The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year – 2020

Another year, another round of “best of” book lists. Each year, I strive to branch out in the topics I read about and diversify my knowledge. This year was filled with a particular emphasis on higher education books (comprising about 23% of my books) given that I began my post-PhD career in higher education research. I also, predictably, spent most of my time in the sciences and behavioral (social) sciences. This year was also big for memoirs, which have been a newfound favorite since 2019.

Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. (Check out my 2019 list here). Each of these was certainly a favorite, but my primary criteria for inclusion was that they were interesting – that they caused me to learn something fundamentally new or look at something common from a fresh perspective. Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2021 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Adventurer’s Son, by Roman Dial

The Adventurer’s Son was hands down my favorite book that I read this year, and a constant recommendation to literally anyone who will listen. This was one of those rare finds at the bookstore (which, incidentally, is how I found my 2019 favorite book, too!) shortly after the spring lockdown was lifted. I was browsing through the nature and wildlife section when my eye caught the cover of this book. I initially picked it up because I couldn’t believe that a paragraph of text was put on the cover of a book! But someone in marketing knew what they were doing because I didn’t hesitate to buy it after reading.

This memoir is one for your heartstrings. An Alaskan adventurer to some of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet, Professor Roman Dial reared his son to be an adventurer, too. A truly envious childhood yielded an independent and adventurous son, who eventually embarked on a solo South American wilderness trip with no predetermined end date. When communication with his son suddenly stopped, Roman hoped for the best, but was prepared for the worst. Documenting his search for his son over the ensuing years will keep you turning the pages. It’s the perfect weekend read.

Buy it here.

2. The College Dropout Scandal, by David Kirp

I am quixotic about the potential of higher education and its role in society. This year I have been pouring over books and research in an effort to develop actionable solutions to some of higher education’s most pressing problems as I embark in my new career. The College Dropout Scandal was the perfect mix of blunt reality combined with the encouraging documentation of universities that have truly witnessed profound improvements in their institutions to drastically improve student academic outcomes.

(Too) Many professors I know are cynical about higher education and their role as educators to help their students reach their potential. And, honestly, it’s hard to blame them. Too many young adults are pushed into higher education with no clear plan, too many of them fail upon arrival, it costs way too much, and most of our universities have morphed into behemoth businesses where the customer is always right. Even so, I truly believe that we educators have an obligation to do our very best work in the classroom, and strive to re-focus our universities on providing the very best education we possibly can to each of our students. Kirp’s book will give you a boost of optimism and motivation that are desperately needed right now in higher education.

Buy it here.

3. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, by Thomas Chatterton Williams

2020 has been a significant year for so many reasons, but the resurgence of race relations at the center of cultural discussions has perhaps been the most profound. I read Self Portrait in Black and White in February as I was gathering various perspectives on race to help formulate my own thoughts pertaining to the academic debate of whether race is a social construct or biological following the publication of Human Diversity by Charles Murray.

The most enduring part of his story that has stuck with me is his experience of being “Black” in America, yet simply “American” when in France (where he currently lives). His perspective shows how central Black-white (and other) race categories are in the US, especially in our current hyper-racialized culture; but, when he travels elsewhere he is first regarded as “American” rather than “Black.” Reading Chatterton Williams’ book was refreshing, and a key book that should be included in this year’s concerted effort to amplify (diverse) Black voices in current cultural discussions.

Buy it here.

4. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life is absolutely a book that can be judged by its beautiful cover! It’s as intellectually warping as it is beautiful, and Sheldrake will certainly teach you something new. Sheldrake takes you on a fantastically fungally journey through the myriad ways that fungi form the foundation of our world.

I was truly astonished to learn how complex – and, dare I say – intelligent fungi are. Without anything that would remotely resemble what human and animal scientists would consider a functional “brain”, fungi behave in ways that cannot be easily understood in current conceptual frameworks of “intelligence”. A true intellectual trip (pun obviously intended), Entangled Life will blow you away at each new insight.

Buy it here.

5. The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, by Jonathan Zimmerman

College teaching: the thing so obviously central to our universities, yet underpaid and undervalued. I have a lot to say about college teaching, but it can be mostly summed up to: (1) it matters, and (2) it needs to be taken far more seriously than it currently is at our nations leading universities. The Amateur Hour demonstrates just how not seriously teaching has been taken since the 18th century in American Universities. As Zimmerman states, “college teaching has probably seen less change than almost any other American institutional practice” and “has languished for too long under the dead hand of tradition.”

Tradition. That word that is so prohibitive to systematic change in teaching practices, most notoriously at our research-intensive universities. Why do we bore students to death with lectures? Why not lecture! It’s how teaching has always been done, critics of reform will retort. And although those critics would not be fully wrong, they would also be ignoring mountains of research on how people learn and what constitutes effective pedagogy. The Amateur Hour is a true classic in the making showing, without uncertainty, how poor the incentive structure for teaching is at our major universities — doing not only a disservice to our students, but also to scholars that put in the work to ensure their courses are evidence-based. A required reading for anyone who is allowed in our university classrooms.

Buy it here.

Keep up with what I’m reading throughout the year by following me on Goodreads.

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