Curious about the best nonfiction books of 2021? Read stunning memoirs and learn more about history, science, or self-improvement with these must-read nonfiction books.
While I will admit that I absolutely love reading fiction, the older I get the more I seem to crave nonfiction books.
Fiction allows you to feel powerful emotions – sobbing when a character dies, exploring magical worlds, or laughing at bizarre scenarios – without having to leave your bed. Yet, in the back of your mind, you know the story is made up.
With the best nonfiction books, you get that feeling that only comes from a true story. You know these things actually happened to real people. You get to learn new skills, discover your self-worth, and examine the truths of the world around us.
I think good nonfiction books are harder to find than fiction titles, so to help you out, here is my list of the best nonfiction books of 2021. Some I’ve read, some I can’t wait to read, but all are getting plenty of buzz this crazy year.
Best Memoirs 2021
A powerful memoir about growing up a Korean American from the indie singer known for her Japanese Breakfast project. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Michelle Zauner struggled to fit in as the only Asian-American student in high school, burdened by the high expectations of her mother. Moving East, she began working in the restaurant industry and joined a fledgling band. But not until her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis did Zauner feel liked she discovered her identity and understood her Koreanness.
The bestselling memoir from the owner and chef of an acclaimed restaurant in Maine tells of the challenges of finding your voice and rebuilding a life. Growing up in rural Maine, Erin French fell in love with food while working at her father’s diner. After dropping out of college when she got pregnant, French eventually established her own successful restaurant. When a crumbling marriage and addiction cause her to lose it all, French manages to slowly rebuild her personal and culinary life and find solace in the food she loves. A stunning memoir, French’s down-to-earth writing will cut straight to anyone’s heart while foodies her will love her luscious culinary descriptions.
Qian Julie Wang
When Qian was seven years old, her family immigrated to the United States. As her parents struggled to cope with the transition from respected professors to “illegal” sweatshop laborers, Qian tries to find her place in a new world. Highlighting the dichotomy of coming to America for free speech but being afraid to speak, this moving coming-of-age memoir brings home the reality of the immigrant experience in the US.
After graduating from college, Suleika Jaouad was excited to enter “the real world” as a war correspondent in Paris. But an itch turned to exhaustion and a diagnosis of leukemia with only a 35% chance of survival. Jaouad spent the next four years in the hospital battling cancer and writing about it for The New York Times. Yet, once she was cured, she felt even more lost than ever. So she embarked on a road trip across the country to find herself in this bestselling nonfiction book from 2021.
Non Fiction Books to Read in 2021
Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey
Instead of asking What’s wrong with you?, we should be asking What happened to you? Oprah Winfrey teams up with neuroscientist Bruce D. Perry to discuss how understanding the trauma we faced at a young age can impact our behaviors now. By understanding our past, we can shift our viewpoint and see a clear path to healing.
In one of the best nonfiction books of 2021, Adam Grant reminds us that just like we refresh our wardrobe from time to time, we need to routinely reexamine our beliefs and ways of thinking. Often our beliefs become habits, and Grant argues that being too attached to one identity and thought process can kill our creativity. Instead, we need to start spending as much time rethinking as we do thinking. Grant is an excellent writer and he does a superb job keeping you engaged as he discusses thought-provoking concepts.
Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein
Why do two doctors in the same city give different diagnoses to the same patient? Or a judge gives different sentences for the same crime in the afternoon versus the morning? Noise examines the variability of decisions that should be the same, exploring why people make bad judgments and how to control both noise and cognitive bias.
When on assignment for NPR, Michaeleen Doucleef noticed that the children in a Mayan village on the Yucatan peninsula are kind, considerate, and helpful without any of the tantrums and nagging she is used to seeing. In contrast, Doucleef’s three-year-old was, quite frankly, a nightmare at times, and Doucleef struggled to effectively parent her. Thus, Doucleef set out to observe how other cultures parent their children and learn what methods that Western parenting has lost. Although Doucleef comes off a tad naive, Hunt, Gather, Parent is still one of the best books of 2021 in nonfiction for parents to read.
Best Nonfiction 2021: History
In the years leading up to the second world war, a group of military strategists, nicknamed “The Bomber Mafia,” wondered if precision bombing of strategic targets could make war less lethal. Gladwell ponders how technology and the best intentions collide in the heat of war while examining the firebombing of Tokyo. Weaving together stories of a Dutch genius, pyromaniacal chemists, and two competing generals, Gladwell makes you consider the incalculable costs of war. Since The Bomber Mafia is easily the winner of the best nonfiction audiobooks in 2021 because it was created as an audiobook first, using historical audio excerpts to enhance Gladwell’s already stellar writing.
Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
Among one of the top non fiction books of 2021 is this one-volume “community” history of African-Americans edited by Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist) and Keisha N. Blain. From the year before the Mayflower to the present-day, over ninety of today’s Black authors explore history through various methods to give this book a unique feel.
Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe
CNN host Anderson Cooper teams up with historian Katherine Howe to recount the rise and fall of a great American dynasty, his mother’s family, the Vanderbilts. Told in vignettes of the various family members, Cooper shows how Cornelius Vanderbilt built his shipping and railroad empires in the 1800s, and how his descendants fought over his staggering fortune, forever fracturing the family.
Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones
In 1619, a ship arrived in the Virginia colony with the first enslaved people from Africa. Thus began the unprecedented system of slavery that has shaped America ever since. Based on The New York Times Magazine‘s Pulitizer Prize-winning articles, The 1619 Project combines essays, poems, and works of fiction to chronicle how the legacy of slavery impacts America today.
Best Nonfiction Books: Science & Technology
Patrick Radden Keefe
In one of the best non fiction books of 2021, Patrick Radden shines with a brilliant piece of investigative reporting chronicling the life of three generations of the Sackler family. One of the richest families in the world, their name adorns some of the most storied institutions. Yet, the source of their wealth has long remained hidden: the making and marketing of OxyContin, the painkiller that sparked the current opioid crisis.
A look at the life and work of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, who pioneered the development of CRISPR. With this new genetic ability, scientists can cure diseases and create vaccines, including the coronavirus. But Doudna has also wrestled with the ethical and moral issues of this new technology. For those who love biographies, Walter Isaacson’s latest is one of the best nonfiction books to read in 2021.
Although the official response to COVID-19 was that there was no need to worry, skeptical scientists knew that something terrifying was on the horizon. From a teen girl’s science project to a dissenting group of scientists called “The Wolverines,” Michael Lewis’s nonfiction thriller details the roots of the current coronavirus pandemic as a race against visionaries and medical authorities.
Neuroscientist Lisa Genova explains why we remember some things and why we forget others. Genova presents a basic primer of how memories work, what you can reasonably expect from your memory as you age, and how to help protect your memory. Extremely informative and easy to understand, Genova does a great job explaining how memory works. However, discussing the real-life implications of these topics with others will make this book stand out among the best nonfiction books of 2021.
What do you think are the best nonfiction books of 2021?