Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

I didn’t manage to finish this before midnight, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we? (Except perhaps, just briefly, to note that I read WAY more nonfiction this year than ever before. This is definitely to do with getting proofs from the shop, so that I could experiment with genres that were relatively new to me, and find out what I liked, without having to spend a lot of money on a potentially disappointing experience.)

cover2Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch. A thoughtful, intelligent and nuanced exploration of what it’s like to be a non-white person in Britain. Hirsch is mixed race, but she grew up in a middle class London neighbourhood, with ballet lessons and books. Her husband is descended from Ghanaian immigrants and grew up in a much less privileged part of town. Both of them experience daily racism, but in very different ways. Without a doubt the most eye-opening memoir I read all year. Especially relevant given that the current trajectory of Britain’s population is heading towards the country being primarily mixed-race.

cover1Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan. Mangan’s memoir of the books she loved as a child is funny, self-deprecating, nostalgic, and super-informative, blending memory with interesting snippets about the history of children’s literature (a genre that barely existed until the Edwardians came along). It reminds the reader, of course, of the books they loved as a child—E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chalet School, The Worst Witch—but also introduces them to new authors: Antonia Forrest, for instance, was completely unknown to me, but Mangan rates her school novels for pre-teen girls so highly that I’m keen to track them down.

814ysf3sdjlThe Secret Barrister, by The Secret Barrister. When I first read this, I said it was probably going to be the best nonfiction I read in 2018, and although it’s encountered some stiff competition (specifically the two books immediately below), it’s still a strong contender. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous lawyer/blogger who has written a passionate, articulate, knowledgeable screed about the state of Britain’s criminal justice system, and how important it is to preserve the right to a fair trial. What’s revealed is scary, but even scarier is the reminder that courts aren’t just for petty thieves: anyone could get dragged into a legal case, so it’s imperative for us all that justice function properly. (Spoilers: it doesn’t.)

coverThe Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Containing elements of true crime, natural history, psychological study, and memoir, this reads like an extended New Yorker essay in the best possible way. Johnson takes on the weird case of Edwin Rist, a music student who in 2009 stole hundreds of priceless bird skins from the Natural History Museum’s storage facility in Tring, Hertfordshire. Why Rist did it, and the people he targeted as buyers for the skins—men heavily involved in the obscure world of Victorian fly-tying, which often requires rare bird feathers—are the focus of Johnson’s investigation. Fascinating, disturbing, and incredibly well written.

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel. A beautiful book about beautiful books. De Hamel takes twelve medieval manuscripts, and guides us through them: not only the pages themselves, their historical context and a rough summary of the manuscripts’ journeys over time to wherever they’re now housed, but also the experience of viewing each of them, whether that’s in the Royal Library at Copenhagen (bright, open, cheery) or the Pierpont Morgan library in New York (officious, fussy, mistrustful). In many ways it’s like The Feather Thief; a skilled writer takes an obscure subject and makes it mesmerising.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee. McBee’s first memoir, Man Alive, was about his FTM (female-to-male) transition; Amateur takes one experience—training for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden—and builds around it a web of thoughts and ideas on manliness, violence, and how those two things are connected in contemporary Western society. It’s neither dry nor academic, in either sense of the word; if anything, it’s a case study, a deep dive into the tension McBee feels as he becomes part of a community of men who care deeply for each other whilst also learning how to hurt each other. Complicated, nuanced, very thought-provoking.

original_400_600Handel In London, by Jane Glover. More than anything, this biography of Handel, which focuses on his working life in the theatres of London, is fun. It conveys the sense of constant movement, of liveliness, that characterises both Hanoverian England and the music that Handel himself wrote. Glover doesn’t shy away from musical analysis—she’s very good at showing us just how brilliant a composer Handel was—but she understands the appeal of backstage secrets, and there are plenty of tidbits on the challenges and joys of running an eighteenth-century opera company, complete with unreliable singers. Sheer brainy delight.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard. Hubbard’s biography of Bess of Hardwick is also a brainy delight, though instead of “fun”, I might use the word “awe-inspiring”. Bess, four times married and acquiring new wealth, particularly in the form of property, with each marriage, was Tudor England’s grand matriarch. Her political instincts were sometimes ropey (though, amazingly, she never fell out of favour with Elizabeth I), but she’s best known as a builder: some of the houses she commissioned still stand. Hubbard tells her story—that of a woman in a man’s world—with skill and flair.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, ed. Henry Eliot. An ideal sofa companion for a dreary day, and you’ll want to store it on a low shelf for frequent reference in any case. It contains entries on every single book currently published by the Penguin Classics imprint, as well as an index of former PCs that have been allowed to fall out of print. I’d have liked a bit more analysis on that decision-making process, and a bit more musing on what makes a classic at all, but this is full of information and beautifully produced. It deserves to become a classic in its own right.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen. For sheer brilliance of prose, Karen Blixen would top this list by a country mile. Out of Africa is a memoir of Blixen’s years running a coffee farm in Kenya, and it is written in the most balanced, elegant, often quietly amusing sentences I have read for some time. There is something old-fashioned and hospitable about the book; it wants you to sit down and listen, not so that Blixen can talk at you, but so that she can share something precious to her. She describes a world now long gone—and ultimately, I think, rightly so—but there is love shining from every word of this gorgeous book.

