Positive note #10: book reading (non-fiction edition)

by Eszter Hargittai on January 1, 2021

I’m going to end this little series of positive notes I started ten days ago with sharing several excellent nonfiction books I read in 2020. Last year, my goal was to read 52 books. A year ago I had set as my goal for 2020 60 books, not because I knew we’d all be experiencing a lockdown, but because I was supposed to be on sabbatical in the fall and figured I’d be able to make more time for it. (I was indeed on sabbatical this past fall, but I did not “go” on sabbatical in that I just stayed in Zurich rather than my original plan of spending it at my alma mater Smith College in a special visiting position. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule that for fall ’23.) It turns out, during lockdown March-May I didn’t read any books at all. I can’t explain it, but it’s not how I coped. Fortunately, during the rest of the year I caught up. I already posted separately my resulting fiction recommendations, now for the rest.

I started 2020 with a tough, but very important and well-written book: Know My Name by Chanel Miller. This is the story of the woman who had been sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on Stanford’s campus. She goes through so much of what happened in the aftermath including lots of discussion of the crazy legal system that lets people like Turner move on with their lives while the lives they assault are forever changed. I believe this should be required reading on university campuses. It would be very hard for 18-year-olds to process (it’s hard to process at any age), but valuable.


While we are on the topic of sexual assault, I found both She Said (2019) by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey as well as Catch and Kill (2019) by Ronan Farrow interesting and informative. While both are inspired by and explore Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse of women, the former goes well beyond that one case including details about the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. This broader focus was appealing to me and valuable beyond the one case. What you get more of in the Farrow book is details of the Weinstein case, especially the media’s role in covering it up for way too long. In many ways, the book is an indictment of NBC and a props to the New Yorker. On the whole, however, while the author mentions several times that this is not about him, it’s about the women, he is still rather front and center in the story, which was not particularly appealing. Overall, then, I rate She Said higher and if you were to read just one of the two, that’s the one I’d read.

On the topic of monsters who get away with way too much (and the media’s role in all that), I thought Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough (2020) about how Donald Trump came to be who he is was very insightful. It must have been a hard book to write, there is a lot of dirty laundry in that family and a lot of it is very painful for several members. While nothing justifies all the revolting behaviors over the years, the book did help me feel a bit less bewildered by where all of that would come from. Again, not as a justification, but as an origins question.

Aaand one more on the world giving a pass to some people for way too long concerned the story of Elizabeth Holmes as told by John Carreyrou in Bad Blood (2018). (The twist here is that it concerns a young woman.) If this was a fictional account, I suspect the book would be critiqued for being far too out there. But no, it all happened. Fairly early on (as in not even close to halfway into the book) I was already thinking that there was enough evidence to see the issues and was not sure what could be the topic of the remainder of the book, but the crazy just continued. And continued. It’s a very engaging read.


In the summer, I read several books on racial justice as I hope others did as well. I was rather late to Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It deserves all the praise it has gotten. It’s beautiful and raw and an absolute must-read. Another quick read while also engaging is Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here (2018). The author shares personal experiences that are helpful in getting a glimpse of the exhaustion and exasperation that Black people endure day in and day out while simply going about their everyday lives.

To understand the calls for defunding the police, I read The End of Policing (2017) by Alex Vitale. It was extremely informative while also immensely depressing. There is helpful background in how the system came about and has evolved. In addition to racial discrimination, the book has chapters dedicated to LGBTQ issues, people with mental illness, immigration and border control, to name a few. The author quotes lots of helpful statistics. I’ve always been disgusted by the private prison system in the US, this book clarifies why it is so problematic (e.g., how pouring a fraction of the cost into social services for people in need would be much more meaningful).


I enjoy reading memoirs especially of people whose lives are very different from mine. I give high marks to both Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes (2016) and Over the Top (2019) by Jonathan Van Ness. I very much appreciate just how much of a feminist Rhimes is and how this is reflected in her life. I was not at all familiar with Van Ness (but I understand now that he has quite a following) having never seen Queer Eye (I simply have no interest in the reality TV genre), nonetheless I found this book interesting to learn about how he ended up in Hollywood from a small Midwestern town. I most appreciated the love he shows for his mother and her support along the way. (In case anyone is wondering, I did end up watching one episode of the show out of curiosity. That was more than plenty for me.)


