The Best Non-Fiction Books of the 2010s
New films, music, and books require an investment of that most precious of all commodities — time. As I would for any investment, I like to research the market and pick the ones that seem to offer the greatest chance of a decent return.
Critics help weed out the real stinkers and are a guide to the most thought provoking. But sometimes that can mean sacrificing sheer entertainment value, so I like to see what fans have to say too. Best sellers represent another useful reference point — books that appeal to the broadest audience because they touch on universal themes or capture the zeitgeist.
In this story I find the non-fiction books at the intersection of critics, fans and best sellers to determine the definitive top 20 non-fiction books of the 2010s.
The critics’ view
For the critics’ perspective I turned to The Greatest Books, a site which aggregates 122 “best of” lists. Most of the books in its lists were published before the 2010s. Only thirty-nine non-fiction books from the 2010s are represented. Here is the top 20.
The fans view
Goodreads provided the fans’ perspective. I scraped data (not as painful as it sounds) for approximately two hundred non-fiction books published in the 2010s and sorted them by their average scores. In the event of a tie, I ranked the books with the greater number of ratings higher.
There is no crossover between the critics’ and fans’ top 20s. The search for common ground is not looking great.
In my last story I looked at the best selling non-fiction of the 2010s in depth. Here is the top 20, based on weeks spent at number 1 on the New York Times best seller list.
There were surprisingly few overlaps between the best sellers and the fans’ top 20 — and none between best sellers and critics. Becoming by Michelle Obama is equal first best seller and second on the fans list. Educated by Tara Westover is fifth equal best seller and eighth with the fans.
There were more overlaps as I looked further down the lists. So hold your breath, as I count down the top 10 before revealing the combined top 20.
10. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Critics: 4 Fans: 117 Best sellers: NR
The publisher summarises this book better than I can: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language.
9. American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice
Critics: NR Fans: 121 Best sellers: 3
The story of America’s “most lethal sniper” was made into a feature film by Clint Eastwood. A compelling read for fans of military history or just plain action.
8. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Critics: 3 Fans: 28 Best sellers: NR
Tells the story of the migration of black Americans out of the southern US to the West, Midwest and Northeast from 1915 to 1970. It combines history, statistics and personal biographies.
7. Educated by Tara Westover
Critics: NR Fans: 8 Best sellers: 5=
The memoir of a young woman, raised and home schooled in a Mormon family following a survivalist lifestyle. Against the odds, she breaks free to attend university and earns a doctorate at Cambridge.
6. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Critics: 32 Fans: 30 Best sellers: 5=
One of only two books on the top 20 to appear on critics, fans, and best sellers lists. This memoir tracks the transition of an aspiring neurosurgeon from doctor to patient as he deals with lung cancer.
5. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Critics: 2 Fans: 41 Best sellers: NR
In the publisher’s words: The stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so. Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender.
4. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Critics: NR Fans: 25 Best sellers: 1=
Tells the World War 2 story of a former Olympic athlete who survived a plane crash and survived on a raft for 47 days only to be interred in a Japanese POW camp for over two years. A feature film based on the book was directed by Angelina Jolie and written by the Coen brothers.
3. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
Critics: 1 Fans: 181 Best sellers: NR
Won the Pullitzer Prize and National Book Award for non-fiction. It tells the story of how a 15th-century book hunter, saved the last copy of an ancient Roman piece of literature and helped spark the Rennaissance. Who needs Robert Langdon?
2. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Critics: 34 Fans: 1 Best sellers: NR
The memoir of a lawyer based in Alabama fighting injustice in the criminal law system. A feature film based on the book, starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson is scheduled to be released on 25 December 2019.
1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
Critics: NR Fans: 2 Best sellers: 1=
The best selling book of 2018, it spent twenty weeks at number 1. Michelle Obama’s memoir covers her roots, early life, marriage, motherhood and time in the White House.
The top 20
Fourteen of the books on the top 20 appear on two or more of the critics’, fans’ or best sellers lists. Two books achieve the rare trifecta of pleasing critics and fans and selling well — the overall number 6, mentioned above, and overall number 12, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The latter is a father’s letter to his teenage son about being black in the United Sates, partly inspired by James Baldwin.
Overall I like this list. It is more nuanced and diverse than the the best sellers list. Plenty of great gift suggestions here.
Keep an eye out for forthcoming stories on fiction and non-fiction books released in 2019. If there is an area of popular culture — books, films, TV, music — to which you would like me to turn my data analytical lens, leave a comment.