2015 will go down as the year I read a ton of outstanding nonfiction. So much outstanding nonfiction did I read over the course of the year that I now find it difficult to compile my annual year-end top 10 list. Even if I expand my list from 10 to 12, I’m still leaving off a few books that any other year would have surely made the cut. I guess this is happens when you read a lot of great books!
- Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen – Interested in infectious diseases like AIDS, Ebola and SARS and how they “jump” from animals to humans? Then this is your book.
- The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? by Doug Saunders – Appalled and angered by the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino? Sick of Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric? Saunders’ book is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the modern secular West.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness brought this book to my attention four years ago, but I needed my book club to make me read it. Fantastic book about America’s great African-American migration and its lasting impact.
- 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann – Just like with The Warmth of Other Suns, it took my book club to make me finally read this excellent book. If you’re a Guns, Germs and Steel kind of reader, then this book is definitely for you.
- Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright – I expected great things from the author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. His detailed, intimate and well-written account the Camp David Peace summit did not disappoint me.
- The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird – Yet another book I have Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness to thank for bringing to my attention. Calling it “one of the more comprehensive yet readable books” on the Middle East she’s encountered, I’d have to say the same thing. I found it a great follow-up to Bird’s 2010 book Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978. If you can, read it alongside Wright’s Thirteen Days in September.
- The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler – Found this little gem last year at a church book sale. Just like Warmth of Other Suns it’s full of great social history.
- Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – Why oh why did I wait five years before reading this superb piece of nonfiction? Jean, on her blog Howling Frog Books, called Bloodlands “the most unremittingly grim and tragic book I’ve ever read. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, because YOU SHOULD. But it won’t be fun.” No wonder it’s probably the best book on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.
- Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum- I loved Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 so much it wound up being my favorite nonfiction book of 2013. Guess what? I loved her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner Gulag: A History even more.
- The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner – Back in 2013 this book generated a lot of buzz. In 2015 I finally read it. An entertaining, fast-paced and fascinating look at America during the turbulent early 70s, as seen through the lens of the era’s great “skyjacking” craze. More great social history.
- The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein – After praising the hell out of this book back in early November I don’t think I can say anything else more repeating myself. Just go read it and thank me later.
- The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – Thank you to Goodreads for introducing me to this Pulitzer Prize-finalist book. Ever wonder why maps from the 50s and 60s show Pakistan bordering India not just on the West but also on the East? Blood Telegram is the horrible, fascinating and now-forgotten story of how the nation of Bangladesh came to be. It’s also the story of how America looked the other way during one of the 20th century’s worst genocides.
Looking at this list, several things jump out at me. Foremost, it certainly reflects my interest in The Middle East, American social history, 20th century history and science. Several of these books are by authors who impressed me in the past and did not disappointment me this second time around. Also, several of these books won major awards or were finalists. Lastly, it looks like five books on this list each weigh in at over 500 pages in length. Perhaps with books, as it is with other things in life, bigger is better.
Since I read so many excellent books this year, it’s hard to say which is my favorite nonfiction book of 2015. After much consideration, the winner goes to Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge. His outstanding book beat out Gulag and Bloodlands by the narrowest of margins, with The Warmth of Other Suns, Thirteen Days in September and The Good Spy also strong finishers. But considering the overall quality of these 12 above-mentioned books, top to bottom it’s probably the best assortment of books I’ve read in a long, long time.