Best of 2020: Nonfiction

Complementing yesterday’s list of my top fiction and poetry reads of 2020, I have chosen my six favorite nonfiction works of the year. Last year’s major themes were bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis; this year’s are adjacent: anatomy, nature, deep time, death, and questions of inheritance, both within families and more broadly. What will we leave behind? As usual, these topics reflect my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.

Let the countdown begin!


  1. Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay: Think of this as a juvenile, graphic novel version of Bill Bryson’s The Body; that’s exactly how thorough, accessible, and entertaining it is. Kay ditches his usual raunchiness and plumps for innocuous forms of humor: puns, dad jokes, toilet humor, running gags and so on. But where it counts – delivering vital information about not smoking, mental health, puberty, and facing the death of someone you love – Kay is completely serious, and always lets young readers know when it’s essential to tell an adult or ask a doctor. Henry Paker’s silly, grotesque illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.


  1. Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn: The naturalist’s second essay collection considers themes of connection and change. Quinn regrets the afterlife prospect she lost along with her childhood Christian faith, while adopting a baby leads her to question notions of belonging and inheritance. Whether she’s studying wasps and reptiles or musing on family and faith, she knits her subjects together with meticulous attention. Putting self and nature under the microscope, she illuminates both. (Reviewed for Foreword.)


  1. Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience, and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.


  1. Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.


  1. Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death that it takes a truly special one to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her doctor father and his lessons of empathy and dedication. She wrote in the wake of his death from cancer – an experience that forced her to practice what she preaches as a hospice doctor: focus on quality of life rather than number of days. This passionate and practical book encourages readers to be sure they and their relatives have formalized their wishes for end-of-life care and what will happen after their death.


  1. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Any doubt that Macdonald could write a worthy follow-up to H Is for Hawk evaporates instantly. Though these essays were written for various periodicals and anthologies and range in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, they form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. As you might expect, birds are a recurring theme. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s.


(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)


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


Upcoming posts:

28th: Library Checkout

29th: Runners-up from 2020 (all genres)

30th: Best backlist reads

31st: Random superlatives and some statistics

22 responses

  1. Vesper Flights is an excellent choice. I’ve enjoyed seeing television programmes that Macdonald has made too – she’s very talented.
    Loved Greenery as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Top marks to Jonathan Cape this year: they published the Dee and Macdonald AND The Bass Rock, my novel of the year. I didn’t know she’d done TV programmes; we don’t have a telly so I tend to miss stuff like that.


  2. I must read the Clarke, and would get any of the others from the library (once open again). I might wangle to buy a copy of the Adam Kay for school to go on our science book shelf. Looking forward to all your other posts. I did daily ones last year which was quite an effort, this year I’ve condensed my year end reviews into three… writing my best of list today for the 31st.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What ages does your school cover? I expect this is meant for kids of 8-12 or so, but I loved it at age 37 😉

      Clarke is on a roll with another book out in January, specifically about healthcare work during the COVID crisis.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We’re 4-13, so ideal for us.


  3. There’s not one of these choices that I would refuse the chance to read. My own have ben equally eclectic – here are the top choices: Richard Holloway’s Waiting for the last Bus – your recommendation I think? One to read more than once when you get to my age! My younger daughter is pregnant with her first child who will be brought up in Spanish, Catalan and English, as was the child of the author- Albert Costa – of The Bilingual Brain – so that was fascinating. There was Wintering by Katherine May, read just as the pandemic kicked in, and two great books on birds: Jo Shute’s A Shadow Above, the Fall and Rise of the Raven, and Richard Smyth’s A Sweet Wild Note – I think you recommended both of those. I’ve read perhaps less NF than usual this year, but these were my stand-outs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I, too, enjoyed the Holloway, May and Smyth. May just missed out on my runners-up list this year. You might have discovered those via me, but A Shadow Above is one I haven’t read yet (though the library has a copy and I’m interested). Congratulations on a new grandchild on the way!


  4. Very keen to read Vesper Flights. My nonfiction read of the year was Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keaffe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know so many people who have loved that. I wouldn’t normally pick up a history book, but I may have to make an exception… 😉


  5. Footprints and Greenery are ones I hope to read soon. I think I will do 7 NF and 8 F on my best of list to echo the balance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’ll be a nice mix. I think those two will be right up your street, especially Footprints. If Peter hadn’t reviewed it for Shiny, I bet you or I would have done so!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Not that I need any more nonfiction recommendations from you 😉 but I have added Dear Life (in fact, how have I not read it already?!). Just finished Vesper Flights and loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You and I both read a lot about death, but I can promise that the Clarke was a stand-out. She also has a new book out in the UK next month about working in a hospital during COVID.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I like knowing how you’re arranging your year-end reflections and to be able to see which days will consider which topics. That’s something I’ll keep in mind for next year. (Although I would still be stubborn about not concluding the year until January. LOL) I’ve not read any of these but I think your reviews convinced me to add a couple of them to my TBR. This year I felt, mid-year, that I was reading very little NF, despite having planned to be a little more attentive than I had been in 2019, but I haven’t looked at my log since (from a stat’s perspective, I mean, only to add new items to it), so I’m curious whether that will end up to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt like with your Read the Change and armchair travel posts you were probably getting to a good amount of nonfiction, though you tend to review more fiction?


  8. […] in 2020. (Asterisks = my hidden gems of the year.) Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 12% of my year’s […]


  9. I enjoyed Vesper Flights immensely. Listened to the audiobook, read by the author–such talent!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kate W. (above) also listened to the audiobook! I imagine that worked well, especially for the shorter essays. I’ve never listened to an audiobook, but if I were to try one I think I would want it to be read by the author.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. You make Helen Macdonald’s writing sound so good. So what am I waiting for??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For anyone with even a mild interest in birds and/or nature, I think she’s essential. The nice thing about Vesper Flights is that most of the essays are really short, just a few pages, so you could read a few at a time in between other reads.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s. (My top nonfiction release of […]


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