My favorite nonfiction books of 2023, wrapped!
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This year I read 131 books! I’m a voracious reader, and I typically have about four going at any one time. Some people think this is ridiculous, but what if I’m not in the mood for a fantasy novel right now? Or what if I don’t have the mental bandwidth to absorb all the gems of the development book I’m reading? So I usually have 4 to 5, each serving a different purpose.
Of those, I read more than 30 nonfiction. My tastes range pretty broadly: I like memoirs, humor, travel, development, faith, historical nonfiction… Most things. The irony is that many of the specific categories I don’t prefer (war histories or financial planning, to name a few) are some of my husband’s favorites.
2023 saw me rereading some old favorites! A few on road trips – having a great audiobook makes the miles (or kilometers, since I’m in Europe) go faster. And since my husband and I are more likely to agree on nonfiction, there were a few old favorites I picked back up to listen to together.
If fiction’s more your thing, I’ve already shared my 2023 top ten. But here are my favorite nonfiction books of 2023 in no particular order!
Best Nonfiction Books of 2023
A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell
Virginia Hall was an American socialite turned Allied spy in Vichy France. She coordinated the biggest Resistance spy network in the country and evaded capture countless times even as her face was plastered on wanted posters. The other thing? She had a wooden leg, so she never quite blended in at the best of times.
A Woman of No Importance feels like a slightly unbelievable historical fiction in all the best ways: you just cannot believe the things a one-legged American woman did – and survived – during WWII! It’s a great story and my favorite historic book of the year.
I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet, Shauna Niequist
Nearly everything I’ve read by Shauna Niequest makes my top list that year. Her gentle yet clear-eyed perspective on life and faith has always rung true for me. I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet is no different.
The subtitle says it all: discovering new ways of living when the old ones stop working. Written during and after the COVID lockdowns, she gets into the “okay, what now?” question so many of us have faced and continue to grapple with. But one of the things I love about her essays is that the honest exploration isn’t so narrow as to only apply to lockdowns or her own life: it expands out, making her consistently one of my favorite authors.
Dirt, Bill Buford
A food writer decides to move to Lyon, France, and learn about French cuisine. It’s not a crazy concept – there are tons of this type of book nowadays. But Buford did a particularly beautiful job of really digging in on the making of traditional Lyonnaise cuisine and culture while sharing stories with humor and history.
My main critique? None of this would’ve worked without his saint of a wife, who handled nearly all the logistics of immigrating and was the primary parent to their twin toddlers during his French kitchen walkabout. She deserves 100% of the proceeds of the book to go chase her big crazy dreams for a few years.
Forgiving him that, Dirt is a great entertaining book for anyone who loves food and likes to learn about food. It makes you want to try the weirdest, (grossest?) local sausages. You feel like you know Bob the baker. You consider if you can swing a few years in France, staging in local restaurants. It’s a fun read.
The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly, Margareta Magnusson
This one is a bit strange, but oh so good. Margareta Magnusson gives all the advice we didn’t get (or didn’t listen to) from our grandparents about living the best possible life.
She has a separate book about the Swedish practice of döstädning, death cleaning: decluttering your home and life before you die or can’t do it yourself. While it sounds morbid, the practice is both a gift to your family and a way to focus on the best parts of your life.
The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly is the natural follow-up: part advice-giving, part stories of her life, and part inspiration to make the best of our days on earth. While it may feel a bit grim to American sensibilities, I finished the book feeling motivated to not sweat the things that don’t matter and dig deep into the things that make me come alive.
Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown
Brene Brown is another perennial favorite. Atlas of the Heart takes it back to basics, identifying and defining the words we use to talk about our emotions. While it may sound unnecessary, I think there’s so much of this that the world needs right now. For example, understanding the difference between fitting in vs. belonging: belonging is being where you want to be and they want you to be there, while fitting in is being where you want to be and they don’t care if you’re there or not. That small but crucial distinction vastly changes our experience of and satisfaction in any group setting.
One piece of advice? Atlas of the Heart may be better as a physical book rather than audiobook. The art is gorgeous and reading it is set up as a fuller experience in the book, complete with illustrations and purposefully typesetting.
I Hate the Ivy League, Malcolm Gladwell
While I’ll recommend any of Malcolm Gladwell books, I especially loved this one. I Hate the Ivy League is a collection of his Revisionist History podcast episodes covering higher education, digging into the pitfalls and hypocrisy of the American university system.
Does he say we should chuck all higher education? No! But I do think so much pressure is put on factors of getting in, paying for, and choosing the best university; pressure that doesn’t necessarily pay off.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite essay. The comparison of dining halls as a microcosm of university spending for financial aid is one I continue to think about. The conversation about HBCUs and how to raise their stature in national rankings. The Supreme Court Justice admitting he would never recruit a clerk from a non-Ivy, then turning around and saying his best clerk wasn’t from an Ivy.
It’s an audiobook only, because of its podcast origins. I highly recommend a listen.
Good Enough, Kate Bowler
I’ve loved Kate Bowler’s honesty in the face of horrifically hard situations for several books. She doesn’t hold back on the reality, but also manages to talk about it with grace for herself and others without falling into cliches and hollow words.
Good Enough is a series of devotions “for a life of imperfections” (her words). It offers comfort when you’re living in the midst of hard situations – basically, the human condition – without making judgments on how hard your thing may be compared to anyone else’s. It’s rooted in Christian theology and backs it up Biblically without smacking you in the head with “do it this way,” something the world desperately needs more of.
Atomic Habits, James Clear
It feels a bit like cheating to put Atomic Habits on here, only because it was also on my top ten list for 2021. But I read it again last month and felt both inspired and kicked in the pants by it, so it’s worth mentioning again.
The 1% better rule. The need for specificity in goal setting and habit forming. Goals don’t work but systems do. There are so many nuggets in Atomic Habits that I’m still thinking about, and they’re different ones than what stood out the first time I read it. Definitely worth a reread.
The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama
In the same vein as several of my favorite nonfiction books of 2023, Michelle Obama talks frankly about facing the hardships (both acute and long-term) of our lives. Her delivery is so steady, clear and honest without diminishing the pain or complications of a messed-up world.
Like Becoming, she draws on personal stories to illustrate her best practices, like putting together a “kitchen table” of people who support, mentor, and stand by you. I especially enjoyed The Light We Carry as an audiobook: it felt like sitting down with Obama to pick her brain about life over a coffee.
Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey
I know I’m late to the party on this one. I love Matthew McConaughey’s acting – he’s just plain fun, right?? But I didn’t know how well that would translate into a memoir. So it never made it to the top of my reading list.
Turns out, it translates beautifully. Greenlights is just a fun book! Mostly his life story, McConaughey peppers in hilarious little sayings the whole way though. The insight into his real life makes many of the characters he plays make even more sense – he’s just himself, all the time. Read this if you want something fun and silly, sometimes raucous and mostly wholesome.
It’s the first days of 2024 and I’m already deep into Taste by Stanley Tucci – one that will almost certainly make this year’s top ten list. What are your favorite nonfiction books of 2023?
Want more book ideas? Check out my annual best-of lists! I’ve done them for the past decade, so there’s plenty to try!