Best Nonfiction Books of 2018

Below I’ve chosen my 12 favorite nonfiction books published in 2018. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that half of them have a medical theme. Many have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as I’ve done in previous years, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: a potted summary plus why you should read it. Let the countdown begin!


12. The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent for four years in Arizona and Texas. Impressionistic rather than journalistic, his book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that, in giving faces to an abstract struggle, argues passionately that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.


11. Bookworm by Lucy Mangan: Mangan takes us along on a nostalgic chronological tour through the books she loved most as a child and adolescent. No matter how much or how little of your early reading overlaps with hers, you’ll appreciate her picture of the intensity of children’s relationship with books – they can completely shut out the world and devour their favorite stories over and over, almost living inside them, they love and believe in them so much – and her tongue-in-cheek responses to them upon rereading them decades later.


10. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler: An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by the idea that you can claim God’s blessings, financial and otherwise, as a reward for righteous behavior and generosity to the church (“the prosperity gospel”), but if she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future.


9. Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman: Through a snappy blend of personal anecdotes and intensive research, Altman exposes the cultural expectations that make us dislike our bodies, suggesting that a better knowledge of anatomy might help us feel normal. It’s funny, it’s feminist, and it’s a cracking good read.


8. The Unmapped Mind by Christian Donlan: Donlan, a Brighton-area video games journalist, was diagnosed with (relapsing, remitting) multiple sclerosis in 2014; he approaches his disease with good humor and curiosity, using metaphors of maps to depict himself as an explorer into uncharted territory. This is some of the best medical writing from a layman’s perspective I’ve ever read.


7. Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine: For Rebecca Loncraine, after treatment for breast cancer in her early thirties, taking flying lessons in an unpowered glider (everywhere from Wales to Nepal) was a way of rediscovering joy and experiencing freedom by facing her fears in the sky. Each year seems to bring one exquisite posthumous memoir about facing death with dignity; this is a worthwhile successor to When Breath Becomes Air et al.


6. Face to Face by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more; McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve.


5. That Was When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker: Tucker interviewed 70 women aged 16 to 25 for a total of more than 100 hours and chose to anonymize their stories by creating seven composite characters who represent various mental illnesses: depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and borderline personality disorder. Reading this has helped me to understand friends’ and acquaintances’ behavior; I’ll keep it on the shelf as an invaluable reference book in the years to come.


4. Free Woman by Lara Feigel: A familiarity with the works of Doris Lessing is not a prerequisite to enjoying this richly satisfying hybrid of biography, literary criticism and memoir. Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is about the ways in which women compartmentalize their lives and the struggle to bring various strands into harmony; that’s what Free Woman is all about as well.


3. Implosion by Elizabeth W. Garber: The author endured sexual and psychological abuse while growing up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber – a fascinating, flawed figure – outside Cincinnati in the 1960s to 1970s. This is definitely not a boring tome just for architecture buffs; it’s a masterful memoir for everyone.


2. Educated by Tara Westover: Westover writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education as she tells of a young woman’s off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read.



It was a real toss-up between Westover and this one, but since Educated has already gotten a ton of attention this year, I’ve awarded the title of nonfiction book of the year to:


1. Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: A spell-bindingly lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. Its every sentence is well-crafted and memorable; this isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places, but part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in.


My 2018 nonfiction books of the year (the ones I own in print, anyway).

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


Upcoming posts:

27th: Best fiction of the year

28th: Runners-up

29th: Best backlist reads

30th: Other superlatives and some early 2019 recommendations

31st: Library Checkout & Final statistics on my 2018 reading

15 responses

  1. Very handy list for me given that my tbr is very light on non-fiction. Thanks, Rebecca.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fabulous list! so many I’d not heard about to investigate! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Completely agree with you about your number 1 – probably my book of the year too. Especially fascinating because I live in Yorkshire, but a great read for anyone, anywhere.
    Happy Christmas!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely not just for Yorkshire folk! 🙂


  4. Great list! I’ll have to look for several. Best non-fiction for me this year was World in a Grain by Vince Beiser – about of all things, sand. Who’d have thought a book about sand would be so engaging?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds great! I love nonfiction books that are uncategorizable like that. I’ve added it to the TBR.


  5. Bookworm will be one of mine but I won’t be making my list until Jan 1, especially as I am RIGHT NOW reading what will be one of my top ten for the year unless something goes spectacularly wrong in the final quarter. This quite often happens to me so I always leave it till the year has finished. Lovely reading this, and I enjoy as ever the breadth of your interests.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Only one of the books I currently have on the go is a 2018 release, and I doubt I’ll finish it by the 31st, so I went ahead and finalized my lists in mid-December. The one list I will have to add to, though, is my best backlist reads (coming up in a few days). I just finished a book yesterday that I need to shoehorn in.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a doofus: I missed that these were published in 2018. I doubt I’ve read that many in total, though I have had a NetGalley habit this year, so maybe. Anyway, I understand now, and how you’re able to publish these lists “early”. I just do a top 10 I’ve read this year, so that has to wait in case.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved the Cantú and Lucy Mangan too. And my next must-read, as a Yorkshire lass is undoubtedly Under the Rock, which nobody seems to have a bad word about .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There were times when I thought “he’s just showing off!” but he’s such a good writer that he can get away with it.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. […] Why I have it: It appeared on Bookish Beck’s Best Nonfiction books for 2018. […]


  8. […] Myers’s Under the Rock was my nonfiction book of 2018, so I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for its paperback release on the 25th (with a […]


  9. This post was truly worthwhile to read. Great books by the way. Keep it up.


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