For me, 2019 has been a more memorable year for nonfiction than for fiction. Like I did last year, I’ve happened to choose 12 favorite nonfiction books – though after some thematic grouping this has ended up as a top 10 list. Bodies, archaeology, and the environmental crisis are recurring topics, reflecting my own interests but also, I think, something of the zeitgeist.
Let the countdown begin!
- Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch: Surprisingly fascinating stuff, even for a late adopter of technology. The Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. The book addresses things you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. Bursting with geeky enthusiasm.
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie: A fusion of autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by men. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me. There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition.
- Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of the author’s daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn between writing and motherhood, and crafts twinkly pen portraits of others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums.
- Surrender: Mid-Life in the American West by Joanna Pocock: Prompted by two years spent in Missoula, Montana and the disorientation felt upon a return to London, this memoir-in-essays varies in scale from the big skies of the American West to the smallness of one human life and the experience of loss and change. This is an elegantly introspective work that should engage anyone interested in women’s life writing and the environmental crisis.
- (A tie) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson / The Undying by Anne Boyer / Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth: Trenchant autobiographical essays about female pain. All three feel timely and inventive in how they bring together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. A huge theme in life writing in the last couple of years and a great step toward trauma and chronic pain being taken seriously. (See also Notes to Self by Emilie Pine and the forthcoming Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein.)
- Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn: Deep time is another key topic this year. Blackburn follows her curiosity wherever it leads as she does research into millions of years of history, including the much shorter story of human occupation. The writing is splendid, and the dashes of autobiographical information are just right, making her timely/timeless story personal. This would have been my Wainwright Prize winner.
- The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds by Stephen Rutt: The young naturalist travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles – from Skomer to Shetland – courting encounters with seabirds. Discussion of the environmental threats that hit these species hardest, such as plastic pollution, makes for a timely tie-in to wider issues. The prose is elegantly evocative, and especially enjoyable because I’ve been to a lot of the island locations.
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene: In 2015 the author’s two-year-old daughter, Greta, was fatally struck in the head by a brick that crumbled off an eighth-story Manhattan windowsill. Music journalist Greene explores all the ramifications of grief. I’ve read many a bereavement memoir and can’t remember a more searing account of the emotions and thoughts experienced moment to moment. The whole book has an aw(e)ful clarity to it.
- The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson: Bryson is back on form indulging his layman’s curiosity. Without ever being superficial or patronizing, he gives a comprehensive introduction to every organ and body system. He delights in our physical oddities, and his sense of wonder is contagious. Shelve this next to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande in a collection of books everyone should read – even if you don’t normally choose nonfiction.
- Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Species and habitat loss are hard to comprehend even when we know the facts. This exquisitely written book is about taking stock, taking responsibility, and going beyond the numbers to tell the stories of front-line conservation work. Irreplaceable is an elegy of sorts, but, more importantly, it’s a call to arms. It places environmentalism in the hands of laypeople and offers hope that in working together in the spirit of defiance we can achieve great things. So, if you read one 2019 release, make it this one.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
29th: Other superlatives and some statistics
30th: Best backlist reads
31st: The final figures on my 2019 reading
Last summer I very much enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s first book, 60 Degrees North, a memoir cum travel book about looking for a place to call home in the midst of a nomadic life; see my Nudge review. His new book is a gorgeous art object (illustrated by Katie Scott), composed of two- or three-page mini-essays about the real and legendary islands that have disappeared and/or been disproved over the centuries. A few of the names may be familiar – Atlantis, Thule and the Isles of the Blessed, perhaps – but many of the rest are fairly obscure entries in the historical and geographical record.
It’s fascinating to see how some of these islands inhabit both mythological and real space. For instance, my favorite story is that of Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This area where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān or “Marsh Arabs,” and was known to Western visitors such as Gavin Maxwell, who came to collect his otter Mijbil (the subject of Ring of Bright Water) there, and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Tallack writes that Hufaidh “was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and another.” When Thesiger asked locals about the island in the 1950s, he was told that “anyone who sees Hufaidh is bewitched, and afterwards no-one can understand his words.” So Hufaidh was mythical? In a sense, Tallack acknowledges, and yet Saddam Hussein’s deliberate destruction of the marshes after the first Gulf War also obliterated Hufaidh, and even the ongoing campaign of ecological restoration can never bring it back.
I was also intrigued by the tale of the Auroras, presumed to be located between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. They were sighted multiple times between 1762 and 1796, including by a Spanish research ship, but were never seen again after the eighteenth century. Were the sailors simply mistaken? In 1820 Captain James Weddell concluded that they must have confused the Shag Rocks, 100 miles to the east, for a new set of islands. But the mystery remained, as evidenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has a ship’s crew searching for the Auroras as well as for fur seals.
Plato almost certainly invented Atlantis for his allegories, but in reading this book you will learn that some islands are indeed suspected to have sunk, like Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific, which the USA claimed for its guano resources. And while you might think that bogus territories could not exist in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries, a few did: the Terra Nova Islands of the Antarctic were only removed from the map in 1989, and Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico disputed between the United States and Mexico, was only definitively proven not to exist in 2009.
A few of these cases feel thin or repetitive; even with 24 islands discussed in full and another 10 listed with capsule explanations in an appendix, you sometimes get the sense that the book required a lot of barrel-scraping to craft satisfying narratives out of frustratingly incomplete stories. Still, Tallack has done an admirable job parsing fact from fiction and extracting broad lessons about the truths that might lie deeper than our atlas pages:
Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding.
The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication … of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded. We can know where we are and what direction we are traveling with just the click of a button. And though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost.
With its excellent color illustrations, this would make a perfect coffee table book to dip into whenever you have five or ten spare minutes to read an essay or two. I would particularly recommend it to readers who are captivated by maps, historical oddities and hoaxes.
(My review copy came wrapped in matching paper!)
The Un-Discovered Islands releases in the UK tomorrow. My thanks to Kristian Kerr of Birlinn Polygon for the free copy.
Further reading: Two similar books I’ve read are The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (about the search for Thule) and Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins (more tangentially relevant – it’s about historical mistakes and failures). You might also try Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.