This year's great non-fiction books that will make you think

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Some of the new non-fiction books released this year.
Some of the new non-fiction books released this year.

Ray Bradbury once wrote that books are dangerous because reading them can lead you to change your mind. That danger is also what makes a good book such a delight 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 always, I avoid tyranny of the alphabet by presenting in random order, concluding with my choice for best nonfiction book of the year:

  • Andrea G. McDowell, We the Miners: Self-Government in the California Gold Rush. A useful corrective to the traditional view that what kept order in the mining towns was the threat of violence. The author is even-handed but not starry-eyed.  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? A serving Air Force officer asks us to grapple with a tough ethical question our public debate generally ignores. Chapa, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford and works on artificial intelligence, is clearly troubled by his own conclusions. In a crowded year, an overlooked gem.
  • Taylor Harris, This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown. Heart-wrenching stories of personal struggle are not my usual cup of tea, but Harris won me over, both for the novelistic intensity of her story and the power of her prose.
  • Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The Invention of Power: Popes, Kings, and the Birth of the West. Those much-maligned 12th-century concordats between medieval rulers and the Roman Catholic Church might have contributed to explosive economic growth and helped spur the development of parliamentary democracy.
  • Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World. In my experience, books aimed at helping managers do their jobs better tend to be long on anecdotes and short on data. But this one is different — and not only because there’s data aplenty. The authors have spotted a glaring weakness in the corporate model, the persistent mismatch between what a company needs and how it hires. And don’t worry: There’s advice too.
  • Sabine Hossenfelder, Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. As the title promises, the author uses physics to consider several existential conundrums. For instance: Do we 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. A thoughtful history of the long effort by elites to regulate human behavior without first troubling to learn much about how humans 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 gives us an eye-opening tale of the greed and corruption but also diplomacy and ingenuity involved in creating the system now taken for granted.
  • David Hackett Fisher, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals. The title states the thesis. 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? Are they sure?

  • Finally, my selection of the best nonfiction book in a year where excellence abounds:

    • Pekka Hämäläinen, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America. A magisterial contribution to recent efforts to rewrite the history of North America from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples who dominated most of the continent long after the Europeans laid claim to the land. 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 Lisle Carter is an American law professor at Yale University

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