoid, this is the book for you. It’s undeniable that we have a lot of work to do as a country and often as individuals in the way we conceptualize and talk about the effects of race in daily life and the burden for changing that cannot solely rest on people of color. This book offers both explanation and a set of tools that we can use to do better going forward than we have in the past. Ijeoma Oluo’s writing is clear and direct, which many already knew from past essays, but is also easily accessible for people less familiar with some of the language of social justice or concepts like intersectionality. It may not always be comfortable to read, but as Oluo mentions, we need to learn to sit with our discomfort sometimes in order to create real and meaningful change.

5. Becoming by Michelle Obama I already loved Michelle Obama so it was no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved learning about her childhood and the things that shaped and drove her, I loved learning about the way she fell for her husband, I loved her reflection on her time in the White House, and most of all, I loved her passion. You could feel the things that matter to her whether it was something personal, like her family, or political, like the initiatives she started as First Lady. She is a woman who cares deeply even as she’s naturally cautious about how much she shares, after having spent years with people who even now are all too eager to attempt to use her words against her. It made me cry in places and made me miss the kind of leadership and dedication to the people of this country the Obamas brought to the White House and ready to see what the next phase of this remarkable woman’s life will bring.

6. We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union I loved everything about this memoir. Gabrielle Union’s writing style is so intimate, it really does feel more like a conversation about her life. She shares things she wishes her younger self would have known, offers advice to her readers, and opens up about her life in a way that feels very genuine. She doesn’t shy away from harder topics, like growing up Black in a predominantly white area, her rape, her fertility struggles, and the reality of helping raise her young Black stepsons in a world where she can’t feel sure they’ll always make it home while also talking upon lighter things like attempting to cure a yeast infection when famous and it feels like all eyes are on you. It’s laid out perfectly to read a chapter at a time but if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to keep going.

7. Crash Override by Zoe Quinn I wouldn’t have known this book existed if it weren’t for the 2018 Hugo Awards. Written by the woman around whom GamerGate was centered, Zoe Quinn shared her perspective on what it was like to be the focus of so much hate and targeted harassment and shared what can and should be done going forward. It was a look at the internet, both the good and bad sides, and how it is not separate from the “real world” as many have tried to claim but rather an extension of our offline world. It talks about the failure of law enforcement to address targeted harassment and protect its victims and our current lack of academic research and knowledge to start dealing with these issues in a real way. It’s a guide and plea to fix what it broken in the way we communicate online and make it closer to the ideal form that many who have found community and a home thanks to the connection it provides know it can be.

8. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore I will be among the first to admit that my history knowledge is not great but I had never heard of these women and their role in the early 20th century until this book was published last year. What I most appreciate about this book was the way Kate Moore put the women and their lives first and foremost. She talks about their personalities and their families and never lets us lose sight of the fact that these were real women. What they managed to accomplish for workplace safety and those who came after them was hugely important, but it came at a sharp physical and emotional price. It’s a celebration of their strength and convictions, along with the courage and tenacity of those who helped them in their fight, and a rebuke of the system that cared more about profit than people (which is still all too familiar nearly a century later). It was a fascinating look at a topic I was unfamiliar with and a touching tribute to these women who are largely unremembered.

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Our understanding of cancer, a cure for polio, and advances in in-vitro fertilization wouldn’t be what they are if it weren’t for Henrietta Lacks but prior to this book coming out, few had ever heard of her. Rebecca Skloot has helped bring her story to life, not just the cells that have contributed so much to science, but her history and the current lives of her children as well. The HeLa cells provided so much and yet they were only made possible because of a system that valued Lacks less because of her race and class. You get the sense that Skloot truly grew to care about the Lacks family, particularly Deborah, and that the answers she was able to help them obtain made a difference, however small in their lives. She couldn’t undo the lack of compensation or offer any justice but her interest in her story (and most importantly, the recognition that Henrietta Lacks was a person before she was a collection of cells) provided answers to questions others hadn’t been willing to answer. This is the sort of intimate, focused history book that I love and it’s well worth a read.

10. Nasty Women by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding (eds) You have to love what a terrific collection of women they got to contribute to this book. Written after the 2016 election, these essays talk about personal experiences during the campaign and election as they navigated their personal and political worlds, what to do going forward, and how we can protect our rights and those more vulnerable than ourselves in this era of history. Many of these women were familiar names thanks to books and essays they’ve written or their presence on Twitter, some were brand new to me but there is something to be gained from each perspective and essay. While it may already be a little outdated because we cannot escape this unending news cycle of a political system, it’s an excellent look at where we were a year ago that can still offer advice on where we go from here.

Honorable Mentions: The Poisoned City by Anna Clark, Fifty Million Rising by Saadia Zahidi, and All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

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