Shifting gears, I read two helpful books about book publishing. Thinking Like Your Editor (2003) by Susan Rabiner came highly recommended and I understand why. It is very helpful for thinking through your writing even if you’re not in the midst of trying to get a contract for a book or working on your manuscript. It is especially relevant for those looking to publish nonfiction work beyond the university press world. That is not my current goal, but I still found it educational. So You Want to Publish a Book? (2020) by Anne Trubek is a short read by an independent publisher. The author describes several parts of the book publishing process that don’t get talked about much so it was interesting to learn about certain behind-the-scenes processes (as applied to an independent press at least).

I was fascinated by the material (pun intended) in Stuff Matters (2014) by Mark Miodownik. Who knew materials science could be so engaging? The author has a great sense of humor that he applies to describing a wide range of materials from cement to chocolate to diamonds.


I’ll finish with two books related to my various hobbies. Art Matters (2018) by Neil Gaiman is a too-short (meaning that I wish it had gone on longer) love letter to libraries and the importance of creativity. Leave Only Footprints (2020) by Conor Knighton is a fantastic engagement with US national park. Beyond telling the wonders of the parks based on his visit to all of them during the course of one year, the author does not shy away from difficult topics like how Native Americans were ousted from their lands and why it’s important that Americans of all backgrounds feel welcomed at the parks including African Americans who have too long been discriminated against. It’s a nice and thoughtful 21st century reflection on the parks.

I read a few dozen other books (over 60 in total, which I was happy with, but it doesn’t come close to Doug K’s 200, not that it’s a competition;-) and liked several others among them. The list above includes the ones I recommend the most. What nonfiction did you enjoy this year?



Dogen 01.01.21 at 5:03 am

I continue to be amazed by Citizen (by Claudine Rankin). Her next book, Just Us, is great but I found much more difficult. She’s a national treasure.

Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime is also remarkable. We watched a lot of him this pandemic year and thought he handled it better than just about anyone on TV.

Thick by Tracie Macmillan Cottom is great and she was awarded a Macarthur genius grant so I guess I’m not alone in being a fan.

+1 on Catch and Kill

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Zimmer
Say Nothing by Keefe


Eszter Hargittai 01.01.21 at 5:48 am

Agreed that there are many good things about Thick.

I used to have Say Nothing on my library hold list, but it must’ve taken too long and I gave up on it. I just checked and now it’s available so I may even get to it this weekend. And thanks for the Born a Crime reminder! I hadn’t heard of the Zimmer book, sounds intriguing. Also added Rankin (ClaudiA) to my pile, thanks!


Bob Michaelson 01.01.21 at 2:35 pm

Materials science is indeed a very engaging topic! Apart from Miodownik’s book, there are other popular treatments – curiously, they seem to be largely by Brits – including J. E. Gordon’s The New Science of Strong Materials: or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor (2006), and on a related topic, his Structures: or Why Things Don’t Fall Down (1978). Then there are books by the British chemical physicist (originally; he now seems to be a full-time author) including Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century (1997) and many others. An especially interesting one, I think, is his Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (2001); he now writes on a huge variety of topics, including e.g. The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It (2010) and Universe of Stone: a Biography of Chartres Cathedral (2008).


Ingrid Robeyns 01.01.21 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for the positive notes series, Eszter, I enjoyed them!

I have a question on the first book you mention – Know My Name: is the particular context (the US legal system) key in the outcomes, or do you think that, possibly with a bit of tweaking, the same holds for sexual assault cases on university campuses in other countries? I’m asking since I’m trying to understand to what extent the often horrible outcomes for those who file complaints of sexual misconduct are specific on the institutional (including legal) context, or whether the dominant factors at work are rather social-cultural issues that have a more universal tendency.


