Surviving Twenty Something

The Best Non-Fiction I Read In 2017

BooksDanna Rowan
Photo 2018-01-18, 3 50 57 PM.jpg

If I share my favourite fiction reads of 2017, then surely I must share my favourite non-fiction reads, right? Right?

I think so. 

This year I read quite a few business reads, a lot of books on design, as well as some history and a smattering of nature writing. I'll spare you endless pages about typography as that's a fairly niche interest, but here are nine of my favourite non-fiction reads from this year that I think just about anyone can pick up and enjoy.


1. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


I'm not a person who reads a ton of business books (maybe I should?), preferring instead to get to trying things out on my own and seeing what works and what doesnt. So when I heard people talking about Essentialism, I thought: "Hey, this seems like my kind of business read."

Because it's not another business book about how to do more, it's a book about how to do less— and to do it well.

Taking aim at endless business meetings, hours spent responding to useless email and working desperately to do all the things, McKeown argues that staying small, focused, and a master of what you are best at is the way the most successful people get where they are.

A concise, compelling read that shifts the way I think about my business every day.


2. The Age of the Vikings


If you know me even a little, you'll say "a book about Vikings? Not even slightly surprised." And I would bury my head under the covers in shame... with a copy of the Poetic Eddas.

If you're interested in Scandinavian history and culture, Winroth's The Age of the Vikings is a good place to start. Effortlessly readable, Winroth takes us through the fundamentals of the Viking age, giving us a glimpse into their dress, food, politics, war, literature, and daily life (p.s. not all raiding and pillaging). 

Winroth breaks the myth of Vikings as a vicious, brutal culture (viking was actually an occupation, not a people), by exposing the nuance in medieval Scandinavian communities and comparing the lifestyle of the ship-building explorers to other European cultures.


3. The Happiness of Pursuit


You may know Chris Guillebeau as the author of The $100 Startup, or you amy know him as the travel-hacking guy who has visited every country in the world.

When I picked up The Happiness of Pursuit, I didn't know of him at all, but was recommended this book from an online store's "things you may also like" section. 

Needless to say, it caught my eye, and while sitting on a beach in Bahamas escaping a miserable Canadian February, I read this book and immediately had 4168 ideas of what kind of outlandish projects I wanted to occupy the rest of my life with. Never before have I read a book that was at once ridiculous, and so thoroughly motivating.

In The Happiness of Pursuit, Guillebeau shares case studies from people around the world and how their personal quests— big or small, meaningful or trivial (though usually the bigger the better. It is a quest after all)— impacted what would otherwise be a garden-variety human life.

So... what is your quest going to be?


4. Tools of Titans


First of all, I'd like to point out that the most people are not Tim Ferriss. Even Tim Ferriss isn't Tim Ferriss, at least not all of the time (suicide talk link). If you were to attempt to take on everything in this book, I think you'd explode like a watermelon short with an 8th grade potato gun.

I'd also like to point out that I have essentially no interest in the 'health' section of the book (though I did slog through it all with burgeoning horror and fascination) as I'm unlikely to ever give up carbs, or injest anything that shares tasting notes with jet fuel.

That aside, there were some really great pieces in this book, which is essentially comprised of condensed versions of his best podcast episodes. Humourous, honest, and digestible (you can crack this one open anywhere and glean some useful tactic or wisdom), Tools of Titans will have a place on my desk for quite some time.


5. Happy City


I had no idea I found city planning so fascinating until I read Happy City. Equal parts revelatory and stunningly frustrating (just wait til you get to the part about how big auto companies intentionally sabotaged excellent public transportation systems). 

Happy City explores what it is about the places we live that make us happy, what's wrong with so many of our cities now, and what we can do about it.

Montgomery throws into clarity so many things I have felt in the cities I've lived in, but never understood quite well enough to describe.

If you thought city planning was dusty stuff, this book will happily squash that assumption for you, and while it's at it, really make you want to pack up and move to Copenhagen.


6. Gathering Moss


A natural and cultural history of mosses.

Yes, mosses. The fuzzy green shit you see on road-side boulders and your sister-in-laws DIY wedding table centerpieces.

And it's incredible.

I first encountered Robin Wall Kimmerer reading her second book Braiding Sweetgrass, (which LibraryThing recommended me after reading H is for Hawk), and I was immediately captivated. Kimmerer's writing exudes warmth and intelligence and her fierce passion for her work is palpable on every page.

Gathering Moss is no exception. Kimmerer, like a real-life Ms. Frizzle, brings us down into the microscopic and surprisingly fascinating world of mosses, sharing their use, their history, and their value and place in this world, in a way that will leave you thiking about mosses more than you could have ever anticipated.


7. The Etymologicon


This book is a baffling, enlightening and endlessly humourours and witty journey through the words and phrases we use everyday and their often surprising origins.

I read The Etymologicon in its entirety on a train journey from Penzance to Par and back (don't ask me where Par is), laughing and exclaiming most of the way and drawing not a few strange looks from my fellow passengers.

I learned such astounndingly wonderful things such as how toxins and archery are related, what chess has to do with ancient Persia, and how black and white might actually be the same.

You should try it.


8. The Obstacle is the Way


Is one of the best things I read this year, and probably last year as well, hands down (should I have put it up at the top? I should have put it up at the top).

In what is essentially a crash course on the philosophy of Stoicism, Holiday present a series or short, digestible chapters with well-told narrative examples and practical advice (despite the term 'philosophy' sounding very armchair, much of what is discussed here is practical and instantly applicable).

"Remember that this moment is not your life, it's just a moment in your life."

Holiday shows how the things that cause us strife, stress, frustration, and unhappiness are really the parts of our life we should be embracing as they show us the path forward to become stronger, wiser, more resillient, and more fulfilled people, and how to harness these moments for our own personal transformation.


9. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England


If you're sick of history books that seem to only bang on about battles and blue bloods, I cannot recommend The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England enough.

In one of the most delightful (and informative) history books I've read in a long time, Mortimer takes us on a journey back in time to the 14th century and gives us the grand tour as if we are actually there. 

We explore geography and common knowledge, politics and law, art and culture, health and medicine, and daily life in a way that helps us see the medieval English for what they were— real people.

The Time Traveller's Guide is a fun, accessible, and decidedly unstuffy read. Happily, it is also part of a series.