Ray Bradbury once stated that books are dangerous as they can cause you to change your mind. It is this danger that makes a book so delightful to read. In compiling this year’s list of the best nonfiction, I’ve borne Bradbury’s admonition in mind. The volumes I’ve chosen all made me stop and rethink something I thought I understood.
As usual, I avoid the tyranny and monotony of the alphabet by presenting my choices in random order. Then, I end with my pick for best nonfiction book.
— Andrea G. McDowell, “We the Miners: Self-Government in the California Gold Rush.” This is a useful correction to the old view that violence was what kept order in mining towns. Although the author is fair-minded, she is not blind. Particularly chilling are her accounts of the “punitive” raids against the Indigenous people, expeditions even dissenters were expected to join.
— Joseph O. Chapa, “Is Remote Warfare Moral?” An Air Force officer challenges us to tackle a difficult ethical question that the public debate often ignores. Chapa, a philosopher and artificial intelligence researcher from Oxford, is clearly disturbed by his own conclusions. A hidden gem in an otherwise busy year.
— Taylor Harris, “This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown.” Harris’s stories of personal struggle and heartbreaking moments are not my usual cup. However, Harris won me over for her novelistic intensity as well as her powerful prose.
— Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, “The Invention of Power: Popes, Kings, and the Birth of the West.” The much-maligned concordats of 12th century between medieval rulers, the Roman Catholic Church and their successors might have contributed to rapid economic growth and sparked the development and use of parliamentary democracy.
— Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World.” My experience is that books designed to help managers do their jobs better are often filled with anecdotes but not enough data. But this one is different — and not only because there’s data aplenty. The authors discovered a serious weakness in corporate models, namely the mismatch between what companies need and how they hire. And don’t worry: There’s advice too.
— Sabine Hossenfelder, “Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.” The author, as the title suggests, uses physics to examine a variety of existential dilemmas. Is it possible to live in a simulation? The notion is “more appealing the less you know about physics.” Does the universe think? Um, maybe.
— Fernanda Pirie, “The Rule of Laws: The 4,000 Year Quest to Order the World.” This is a thoughtful account of the long-term effort by elites in order to regulate human behavior, without first bothering to learn about how people behave. (A close second that overlaps in some ways is Lorraine Daston, “Rules: A Short History of What We Live By.”)
— Oliver Roeder, “Seven Games: A Human History.” Despite the title, the book isn’t really about the history of checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge. It invites the reader to watch with trepidation as, one by one, they’re solved by AI. Along the way, we discover that large chunks of human “knowledge” about the games is simply wrong.
— Jing Tsu, “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern.” A riveting tale of the efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing technological and economic international order the traditional script “that had grown up in tandem with the Chinese people over the millennia, enriched their individual lives and experiences, their thoughts and struggles with reality.”
— Lucy Sante, “Nineteen Reservoirs: On Their Creation and the Promise of Water for New York City.” The city’s tap water is widely regarded as the finest in the country. But construction of the reservoirs displaced upstate communities, a fact about which the city, with its growing thirst, didn’t care. Sante shares a shocking tale of corruption, greed, diplomacy, and ingenuity in the creation of the system that is now considered a given.
— David Hackett Fisher, “African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals.” The thesis is stated in the title. But let’s put the author’s point in contemporary terms: Do the Duttons of “Yellowstone” know where cowboying as a way of life came from? Is it possible?
Finally, here’s my pick for the best nonfiction book of the year.
— Pekka Hämäläinen, “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America.” This is a magisterial contribution that recent efforts to rewrite North America’s history from the perspective of the native peoples who ruled most of the continent long before the Europeans claimed it. Hämäläinen details the many tools — diplomatic, economic, legal and finally violent — that the actual occupants employed to resist the colonial imperative: “The colonists clamored for more and more land, and war could make Indian lands theirs far faster than written deeds could.”
I promise I don’t only read serious books. This year, for example, I also enjoyed Brian Butterworth’s “Can Fish Count? What Animals Reveal About Our Uniquely Mathematical Minds,” Ellen Jovin’s “Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian” and Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song” — even if I didn’t grow up worshiping Dylan the way so many of my generation did.
Whatever books you read next year, somber or lighthearted, I hope you’ll choose some that will make you stop and rethink.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”