Eszter Hargittai 01.01.21 at 6:15 pm

Bob, thanks for all those suggestions!

Ingrid, good question. I’m not sure if you’re asking about the book or in more general terms. The book itself is also incredibly personal and much of that would apply in any context. I’m afraid I can’t address the institutional question. One could argue that the US is perhaps ahead of at least some other places as the issues are at least discussed. But because they don’t tend to be discussed much in other countries where I read the news or know about academic culture, I just don’t know what the specifics are in those other contexts.

I do very much recommend the book, it was engaging and painful and uplifting as well. The author is an amazing writer and I am so grateful that she took the effort to write up all of her experiences. (One more point worth noting is that she had an amazing support structure. I can’t even fathom how much worse the situation would have been without that.)


Kiwanda 01.01.21 at 8:16 pm

Who We Are and How We Got Here, by David Reich, is a careful explanation of the amazing work in the last decade or so, using genomic analysis in general, and in particular of ancient human remains, to greatly clarify human migration and ancestry of the last 50000 years or so. This work is ongoing, for example, there’s recently found evidence of contact between Native Americans and Polynesians around 800 years ago.

More on that assault case here.


Matt 01.02.21 at 7:11 am

Two books on the ethics of migration that I read in 2020 that I’m very happy to recommend are Adam Hosein’s The Ethics of Migration: an Introduction and David Owen’s What do we Owe to Refugees? .

Both are short and easy to read, so have two big virtues already. Hosein’s book is more general, and touches on most of the main topics under its title. It gives very fair over-views of the main positions and argues for reasonable positions of its own. If someone wanted to read just one book on the topic, or to include one book on migration in a larger class on global justice or the like, this is the one I’d recommend. Owen’s book is arguably the best “one stop shop” from discussions of the ethics of refugee protection. It doesn’t get lost in the weeds of legal issues, but does deal with them in a sophisticated way, and makes important and reasonable distinctions between people needing different sorts of aid that are often glossed over w/o justification by people working on the topic.


Anders Widebrant 01.02.21 at 12:37 pm

Anna Wiener wrote a memoir, Uncanny Valley, that’s a) very good and b) unintentionally (I think) a work of cyberpunk.



David J. Littleboy 01.02.21 at 4:05 pm

Since people have mentioned Materials Science (my undergrad minor), I’m enjoying “Sticking Together: The Science of Adhesion”. Any book with a chapter titled “Watching Paint Dry” can’t be all bad.

I didn’t get much done last year: there was too much craziness and I spent too much time with my head under the blankets screaming, but I did read Yukio Mishima’s Bitoku no Yoromeki (he can be more than a bit of a twat, but at his best, his use of language is amazing). So far, I’ve only read that, a couple of short stories, and lots of things about him, but getting my head around his work is an ongoing project here. I also made a start on some very light reading (a series of 7 or 8 police procedural novels and one collection of related short stories by Bin Konno (current chair of the Mystery Writers of Japan)) that our SO loved and went through all of them in a week. She later fessed up that she had missed the first one, and that it was a dud. After I had ground through it. The second one was excellent (at one point I looked at the page number and realized I had read 100 pages that day) but the short stories had the usual problem with short stories in your second language, namely that each one has a different subject and thus new vocabulary and/or unfamiliar subject matter (in this case issues of Japanese law that I was fuzzy on and took a while to figure out how to not worry about and just read the story. The good thing about this series is that it plays two protagonists with different personalities off against each other (one with a nerdy commitment to principle, and the other with a more normal sensitivity to personal issues), but the bad thing is that it sometimes turns into a “The Lady from Philadelphia” thing, with the sensitive bloke too worried about interpersonal strife and the nerd pointing him to a principled solution that’s so good no one complains.