Extremely honourable mentions: Quiet, by Susan Cain; The Language of Kindness, by Christie Watson; A Spy Named Orphan, by Roland Phillips; Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth; Wilding, by Isabella Tree; The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee; The Ravenmaster, by Chris Skaife; A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie.


22 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

  1. I think I need to check out Out of Africa, as I’ve just come off an “anthropological novel” about a woman’s time with a tribe in Nigeria in the late 1940s-early 1950s and loved it.

  2. Normally the only non-fiction I read is to do with books and reading or specifically for study purposes, but there are a number of others here that appeal. And yes, you must read Antonia Forrest and I must re-read her!

    1. It’s been a very good year for general nonfiction. Possibly this is just because I’m paying more attention, but it’s really nice to feel one’s horizons are expanding.

  3. This a wonderful list. How did I not know about The Feather Thief? I worked on a bird magazine when that burglary happened and I remember how devastated the staff at Tring were about the loss of those feathers! Onto the wishlist it goes. (The Secret Barrister has been on there for awhile.)

  4. I must get The Feather Thief too – it was also on Rebeca’s list if I remember correctly. The Handel book sounds fun, but I’ll wait for the paperback. As for the Penguin Classics Book – I might just have to treat myself. A wonderful and varied best of nf!

    1. Handel In London is great; it’s a big book, though, so waiting for the paperback is a good idea if it’s a non-essential! Can’t recommend The Penguin Classics Book highly enough; it’s one of two on this list that I bought with my own money and it was the best treat.

  5. A number of these books certainly look interesting, thanks.

    But I would question the claim, “the current trajectory of Britain’s population is heading towards the country being primarily mixed-race”. It’s very easy for people who live in or around London, and who are exposed to US media, to think that the UK is like the US in this regard… but mostly, it isn’t. The white population has been plummeting – from 92% in 2001 all the way down to… 87% in 2011 (the last census). The black population has soared – all the way to 3%. And when we talk about Britain being ‘primarily mixed-race’ in the future… well, between the last two censuses, the mixed-race population rose from 1.2% to 2.0%. So while the mixed-majority future may happen, at current rates it’ll take another century or two.

    I think we often get carried away and forget just how overwhelmingly white the UK outside the big cities still is. I was reading something about racism in the classical music establishment, for example, which lamented the injustice that only 1 in 8 students at classical music schools and conservatoires in the UK were black. Overlooking the fact that only about 1 in 35 people in the UK are black, so a black child is something like four times more likely to study at such a school…
    [not trying to make any broader claim about racism in classical music here, I don’t know enough about it – just pointing out that a lot of people have the casual assumption that the UK as a whole is much like New York or California, when it really isn’t.]

    On the classical music point, I’d also just mention in passing that your wording might be a bit misleading for some people around Handel – in that Handel arrived when the Baroque style was fully developed (and had been for over a century); while Handel did indeed contribute to it, what he contributed was (along with Bach) the capstone of the edifice, and beginning of the work of demolishing it. (late Handel is simultaneous with the beginnings of the galant – which would become the classical – on the continent; indeed, Frederick, his patron, also patronised GF Sammartini, who was a traditional baroque composer, while his brother GB Sammartini in Italy was laying the basis of the classical style; the Messiah was written the same year that Stamitz came to Mannheim).

    To ameliorate my infuriating pedantry, something productive: have you visited Handel’s house in London? It can appeal to a wide variety of music fans, because it’s a combined Handel-and-Jimi-Hendrix museum. (Handel lived at 25 Brook Street, while Hendrix lived next door at 23 Brook Street, albeit two centuries later). It’s a small museum and not going to blow anyone’s mind, but it’s a nice restoration of an 18th century middle-class house (as opposed to all those stately homes), while the Hendrix flat is restored to full swinging-sixties glory. They do a bunch of educational and entertainment events, including period music recitals. Probably resonates more if you’ve recently read a Handel biography!

    Anyway, apologies again for the pedantry. Happy new year!

    1. A very short response to a very long comment, sorry, but: thanks for the briefing, I’ve amended the Baroque sentence! I know of the Handel/Hendrix museum, but have never been – but it’s definitely on my list. Happy New Year to you too!

  6. Though I live in France I enjoy listening to Afua Hirsch in the debate discussions in Sky News and wondered what her book would be like, though I hadn’t seen it reviewed by many readers I follow, so I’m pleased to hear it made your list, and I’m doubly intrigued to read it now, an excellent list, thank you.

  7. I’m keen to read Brit(ish), and Bookworm’s been on my radar for some time. Glad to see you had such a wide-ranging and productive year of reading nonfiction in 2018!

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