From economics to memoirs, our top picks of nonfiction reads of 2019

From Melinda Gates’ first book to William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company, here are seven nonfiction books that YS Weekender has picked for your end-of-the-year reading.
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As the year comes to a close and the weather becomes a little nippy, there can be a no better way to wind down and cosy up than staking claim to your favourite chair in the living room, and curling up with a good book.

2019 has been a great year in publishing with several books in every genre being embraced by book lovers all the world. It saw beloved literary author Margaret Atwood chase her inimitable Handmaid’s Tale with the dystopia sequel, The Testaments. Other fictional greats of this year include Daisy Jones & The Six and On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.

But 2019 also gave us some standout nonfiction.

Be it for self-development or a dose of inspiration, for whetting one’s curiosity on a subject or just learning more about the world, non-fiction that is lightly written can make for great reads.

A good book can enrich and delight

So, make that cup of hot cocoa, silence your phone, and get cracking on these seven nonfiction titles that have stood out for us. There is a little bit of something for everyone: memoirs, history, food, and self-development, among other things.

1. The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

That the East India Company has forever changed the course of Indian history is no breaking news. But how did a charter company established to conduct trade come to wrench power of a huge nation (and other parts of Asia as well), subjugate its people, and become the political face of Britain in India? Historian William Dalrymple, in his typical captivating style, shows how the East India Company’s arrival at a time of Mughal mismanagement helped the company sniff out and take advantage of the country’s fractured political scenario. What followed was a total dominion over the massive country, draconian measures, and the world’s first government bailout.

Published in September 2019, Dalrymple’s book is an exhaustive and well-researched account of the biggest precursor to modern-day capitalism, and how multinational companies wield power on not just the world’s trade market but also the political forces in the countries they operate in.

2. Stillness Is the Key: An Ancient Strategy for Modern Life, by Ryan Holiday

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

From a great piece of historical nonfiction, we dive into a timely book on stoicism by its well-known modern-day proponent: Ryan Holiday. Stoicism, or the ancient Greek school of philosophy that was co-opted in the form of war-time slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, is a great way to bear through and overcome life’s many hurdles.

With this book, author Ryan Holiday shows how and why we should adopt stoicism in our lives. From examples littered across history of men and women who cloaked themselves in stillness to achieve greatness, Holiday gently shows why quiet reflection is best. Be it Gandhi and Buddha or Oprah and Churchill, some of the world’s most inspiring figures have benefitted from stillness, the key that can open the door to greatness, peace, and creativity.

3. Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit V Banerjee, Esther Duflo

The 21st Century has ushered in a range of complex phenomena: globalisation, technological disruption, climate change, rampant capitalism — and the resultant ever-widening gap of inequality, immigration, and political rhetoric that is misaligned with even development. It is in this scenario that MIT Economics professors Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo act as a beacon of hope that all is not lost yet and all the challenges we face today can be addressed with compassion.

Thorough research illuminates every argument that the Nobel Prize-winning couple posits, and helps us understand in lucid terms through randomised control trials the similarities and differences between advanced and developing economies.

While Left-leaning ideologies stand out, the authors do not preach, but instead, take on each challenge we face today and match them with intelligently arrived at conclusions on data backed by current economic research. Even as it shows the way, the book raises a lot of important questions on popular decisions and accepted ways of measuring development. A must-read for the times for live in.


4. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

If you want a nonfiction that reads like a nail-biting apocalyptic thriller, get your hands on a copy of Midnight in Chernobyl. Author Adam Higginbotham, through two-decades’ worth of journalism and stupendous research, gives a blow-by-blow account of one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has seen. April 25,1986 not only affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people but brought an effective end to a shaky Communist regime in former Soviet Union. The minutely detailed chronicle of the disaster and aftermath can render this book a fitting competition to any sci-fi bestseller.

Unfortunately, for the many lives that were directly affected by the catastrophe, the reality could not be wished away by like a hastily closed piece of fiction. The author carefully examines the science that birthed nuclear power, and how it spelled doom for the political force and its treasury in the USSR.

A disaster the likes of which the world has hitherto never seen, Chernobyl is a cautionary tale couched in recent history for any country to be respectful of Earth’s fragile ecology. Guileless heroism, technical improvisation in the face of an unprecedented environmental, political and economic emergency, and a whole host of characters springing to action hours after the situation escalated in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant make this book a compelling read.

5. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

No one is too small to make a difference by Greta Thunberg

Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’

This is an excerpt of Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. The 16-year-old from Sweden has become a household name due to her bold environmental activism, which has roused youngsters from across the world into taking action for their future. In this collection of her speeches, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee urges people and governments to take necessary steps to address global warming. The effects of climate change are everywhere and it is our duty to act upon them in a swift manner that is devoid of politics.

Greta is a true hero of our times and an inspiration to millions of youngsters who take part in protests and use various platforms to draw the world’s eyes to the biggest ecological challenges (and the reasons behind them) that we face today. Displaying wisdom beyond her years, Greta’s collection of speeches conveys a sense of urgency and provides a clear-eyed take on what must be done, immediately, to save our dying planet.

6. Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

Save me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

Famed food writer and acclaimed restaurant critic Ruth Reichl has a way with words. She helps bring any dish alive; it is almost as if you can smell the steam rising from the pages as she describes a luscious soup or a juicy piece of steak. A trailblazer for women in the field, Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir is a delicious romp through her time whilst heading the prestigious Gourmet magazine, and her significant work to upturn the stiff image it had come into.

Unlike her other memoirs, this book does not have that many recipes, but does include her famous chocolate cake that shows that this critic does not just know good food but can cook it too.

Interspersed with all the hunger-inducing descriptions of good food, Ruth reveals what it is to be a working mom who had to often miss mealtimes with her family for the sake of her job. Between all the fancy restaurant hopping and stories of eating with the stars, she cooks up a mean portrayal of a woman who is trying to balance it all.

Read it, not just for tales of the mouth-watering food that she got to sample, but also to be inspired by a towering figure in the American food scene who, like many of us, was not spared the unfair biases and guilt that come with being a woman.

7. The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

“If you invest in a girl or a woman, you’re investing in everyone else,” says Melinda Gates, Forbes’ third most powerful woman in the world, in her first book.

Armed with over two decades of work in activism and philanthropy, Melinda Gates may be married to the world’s richest man, but it is the world’s women that she is heavily backing for overall development. Through her book, she clearly states ways in which economic and social uplift is possible in developing and advanced countries alike when the clearly defined goals propel mainstream investment in women’s health, equity, work, and social standing.

Melinda Gates’ experience working with women in many countries, including India, has given her the insight into how treatment of women acts as a tipping scale for development in the way that truly matters. Her book is peppered with interactions with women from various nations, their struggles and triumphs, and the heroes who are championing women’s rights. As the Co-chairman of the world’s largest private charity, Melinda Gates’ book is a fitting call to take gender equality finally seriously.


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