Since last year was the 50th anniversary of Mishima’s extreme exit, there were a lot of books and articles on him, and those were a distraction from novel reading. Kurahashi Yumiko (who had made the mistake of saying “If I were a man, I’d probably join Mishima’s “Shield Society”” (Ms. Kurahashi herself was an amazing novelist and literary theorist; one of the great minds of 20th century literature) was home not watching the TV that day (and thus was one of the very few people in Japan who didn’t know about said exit almost immediately), and two police detectives showed up at her door and questioned her. She had no idea what they were talking about, thinking, getting at, and her answers must have seemed quite off the wall (she reported in an essay reprinted in one of said books.). Anyway, I had never gotten around to reading Mishima, so I’m in the midst of a project of figuring him out. It’s a nasty rabbit hole since, for example, he was a fan of Tanizaki and Kawabata (whom I’ve read some, but not a lot, of) so I need to go back and read more of them first. FWIW, The Makioka Sisters is advertised as an elegy to traditional Japanese culture, but it’s actually an extreme page turner with disaster after disaster after disaster. I was quite confused between what most people said about it and the book that I had actually read, when I found an essay by Minae Mizumura in which she pointed out the page turner aspect. (Yay! I’m not nuts.) She was concerned that US audiences would be put off by the Japanese concept of “miai” being somewhat mistranslated as “arranged marriage”. In all but extreme cases, miai in real life are formal first dates in which the principles have a veto over further contact. I don’t know how well the English translation works, but, again, the story is wild.

Sorry for the blather.


eg 01.04.21 at 5:32 pm

“Macroeconomics” Mitchell, Wray and Watts
It’s been a very long time since I read a textbook, so this was slow going. I wanted to go through the whole thing to arm myself for conversations I have with some of my friends whose Econ 101 has grown rather stale over the years

“Angrynomics” Blyth and Lonergan
Fascinating look at anger, economics and politics

“The People, NO” Thomas Frank
An actual history of Populism, which is nothing like how the term is used in current public discourse

“Trade Wars Are Class Wars” Klein and Pettis
Explanation of how the trade surplus countries effectively “export” unemployment. Good description of the process and the damage caused – light on solutions

“Capitalism, Alone” Milanovic
A description of what the author claims are the only two remaining variants in political economy (feudalism and communism having disappeared, for now) – liberal capitalism (US as exemplar) and authoritarian capitalism (China as exemplar). The challenge for both variants, according to the author, is to prevent the rise of an hereditary plutocracy

“The Expendables” Rubin
I got burned once by Rubin’s “Peak Oil” but I think he’s on safer ground here explaining how the Free Trade proselytizers sold out their fellow blue collar citizens

“When More is Not Better” Martin
A takedown of “efficiency” in economics – explaining the problem and outlining the damage. A credit to Martin here that the book is longer on solutions than most

“Straight Talk on Trade” Rodrik
This one’s a little older than the rest of my list, but I wanted to see more from the author who devised the “world economy trilemma” — democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration: pick any two. I was not disappointed and it is excellent.


Doug K 01.05.21 at 4:55 pm

Ha. I think my 200 books did not include any more than a few nonfiction. My reading is essentially frivolous, or done for earning a daily crust..

Born a Crime was one of the few, funny and trenchant.
Horses Don’t Fly, Frederick Libby. Story of a Colorado cowboy who wandered off to Canada and thus to the trenches of WWI, out of which he emerges as a flying ace. I’d never read anything like it.
Steel Bonnets, George Macdonald Fraser (also wrote the Flashman series of British empire mockery). The centuries of cross-border raiding between England and Scotland by the border reivers of both sides. In fact the sides were fluid and ill-defined at best. Gruesome lives.

Thank you Eszter for the positive notes..


novakant 01.05.21 at 11:13 pm

This year I read

“Grand Hotel Abyss” by Stuart Jeffries about the main protagonists of the Frankfurt School (Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Fromm – hope I didn’t forget anyone) very entertaining and insightful.

“Ludwig Wittgenstein” by Ray Monk – very good and a shame what he has been reduced to at times, especially by British academia.

A book about Gerhard Richter and how his work was inspired by Nazi cruelty against his aunt (not available in English, but the recent film covers this as well, though in less detail) – what a heartbreaking story.

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