Nonfiction November Week 1: My Year in Nonfiction

It’s hard to believe it’s already November! But that means it’s time for Nonfiction November. This is my second year participating. I’m looking forward to discovering lots of new bloggers, and to sharing some of my favorite books too.

Rennie at What’s Nonfiction is hosting the first week. The topic is:

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

I’ll start with the topics I’ve been reading about in the past year, picking two or three favorites from each category. It might look scattered, but I prefer to think of it as diverse!

I continue to be interested in the environment and sustainability as I have for the last couple of years. In the past year I’ve read:

  • Bill Gates shows us How To Avoid a Climate Disaster. It’s a matter of reducing our annual carbon emissions from 51 billion tons to zero. The challenge is daunting but doable.
  • Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard will forever change the way you look at forests, and more importantly, at what’s happening in the ground beneath them.
  • Rewilding by Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe describes a radical approach to restoring the Earth’s ecosystem functioning and resilience. Some exciting new ideas here.

Science and technology is the next category, and this year my reading has included:

  • Walter Isaacson’s latest biography, The Code Breaker, which tells the fascinating story of Nobel laureate Jennifer Daudna and the development of CRISPR gene editing technology.
  • In Twitter and Tear Gas, sociologist and journalist Zeynep Tufekci looks at the strengths and limitations of social media for organizing protest movements.

I’ve also continued to read about social issues such as racism and misogyny over the past twelve months. Here are three powerful and eye-opening books:

  • Caste by Isobel Wilkerson looks at racism in American society from a different angle — as a caste system that’s been established since well before the founding of the country. 
  • The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is about “drained pool politics”, how racism harms and impoverishes so much of American society, including whites.
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez examines how our male-dominated world suffers from a massive data gap that renders women invisible and causes women incalculable harm and suffering.

In the history section, it’s a bit of a grab-bag this year:

  • Sapiens, the highly acclaimed book – and deservedly so – by Yuval Noah Harari. A sweeping look at the past 70,000 years of human history. Sparkling brilliance.
  • Why Nations Fail.  Why are some nations prosperous and others poor? According to Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, it’s because of their political and economic institutions. Not an easy read, but very informative.
  • A Promised Land by Barack Obama. The first volume of his presidential memoirs covering his early life up to the first two years of his Presidency. OK, call it contemporary history. Whether you’re interested in politics, history, civil rights, leadership, management, psychology, or the minutiae of campaigning, you’ll find plenty to interest you.

Finally, somewhat by accident I’ve read several books this year about thinking. How to think critically, more clearly or more long term.  My two favorites in this category are:

  • Think Again by Adam Grant. Instead of thinking like preachers, prosecutors, or politicians, which we do when we have strongly held opinions, Grant argues it’s better to think like a scientist.
  • Carl T. Bergstrom & Jevin D. West actually taught a course titled Calling Bullshit at the University of Washington. Now they’ve turned it into a book about how detect and refute bullshit, er, that is, how to be a critical thinker.

The book I’ve recommended most this year has been Bill Gates’ How to Avoid A Climate Disaster. As I write this, COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, is underway in Glasgow. It’s just so critically important that we start to seriously tackle climate change. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is the clearest and most straightforward explanation of the climate crisis I’ve ever read. Gates lays out the enormous and unparalleled challenges we face. Yet he’s optimistic about our chances of success and he presents ambitious yet plausible proposals for how to solve the problem.

Cover of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

And my favorite book so far this year is also from the environment category. It’s Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree. Beautifully written, it’s part memoir and part science. It’s about connectedness. It turns out that trees, and many other plants, are connected to the soil and to each other by complex underground networks of fungi. Through this network they help and support each other. If we can save our forests, they might just save us.

Thanks for reading.

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29 Responses to Nonfiction November Week 1: My Year in Nonfiction

  1. I’m definitely interested in reading Finding the Mother Tree. Thank you for the recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Warmth of Other Suns was my favorite nonfiction read this year – better late than never, right?! Now I MUST read Caste in 2022.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read it yet (it’s on my tbr pile) but if you loved Finding the Mother Tree then I think you might really like Entangled Life as well –

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Finding the Mother Tree sounds wonderful!! I will have to add it to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So many people have been reading about nature this year! Finding the Mother Tree might just push me over the edge to actually read a nature book! That Bill Gates book sounds really timely but I have such climate change anxiety that I can’t even read about it.
    I loved Caste, have you already read The Warmth of Other Suns? Invisible Women sounds like something I would read, going to add that to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Katz says:

      You’re the second person to recommend The Warmth of Other Suns, so I guess I’m going to have to read it soon.

      Bill Gates is cautiously optimistic, and he breaks the problem down into separate parts which makes it easier to understand and a little bit less overwhelming. And Finding the Mother Tree is really wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    Lovely to see Rewilding and Invisible Women in there, both 2020 reads for me (I think). Enjoy your Nonfiction November!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. After some real nonsense nonfiction book experiences this past year I am all about the critical thinking skills! I have added Calling Bullsh*t to my TBR.

    I hope you enjoy NFN!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Katz says:

      It’s a good one. It is mostly about detecting quantitative BS though, because the authors are scientists. Like I said in my review, it’s less about helping you dissect politicians’ BS. I hope you enjoy it.


  8. I also have The Code Breaker, what a book!
    Your list reminds me of all the great recent books on trees I need to read.
    My list is here

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I added Invisible Women to my list last year and I’m annoyed I still haven’t found time to read it. I’m currently furious at my (Australian) government’s refusal to make Zero emissions a priority. I’ll be adding Gates book to my TBR, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. Okay, this does it. I’m officially going to follow your blog. 🙂 I’ve read many of these same books and loved them too, so I’ll definitely listen to your opinion on the others now.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I love how broadly it’s possible to read within nonfiction! The Code Breaker was one of my favorites this year and I’d also like to get to the other book you read on science and tech. I’ve heard not great things about Bill Gates’s foray into writing about climate change from people on twitter who actually work in climate change, but I’m afraid I don’t have the expertise to evaluate his book myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Katz says:

      Gates could be wrong about some of the details and he’s definitely biased towards technological approaches, but I found his overall framework really helpful. I confess I tend to stay off Twitter 🙂


  14. Wow, your nonfiction reading has been SO varied this year! All of the nature books you posted sound great, especially Finding the Mother Tree. I’ve seen The Code Breaker on a lot of Nonfiction November posts so far, it sounds so worthwhile. Invisible Women and A Promised Land were both among my favorites this year 🙂

    Calling Bullshit also sounds great, and so important, especially right now. Adding that one to my list, thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Harry Katz says:

    Thanks! I’m not sure if “varied” or “random” is more apt. 🙂 I hope you get the chance to read & enjoy some of them.

    I don’t know how I missed your review of Invisible Women. It was recommended by a colleague, but definitely a highlight this year for me too,


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