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Best Nonfiction Reading in 2023

Image: Adrian Vamanu

Continuing my Best Reading Discoveries of 2023 with nonfiction. In upcoming posts I’ll feature books on film, theology, and maybe more. As with my fiction list, the following books are presented in order of publication.


Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World (1997) Nancy Goldstone, Lawrence Goldstone

If you love books, I don’t have to sell you on Used and Rare. A fun read for anyone interested in book buying and/or collecting. If you haven’t it, you’re welcome in advance. (And there’s also a sequel.)

Many thanks to my friend Alison M. for recommending this book, which has already proved extremely valuable. If you’re considering writing a nonfiction book, you must read Thinking Like Your Editor. The section on writing a book proposal by itself is worth the price of the book.

A College Unique and Universal (2006) Eva Brann

If you’re a lover of books and don’t know about St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, you should investigate that right now. (If I had it all over to do again, I would do everything I could to go to school at St. John's.) Or read this short book, a long essay which was first published in 2006, then given an apparently small print run. Eva Brann, a legendary tutor at St. John’s for decades, has written extensively, but this is probably the best place to start with her work. The book is difficult to track down at a reasonable price, but you can read it in its entirely here. Highly recommended.

I originally read this nine years ago, which seems more like 20 or 30 years ago. Rereading it, I wish I had implemented more of what picked up the first time, but being in a different season of life, the book connected with me more during this read. Essentialism is a book I now plan to read at least once a year.

I never knew this existed, and I still can’t get over it. Southern writer Eudora Welty and detective novelist Ross Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) carried on correspondence between Mississippi and California with real letters for many years. This book is bursting with life, love, sadness, and celebration.

My knowledge of science and mathematics is average at best, but I always enjoy well-written biographies of anyone who has achieved something incredible, even if the person who achieved them seems to be superhuman. Yet it's rare to find such a book showcasing someone who was clearly brilliant in his chosen field written by an author who can make the science/math understandable for the layman. This book was enjoyable and enlightening.

Disclaimer: If you aren’t a fan of statistics, stay far away from this book. But even if you loathe statistics, you should at least give this book a try. If nothing else, Smil is a realist, easily able to poke holes in your ideas that we should immediately restructure how we think about energy, power, food production, and more.

How to Inhabit Time (2022) James K. A. Smith

I’ll have more to say about this book in my Discoveries in Theology post coming soon. In the meantime, let me say that I’ll read anything by James K. A. Smith. Even if you’re not a Christian, this book will give you plenty to think about.

G-Man won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography for several reasons. It’s meticulously researched, well-written, and paced in such a way that you tend to forget it’s over 800 pages long.

If you listen to the audiobook version, you’ll hear sections of several Connie Converse songs. If you read the book, I encourage you to find some of these songs online and listen to them. Once is not enough. The first time through, especially if you’re familiar of the folk music scene in mid-century New York, you might think, “This is really nice.” The second time through, you’ll no doubt respond, “This is musically different from most of the other folk music I’ve heard.” The third time, focusing on the lyrics, you’ll realize you’ve stumbled upon something no one else was doing at the time. And this is just the beginning. A fascinating book.

The Little Book of Aliens (2023) Adam Frank

You might think from the title that this is going to be either a spoof, a farce, or a read so inane it’s not worth your time, but it’s none of those things. While the author (a physicist and an astronomer) doesn’t take himself seriously, he does take his subject seriously, taking a scientific but fun look at the possibility of life on other planets including a serious (and sometimes not-so-serious) look at UFOs.

Honorable Mentions:

This is a wonderful journey through the culture of Mississippi and its literary legacy through poetry and prose, yet it also includes some tremendous photography. Anyone interested in literature - especially of the South - should seek this book out.

One of the (many) projects I have reserved for my retirement is a study of art. Although my background is in music, much of what I discovered in this book translates to the art world, but not in a one-to-one correspondence. I see this book as an appetizer to a larger banquet of art.

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon (2021) Paul Simon, Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Headlam, narrators

Miracle and Wonder is a book that can only be experienced as an audiobook, but you should definitely check it out. I wrote more about the book in a blog post called “Can You Relate?”

Although technically not a film book, Dark Carnivals frequently points to movies to make its case for how realistic horror has influenced not only the movies we watch and the books we read, but also the American psyche. I’m eager to read this one again soon.

I know you’ve heard “History that reads like a thriller” so many times you’re sick of it, but A Fever in the Heartland is just that. This book accounted for one of the liveliest discussions ever at the Guys Book Club earlier this year.

And now, please share the nonfiction books you enjoyed this year:

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