Best of 2019: Nonfiction

For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.

Let the countdown begin!


  1. Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.


  1. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.


  1. Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.


  1. Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.


  1. (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)


  1. Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.


  1. The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.


  1. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.


  1. The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.


  1. Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.


(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

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


Upcoming posts:

28th: Runners-up

29th: Other superlatives and some statistics

30th: Best backlist reads

31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading

13 responses

  1. I totally agree. Irreplaceable is my Top Read this year: thought-provoking, beautifully written and ultimately optimistic. I heard a bit of the Bill Bryon on the radio and plan to read the whole thing. You introduced me to Katherine Jamie, so she’s on the list, as is Julia Blackburn.A good list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad there are some that have piqued your interest — most of the science/nature ones, unsurprisingly 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done, Beck!

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am liking the sound of the Internet book. I’ve not read any of your 12 – can’t believe it! I own Surfacing though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Segal and Bryson would have been good Wellcome Prize fodder if you are looking for replacements to read in the spring 🙂


  4. I think The Seafarers will be one of mine although I’m feeling at the moment I’ll be making just a top 10 of all my books, fiction and non-, as I’ve only read 112 this year so far. Reserving judgement till 1 Jan as have just read one that will make the top 10 and there may be more before the end of New Year’s Eve!

    I think Because Internet will be one of my top ten of 2020 when I’ve got hold of a copy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s about the top 10% of your reading so seems sensible, but you can set the rules! I think I’ll have to call the year’s reading finished on Sunday as we’re then going to friends’ for a few days and I don’t want to be hiding away scheduling blogs.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] are the ones I consider my hidden gems of the year. Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 13% of my year’s […]


  6. Waaait a second – and here I was just complimenting you on your winnowing skill and you’ve included a tie?! Just kidding. This is your corner of the bookish world – you can have a dozen ties! 🙂 I’m still not ready for the year to end. Not quite, anyway. So I haven’t even looked at my post of favourites for the year (I keep it underway as soon as I find one). And I might set that idea aside anyway and just focus on one or two stand-outs (I liked doing it that way last year). But I do know, without checking, that I haven’t read as much NF as I’d’ve intended to. One that did stand out, though, was Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: an engaging and beautiful memoir of time in prison.


    1. It made sense to discuss those three together as they were so similar in content and approach. If it had to be just one, it would be the Gleeson.


  7. Constellations, The Body, and Irreplaceable all sound excellent.
    I can’t even imagine having my two year old die by having a brick fall on her. It seems like such a flukey and senseless way to go!
    You always make me want to read more NF! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] does seem that 2019 was a great year for non-fiction with Bookish Beck actually highlighting this in her end of year retrospective in which her top choice was […]


  9. […] by Stephen Rutt, one of my highlights from last year’s summer reading and ultimately one of my top 5 nonfiction reads of […]


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