2016 was seriously the best year I’ve had for books in ages. Despite it not being a great year for, well, pretty much everything else globally.
But in times like these, you grab what happiness you can get, right? So here are my favourite non-fiction books of 2016.
Solitude by Anthony Storr
I was feeling pretty good about 2016 until… well, until 2016 happened.
The first thing that made me feel good about it was reading this book. Solitude by Anthony Storr swiftly raced up the ranks to join my top five books of all time (Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, The Mathematical Experience by Davis & Hersh, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli).
It challenges the idea that people who choose a solitary lifestyle are wrong to do so. Through examples from history and an investigation into various psychological theories, Storr discusses the advantages of the solitary life, and how we should pay more attention to the great satisfaction that can be gleaned from it.
Whether you are a solitary type yourself, or just someone who wants to understand why someone would choose such a lifestyle, Solitude is a book that you must read.
Quiet by Susan Cain
I loved this book because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world, and like the personality traits I possess aren’t somehow deficient, just because I prefer to hover at the back of the room in social occasions (or, more likely, not turn up to them at all).
When I was at my old job, I used to have a debate with my boss regularly about one of the members of my team. As their manager, I was given the unenviable task of encouraging “personal development”, aka making someone do stuff they don’t want to do and trying to pass it off as good for them in some way.
I insisted to my boss that this person didn’t want to become good at public speaking, they had no desire to present things regularly to large groups of people, and surely the whole point of being in a team in the first place was so that people could all use their strengths to work together and form a cohesive, useful whole?
I lost the battle (sorry, dude). But reading Cain’s book made me realise that I’m not the only person who thinks like this, and that made me happy.
If you’re an introverted type who frequently feels frustrated at all the extroverted advice out there – especially in the business world – you’ll probably enjoy this one too.
Vargic’s Miscellany Of Curious Maps by Martin Vargic
Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps is a work of art. Beautiful, intricately designed, funny, sensitive, political, factual, interesting… the list goes on and on.
I bought it as a kind of coffee table curio, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. It’s the kind of book I’ll undoubtedly be visiting again and again.
It’s really very beautiful, and a fantastic addition to any home.
How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb
A great book despite its occasionally sketchy psychological background, How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci is a must-read for any modern human who fancies themselves as something of a Renaissance person.
Bigging up the idea of being a generalist rather than specialising in a single area, the book runs through various exercises that help the reader to notice the world around them and think more deeply about their own assumptions and experiences.
I followed the exercises for a few weeks before, inevitably, life got in the way and I stopped. But I’m an interdisciplinarian in the first place, so perhaps it wasn’t necessary to follow it the whole way through 😉
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
I could not believe that I hadn’t read this book before, and yet somehow I hadn’t.
Part memoir, part philosophy lecture, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the kind of book that might make you question how you think. It’s also filled with quoteable truisms.
There were so many moments in this book where I felt like someone finally understood what was going on inside my brain at times, and for that if nothing else, I loved it.
But there was much more to love; it’s a must-read, a classic, something that should be a well-thumbed addition on every shelf.
Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
How to be in the world is a surprisingly difficult question: one that’s founded religions, started wars, prompted holy books to be written and interpreted. Made people friends and enemies, driven wedges between people whose views on the seemingly simple question of how to exist have begun to diverge.
Moranifesto deals with some of the biggest questions in life, in a way that feels like one human talking to another. Moran is, in my view, a great social philosopher of our time: someone who can access and interpret the thoughts of the populace and reflect them back to us while also providing a level of observation that’s rarely found in this age of instant updates and life lived at full speed.
Augustine: Conversions and Confessions by Robin Lane Fox
Winner of the Wolfson Prize for History 2015, this book charts Augustine’s life up to and including his writing of the Confessions. It compares and contrasts his path with those of other thinkers of his time, including the pagan Libanius.
Conversions and Confessions is an unusual book; immensely well-researched, authoritative, and yet still somehow open-minded. Often, books about philosophers focus too much on the person themselves, devoid of any social context. Lane Fox doesn’t fall into this trap, instead placing Augustine in the time and places in which he lived, and providing sharp psychological insights into the shaping of his beliefs and writings.
A long, involved book that’s worth reading if you’re into Augustine’s philosophical thought.
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris
Art and literature are two areas I particularly love reading about. Especially when set in a historical context and given some kind of interesting slant, I find that creative endeavours in which people produce fictional works can provide a sort of alternate pair of spectacles. As if, by looking at the stories people create through their works of art, we can see more about the factual surroundings of the time as well.
The book is broken down into weather variations, and then into chapters focusing on artists’ impressions of the same. I particularly enjoyed parts VII & VIII, which focused largely on the sky and on rain. I like the sky, as my picture-poem of the same name suggests.
A book that reads like David Attenborough is narrating it, Weatherland will make you look twice at everything.
The Case For Working With Your Hands by Matthew Crawford
This is very much in the same vein as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, except that it’s more about psychology than philosophy, I suppose.
It was recommended to my by a friend years ago, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, but if I’m honest the title put me off. I am notoriously shit at anything involving spatial awareness. When I was a baby, they assumed I had some kind of developmental delay because of how bad I was at that game where you have to put the correct shaped block of wood into the correct hole. Then I learned to read and they realised I was just incredibly bad at working with my hands, but OK otherwise.
However, the book isn’t really just about why it’s satisfying to do work that involves some sort of manual labour. It’s about how work makes us feel and why; what it’s like to be a human and interact with other humans and with the world around us; and what it might mean to be truly contented with life.
It’s a strong contender for Book of the Year.