Best Nonfiction of 2021 (and Honorable Mentions)

Hello, humans, humanoids, Hungarians, and other groups starting with “h.” It has been over a year since my last post about the best non-fiction books I read in 2020. And what a year it has been. From the insurrection of 1/6 to the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, from Michael K. Williams to Joan Didion, it has been the year of disenchanting thinking. But it could have been worse if not for the wisest and most unfailing of friends: books.  

For the 4th consecutive time, I am reviewing five of the best non-fiction books I have read in the past 365 days. (You can find my 2018, 2019, and 2020 reviews here, here, and here.) And, as you may imagine, I am looking forward to making it five straight on next year. 

For now, since I preach distillation – the process of slicing through the fat to get to the meat  – to my students, I thought it would be only proper to review my favorites in  five sentences apiece. 

(If I had more time, I would have done it in three sentences. Or, at least, in five shorter sentences and with less parentheses.) 

Anyway, in no particular order, here goes: 

  1. Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen

Is it better to be lucky than good?

Unexpected circumstances may have conspired in Joe Biden’s favor when he ran for the highest office in the land, such as that inexcusable Iowa caucus mix-up which diverted attention from Biden’s disaster showing and the pandemic lockdown which minimized potential for his infamous gaffes. 

But luck alone did not win him the nomination and the presidency. Biden’s decency and empathy – not to mention Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar dropping out early to rally behind him in the primaries – made him president too. 

In short, it is best to be lucky and represent goodness  and play on a good team.

  1. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann 

Until reading this book, I had thought the wealthiest people per capita in the world during the roaring 20’s were probably in New York City. In truth, they were members of the Osage Indian nation who took in the equivalent today of over 400 million dollars after discovering oil underneath their reservation. But, they kept on being murdered, bit-by-bit, without justice. 

In researching and telling this true crime story, David Grann does a masterful job of weaving characters seemingly too sinister and events too shocking to be really true. Not just for historical preservation but to shine a light on the monstrosity of greed & racism meeting ambition & opportunity. 

(It is no small wonder that Martin Scorese is directing a movie based on this book, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jesse Plemons, which is scheduled to be released soon.)

  1. Atomic Habits, James Clear 

In James Clear’s words: 

“Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals.”

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

To create a good habit, “Make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.”

  1. You Ought to Do a Story About Me: Addiction, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Endless Quest for Redemption, Ted Jackson 

At first glance, this is a book about an award-winning photojournalist who was taking photos under a bridge in New Orleans and stumbled upon a homeless drug addict, Jackie Wallace, who said, “You ought to do a story about me.” After all, he had starred at the University of Arizona, for the New Orleans Saints, and played in three Super Bowls, only to succumb to poverty, trauma, and drugs. 

At closer examination, it is a love story about two people trying to write, and re-write, the last chapters of their lives through fellowship. Heartbreaking and gripping, “You Ought to Do a Story About Me” offers a glimpse into the tension between addiction and recovery, squandered potential and unabating hope. Not only through words but also with photographs that add richness, credence, and weight to their story. 

  1. The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education, Craig Mullaney

At heart of this book is a young man’s search for meaning and belonging in a nasty, brutish, and short world. In his journey, Craig Mullaney traveled from West Point where he could only say three things as a plebe (“no, sir”, “yes, sir”, and “no excuses, sir”) to Ranger School where he carried a 80-pound backpack up & down mountains and through thickets & swamps for hundreds of miles to Oxford where he was told that “conversation is an end in itself” to Afghanistan where he was a platoon leader — and then, finally, to civilian life where he married his college sweetheart. 

While overearnest and too dramatic at times, the memoir is a compelling read. Mullaney makes a persuasive case through philosophy and experience that the secret to life in an unforgiving world is a healthy body, mind, and spirit. Although it is not clear if he has achieved this triumvirate, still to this day.    


  1. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie S. Glaude 

As James Baldwin exhorted at Howard in 1963, “We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.” 

  1. Lost City of Z, David Grann

Percy Fawcett’s swashbuckling journeys into the Amazon – and his demise – are a vivid illustration of how obsession is a drug that elevates and maddens the best of us.

  1. The Hot Hand, Ben Cohen 

To imagine patterns in randomness is to be human – and flawed. 

  1. Basketball (and Other Things), Shea Serrano

Disrespectful dunks and trash talk during pick-up basketball are funnier than you think.

  1.  Peril, Robert Woodward and Robert Costa

The last days of Trump’s presidency could have been (far) more perilous if not for unexpected heroes under his command who fulfilled their oaths to defend the Constitution and averted a monumental democratic crisis.  


What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?  Do you have a book to recommend? If so, let me know.   

Until next time, wishing you a tranquil New Year and a brighter 2022.