The best nonfiction books for 2018 included three phenomenal releases in United States history; one of the best books to date on the practice of Stoicism; a much needed book on skepticism reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World; and releases by both Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari.
Here are my picks for the top 10 nonfiction books of 2018:
1. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
This is my pick for the best book of the year. If you think the world is going to hell, this is the remedy and the solution. In his follow-up to The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker shows that, ever since humanity has adopted the enlightenment values of reason, science, and humanism, almost every conceivable measure of human progress has trended upward, and that continued progress depends on embracing these ideals. The book has received a lot of criticism, but if you actually read it, I think you’ll find that most of the criticism is misguided. And if you haven’t read it, you should also check out The Better Angels of Our Nature.
2. These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
This is hands down the best single-volume history of the United States I’ve read. Lepore presents a sweeping history centered around the theme of the United States’ rocky attempt to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, reason, and experimentation established by the founders and codified in the Declaration and Constitution. Lepore also reminds us that political polarization has haunted the US throughout all of its history, and is far from being exclusive to the contemporary world. As bad as it is today, for example, no one is being challenged to a duel or brutally attacked in congress.
3. American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis
This is an incredible book, and should probably have wider readership than it does. Ellis provides an in-depth examination of contemporary issues from the perspectives of the founders and what they had said and wrote on each topic. Ellis advocates for the idea—supported by the founders themselves—that the past is not to be looked to with unwavering reverence, nor to be used as an excuse to abide by outdated notions, but rather to be used only to raise the level of contemporary debate.
4. The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual by Ward Farnsworth
I’ve read several books on Stoicism, and this is one of the best. The chapters are organized around topics, and most of the text consists of the original quotes from the Stoics themselves, with commentary by the autor. This presentation makes it easier to assimilate the ideas and to return later for future reference.
5. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
This book presents a higher-level view of the major problems facing the world, including climate change, the threat of nuclear war, growing inequality, artificial intelligence, job displacement, and disillusionment with liberalism. Harari offers a few solutions, but the main thrust of the book is a reminder that global problems cannot be solved with local solutions in the form of religion or nationalism.
6. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe by Dr. Steven Novella
This is probably the best book on skepticism and critical thinking since Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. This covers all of the skills and concepts one would need to develop better skeptical thinking skills, and the focus on cognitive biases in the first part of the book is a major highlight. As I said in my review, though, I still don’t think the authors gave appropriate credit to Karl Popper when discussing falsifiability and the line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience.
7. The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Here’s another controversial book that I think is largely misinterpreted. The authors are not claiming that every college campus is inflicted with these problems; they are simply noticing a trend that it would be wise to stop before it gets out of hand. Reading this book should convince you that the staple of a college education should be free speech and the analysis and debate of all ideas, and that the promotion of safe spaces and the removing of offensive material creates the same type of mentality that our best psychological therapies (namely, cognitive behavioral therapy) aim to treat.
8. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
This is a great compliment to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, as it analyzes, in depth, the psychology behind the reasons why people deny progress and have an inherently distorted picture of the world. The overarching idea is that people have real trouble holding the following two ideas in their mind simultaneously: that it is possible for the world to be bad and better at the same time.
9. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
This important book reminds us (much like Lepore’s These Truths) that the US has experienced division, hatred, bigotry, and adversity before, yet in all cases moral progress has been made, albeit slowly. This puts the contemporary situation of the US in perspective and reminds us that we’ve endured worse, and that an underlying tendency toward equality and justice propels us forward.
10. The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
Expanding on the theme of his previous book—that reality is not what it seems—Rovelli focuses exclusively on the topic of time and how time might not be anything like you think it is. Time, contrary to common sense, is (probably) a psychological construction and not part of the fabric of reality. Rovelli explains the implications of this and takes the reader through the history of physics to outline our evolving conceptions of time, and where we may end up.