New York Times Critics Pick the Year’s Top Non-Fiction Books

From a New York Times story headlined “Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021”:

This was a remarkably rich and capacious year for nonfiction. While we all continued to grapple with urgent developing news about the coronavirus, climate change and global politics, authors widened the aperture, publishing books on a dizzying number of subjects: the history of Black artists in the film industry; an American woman who joined the Nazi resistance in Germany; midcentury creative ferment in New York City; the groundbreaking mathematician Kurt Gödel; the playwright Tom Stoppard. Other books told the stories of an 18th-century Irish poem, the “first civil rights movement,” one modest cotton sack that reflects the immense trauma of slavery. We read about gay nightlife and Juneteenth and Watergate, and all of this doesn’t nearly cover the entire list.

Below, selections by The New York Times’s daily book critics of their favorite titles from the past 12 months. The choices come from our four staff critics, Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai, Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs, as well as Parul Sehgal, who was a critic for The Times until July of this year.

An annual note on methodology: The critics limit themselves in this process, each choosing only from those books he or she reviewed for The Times since last year at this time. For more of their thoughts about what they read in 2021, you can read their related roundtable discussion. — John Williams

REIGN OF TERROR: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, by Spencer Ackerman. (Viking.) Spencer Ackerman contends that the American response to 9/11 made President Trump possible. He presents the evidence for this thesis with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, guiding us through two decades and showing how any prospect of national unity in response to 9/11 buckled under the incoherence of the wars that followed. The resulting narrative, our critic Jennifer Szalai wrote, is “upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued.”

TRAVELING BLACK: A Story of Race and Resistance, by Mia Bay. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University.) In this superb history, the question of literal movement becomes a way to understand the civil rights movement writ large. “Once one of the most resented forms of segregation, travel segregation is now one of the most forgotten,” Bay writes. Szalai wrote that Bay is “an elegant storyteller, laying out the stark stakes at every turn while also showing how discrimination wasn’t just a matter of crushing predictability but often, and more insidiously, a haphazard jumble of risks.

JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF REASON: The Life of Kurt Gödel, by Stephen Budiansky. (Norton.) The mathematician Kurt Gödel upended his profession’s assumptions with his “incompleteness theorem,” presented in 1930, when he was 24. But expertise in formal logic isn’t essential for anyone’s enjoyment of this moving biography. Budiansky brings a polymath’s interest to bear on a man whose life intersected with the political and philosophical upheavals of the 20th century. An “emphasis on the human and humane implications of Gödel’s life and work,” Szalai wrote, “gives this book its mesmerizing pull.”

THE COPENHAGEN TRILOGY: Childhood; Youth; Dependency,by Tove Ditlevsen. Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) Ditlevsen, who died in 1976, is beloved in her native Denmark. This one-volume collection of three memoirs is the portrait of an artist and an addict. Ditlevsen writes about her early years and her beautiful, capricious and cruel mother; the joy and necessity she found in writing poetry; and the dark ecstasy of discovering the opioid Demerol. “There is a quality of trance, of autohypnosis, in her style,” Parul Sehgal wrote. “They exert a particular fascination, these books. It’s like watching something burn.”

KING RICHARD: Nixon and Watergate: An American Tragedy, by Michael Dobbs. (Knopf.) This kaleidoscopic book manages to find fresh drama in the story of Watergate. Dobbs’s entry in a crowded field distinguishes itself in part by limiting its narrative mostly to the first hundred days after Nixon’s second inauguration. “This circumscribed frame allows Dobbs to deploy his observational gifts to full effect,” Szalai wrote. From a vast amount of raw material, he has “carved out something intimate and extraordinary, skillfully chiseling out the details to bring the story to lurid life.”

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