My Top 10 Nonfiction Reads of 2017

Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.


  1. Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.


  1. My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.


  1. The U.S. cover

    In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)


  1. My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.


  1. The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.


  1. Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.


And my nonfiction book of the year was:

1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)

Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.

Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.

This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.



I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.


What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?

Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.


Next week’s planned posts:

26th: Doorstopper of the Month

27th: Top fiction of the year list

28th: Runners-up and other superlatives

29th: Early 2018 recommendations

30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading

27 responses

  1. Well done, I don’t think I have 10 non-fiction reads to choose from. I do sometimes feel guilty about that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’ll be interesting to see how this year’s statistics pan out, but I reckon about 40% of my reading is nonfiction (mostly memoirs), so there was plenty to choose from. I know lots of people who struggle with nonfiction and find themselves mostly picking up fiction. There’s no problem with that!


  2. Well, I’ve read not one of those! But here are my top five, and I know that there’s at least one here that you don’t rate: Michael McCarthy, the Moth Snowstorm; Madeleine Bunting, Love of Country; Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain; John Lewis-Stempel, Where Poppies Blow; Ian Mortimer, Human Race. All Five Star reads for me.


    1. I loved the McCarthy and the Bunting — the latter may well be on my runners-up list for the year. I hadn’t heard of the Tremlett or Mortimer, I think. It’s true I didn’t get on with this particular Lewis-Stempel book, but I’ve loved others of his. Besides, it won the Wainwright Prize, so you must be right about it 😉


  3. Annabel (gaskella) | Reply

    I haven’t even started thinking about my year end best of yet – I’d better get a move on. The only one I’ve read of yours was the Westaby – he’s a pioneer and a great character.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fingers crossed for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize.

      I *think* I have my fiction list finalized. I probably won’t get a chance to write it up until after Christmas now.


  4. You’ve sold the Atlas to me. On the list it goes… My Life with Bob is already on their thanks to a previous review from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read mainly non fiction again this year (although I LOVED Lincoln in the Bardo).
    Hard to choose my top ones but here goes in no particular order –
    Victorians Undone, Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum – Kathryn Hughes
    Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain – Ian Mortimer
    Elements of Eloquence – Mark Forsyth
    The Last Wolf – Robert Winder
    Nocturne – James Attlee.
    I wonder why Attlee isn’t better known. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him.
    Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. And I hold you personally responsible for my TBR list reaching 5,000 this week which is completely bonkers! x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whoops, sorry about that! I need to get my TBR under control too. I got it down to 5500 earlier in the year but it’s since ballooned to 5687 thanks to all these pesky 2018 titles I’m learning about.

      I’m interested in Hughes and Attlee.

      Happy holidays!


  6. I’ve added the Atlas and Landslide and I read the Pamela Paul because of your recommendation and loved it. I tend to read mainly fiction but another non fiction that I loved was Florence Williams The Nature Fix.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my husband has read that. I’d like to read it too. So glad you liked Pamela Paul’s book!


  7. I have My LIfe with Bob on my wishlist, so hoping it might appear at Christmas in one way or another, and I love the look of The Shadow in the Garden and will add that to it! I’m not doing any lists until the end of the year – I have a book on the Olympics coming up and Ruby Wax’s book on being less frazzled and they might make it on to the list …

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I definitely want to read the Alzheimer’s book. I think about the possibility of it happening to me, and pray it doesn’t, mostly for Tricia’s and your sake.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can lend it to you on our next visit. It’s a horrible future to contemplate. You can see why children of parents with early-onset Alzheimer’s don’t want to be tested for the gene.


  9. I’ve just put the Jebelli on hold… my mother-in-law has been exhibiting signs on Alzheimer’s and it’s very worrisome.

    Too bad you didn’t get to write your article – it would have been a winner, for sure! 🙂


    1. I’m very sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. Luckily, it is a hopeful book full of promising research leads and things that anyone can do to keep their mental faculties strong.

      I mostly felt bad for wheedling copies out of the publicists and then having to say I couldn’t place the article. I did review both books for Goodreads, at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh Lord, maybe I should read The Argonauts after all…


    1. Were you avoiding it for some reason? I’ve read three Nelson books so far and this is the best. It really challenged my views.


      1. Yes, in that ornery way where you’ve heard so much on Twitter about how amaaaaazing and brilllllliant it is that you just can’t bear to actually pick the thing up. I think I probably should read Maggie Nelson, though, and The Argonauts is probably the place to start.


    2. I think you’ll get on with her writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I read more non-fiction this year overall and was very pleased and enjoyed reading about your favourites. I would have enjoyed your pairing, I’m sure. Hopefully the next placement of a mini-passion-project will be more successful! Two faves for me, in non-fiction this year, were Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers (link ) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on the Road (link ) which are very different, but the writer’s voice in each was strong and the content striking. Do you think either would appeal to you?


    1. I would definitely like to read that Hurston book, as well as Their Eyes Were Watching God. Many American high school students read that, but we didn’t in my class.


  12. […] as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, as with my nonfiction selections I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second […]


  13. […] summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s […]


  14. […] I have Rebecca at Bookish Beck to thank for bringing this book to my attention. I read about it on her Top 10 Nonfiction Reads of 2017. […]


  15. […] In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli […]


  16. […] Staying in the shadows … my top nonfiction read of 2017 was James Atlas’s memoir of the biographer’s profession, The Shadow in the Garden. The book […]


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