The best books were able to satisfy our wandering minds in an age when trying new things was still rare. This collection of works by both well-known and new writers covers a variety of topics such as Black history in America, Russian short stories from 19th-century Russia and the pain of losing a child. There are powerful essays, compelling memoirs, and insightful literary criticism. They are a source of curiosity and inspiration, and their diversity makes them a blessing. The top 10 non-fiction books in 2021 are listed here.
10. Kissing Bug, Daisy Hernández
If Daisy HernándezWhen she was young, her aunt travelled from Colombia to America in search for a remedy for her mysterious stomach condition. Growing up, Hernández believed her aunt had become sick from eating an apple; it wasn’t until decades later that she learned more about Chagas disease. As Hernández describes in her deftly reported book, Chagas—transmitted by “kissing bugs” that carry the parasite that causes it—This infectious disease affects thousands of Americans, most of them poor Latin American immigrants. She traces the history of Chagas and the lives most impacted by it, offering a nuanced and empathetic look into the intersections of poverty, racism and the U.S. health care system.
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9. The Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard
She is an early forest ecologist and her book was her debut. Suzanne SimardShe combines her own personal story with those of the trees that she has studied for years. The Mother TreeThe book is comprehensive, yet personal. Simard explores both her fascination with trees and the challenges of working in a male-dominated field. Her passion for the subject at the book’s center is palpable on every page, coalescing into an urgent call to embrace our connection with the earth and do whatever we can to protect it.
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8. The Copenhagen TrilogyTove Ditlevsen
Original publication in three books in Danish, 1967-1971 The Copenhagen TrilogyThis is the artist’s heartbreaking story, now in one volume. This is a brutally honest and precise description of an artist. Tove Ditlevsen reflects on her life, from her turbulent youth during Hitler’s rise to power to her discovery of poetry and later to the dissolution of her multiple marriages. Although the tale was published decades ago, it captures the complexity of womenhood.
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7. Take a dip in the rainy pondGeorge Saunders
George Saunders is deeply familiar with the 19th-century Russian short story—he’s been teaching a class on the subject to M.F.A. students for two decades. To highlight the value of fiction in modern life, he presents his syllabus and analyzes seven classic works from Tolstoy, Chekhov, and others. This is a world full of distractions. Take a dip in the rainy pond demands the reader’s attention. Saunders begins by breaking down a story line by line—in less thoughtful hands, this exercise would be draining, but Saunders infuses so much heart into the practice that instead it is simply fun.
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6. Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe
From the author of the 2019 best seller Speak NothingWhich delved into Northern Ireland during Troubles. Empire of PainIt is a fascinating investigation into the three generations of Sackler families. Patrick Radden KeefeExplore the Sacklers, and their notorious fortune. They made it by marketing and producing a painkiller which became the driver of the opioid crisis. It’s a sweeping account of a family’s outsize impact on the world—and a dogged work of reporting that showcases the horrific implications of greed.
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5.Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu
Born in Tanzania but raised throughout the world from England to Italy and Ethiopia. Nadia OwusuNever felt that she fit in anywhere. In her aching memoir, she embarks on a tour de force examination of her childhood, marked first by her mother’s abandoning her when she was a toddler and later by the death of her beloved father. ThroughOwusu examines the places and people that have shaped her. She then takes the pieces from her own life to help make sense. She writes with lyrical, lush prose. Her intimate explorations of identity, family, and home are incisive and powerful.
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4. The Word is PassedClint Smith
A discussion ensues about the history that students should study. Clint Smith a poet and journalist, takes readers across the U.S.—from the Monticello plantation in Virginia to a maximum-security prison in Louisiana—to underline the legacy of slavery and how it has shaped the country. The result, longlisted for the National Book Award, is an insightful dissection of the relationship between memory, history and America’s ongoing reckoning with its past.
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3. Invisible Child, Andrea Elliott
For almost a decade, reporter Andrea ElliottThe coming-of age of Dasani, a young girl who had lived for the majority of her life in the New York City shelter system, was fascinating to watch. Dasani’s existence is full of contradictions—her Brooklyn shelter is just blocks away from some of the borough’s most expensive real estate—and Elliott is relentless in her efforts to capture them all. In exact and searing detail, she places Dasani’s story alongside the larger issues of inequality, homelessness and racism in the city and more broadly the U.S.
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2. H Mart – Crying, Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner was just 25 when her mother, a terminally ill woman, diagnosed her with cancer. That illness and her mother’s eventual death shattered Zauner’s sense of self—and forced her to re-evaluate her relationship with her Korean culture. Zauner, in her memoir, seeks answers to questions about her childhood and reflects on her mom’s cooking. The memories associated with these dishes—jatjuk, gimbap, galbi—push the narrative along, and it’s food that becomes such a heartbreaking marker of her mother’s decline, particularly when chemotherapy makes it too difficult for her to eat. Remarkably sincere and written with animated language H Mart – Crying This is an eloquent and tragic portrait of a mother-daughter relationship and their shared life.
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1. America: A Little DevilHanif Abdurraqib
Finalist in the National Book Award Hanif Abdurraqib’s work of cultural criticism is an astonishing accounting of Black performance. Abdurraqib’s essays are full of quick prose and cover everything, from Whitney Houston’s rise to schoolyard brawls. He is also a poet and seamlessly blends pop culture references, U.S history, and tales from his childhood. The connections that he makes between these stories—both small and large, intimate and collective—point to the enduring influence of Black art. The book is both essential and bold, but he covers a lot of ground effortlessly with wit.
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