Best books of 2021: Literary non-fiction

The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World
by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Jonathan Cape £20/Knopf Doubleday $28.95

Douglas-Fairhurst’s microhistory takes 1851, the year of London’s Great Exhibition and the genesis of Dickens’ most ambitious novel, Bleak House, as its subject. His immersive book echoes the experimental form of the novel, blending stories, sub-plots and telling details to bring to life a complex moment in the life of a city and one of its greatest writers.

Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure
by Dennis Duncan, Allen Lane £20/WW Norton $30

Duncan’s fascinating, esoteric history explores the subtle power of an overlooked element of publishing: the index. This functional necessity, developed in the 13th century to index the Latin Bible, has since been spoofed, lampooned and even used to undermine the intent of authors by their academic and political foes.

Things I Have Withheld
by Kei Miller, Canongate £14.99/Grove Atlantic $26

The UK-based Jamaican poet tackles gender, sexuality, race and class in his Baillie Gifford Prize shortlisted essay collection. With searing honesty, Miller carries the reader with him through this challenging, insightful book thanks to the lyrical power of his storytelling.

Books of the Year 2021

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Wednesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Thursday: Fiction by Laura Battle
Friday: History by Tony Barber
Saturday: Critics’ choice

A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020
by David Sedaris, Little, Brown £20/$32

What is Christmas without a fat volume of a writer’s diaries to gift? This year, Sedaris’ acerbic, gossipy anecdotes, surely scribbled with an eye on publication, fits the bill. Whether discussing his family or the fans he has met at his famously lengthy book signings, the diaries trace his life over the past two decades with all the humour his readers have come to know and love.

Orwell’s Roses
by Rebecca Solnit, Granta £16.99/Viking $28

George Orwell’s life has been dissected and examined seemingly from every angle, but here Solnit manages to find a fresh lens through which to view the writer: the roses he planted in his Hertfordshire garden in 1936. The result of this green-fingered take on Orwell is a delightful meander through the politics and pleasure of gardening.

The Young HG Wells: Changing the World
by Claire Tomalin, Viking £20/Penguin Press $28

Tomalin’s latest “life” focuses on the early years of Herbert George Wells, the sickly son of a Kent shopkeeper who grew up to be a prolific and celebrated literary legend. Focusing on the first four decades of Wells’ life, Tomalin lays bare both his work ethic (he’d turn out 7,000 words a day) and relentless philandering in peerless prose.

Tell us what you think

What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below

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