Nonfiction Picks for Winter 2020

Intimate and intense, these nonfiction selections are must-reads for 2020.

THE GREAT PRETENDER

• By Susannah Cahalan
• Grand Central Publishing, 400 pages, $28

In 1973, a study in which healthy subjects infiltrated mental institutions staggered a medical profession already in crisis. In The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, Susannah Cahalan reveals how much has changed—and how little. Herself a victim of psychiatric misdiagnosis, Cahalan writes with sensitivity about mental illness. Late in her research, she uncovers fraud in the original study but fails to resolve the issue or fully integrate the new material. Nevertheless, The Great Pretender offers a powerful critique of our failure to understand or ameliorate severe psychiatric disorders.

—Robert Anasi

PHYSICAL INTELLIGENCE

• By Scott Grafton
• Pantheon, 288 pages, $26.95

Scott Grafton is not one for the well-groomed trail. In Physical Intelligence: The Science of How the Body and the Mind Guide Each Other Through Life, the neurologist offers astonishing observations about how we perceive—or misperceive—our bodies. His anecdotes are worthy of Oliver Sacks: the woman who, after a stroke, tried to knit with an imaginary arm; the Victorians who developed the same funny walk, retroactively diagnosed as syphilis-induced ataxia. He breaks down the “motor forecasting” that lets bears defeat latches and pianists perform arpeggios. Most of all, he pushes us outdoors. A healthy brain needs practice, and there’s nothing like backpacking over boulders to keep our basal ganglia nourished with dopamine. As Grafton writes, “we didn’t emerge as a species sitting around.”

—Judith Lewis Mernit

CLASSIC KRAKAUER

By Jon Krakauer
Anchor Books, 192 pages, $15

Lots of people die in the wilderness in Classic Krakauer, a collection of articles and essays written by Jon Krakauer over the past three decades. The pieces range in topic from “wilderness therapy” programs in whose care at-risk teens die to the unsettling lessons that deep caving can teach us about going to Mars, and Krakauer reveals himself as not only a masterful chronicler of extreme misadventure but also a clear-eyed investigator of hard truths about quests and crimes. Climbing, it turns out, has inspired a stoicism that informs his impeccable reporting. “You’ve spent more than half a century struggling on high escarpments, inventing purpose out of hardship,” he writes about himself. “For Sisyphus to be contented as he toils beneath his rock doesn’t strike you as far-fetched.”

Dean Kuipers

HOMESICK

• By Jennifer Croft
• Unnamed Press, 256 pages, $28

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick is a love story; or two love stories; or, actually, three. Writing in the third person and interweaving text and photographs, Croft tells how sisters Amy and Zoe grow up in Oklahoma; how Zoe gets sick; how the girls are homeschooled; how Amy falls in love (with language, with her tutor) and, at 15, leaves for college; and how, eventually, she finds her way home to Zoe, for whom she has written the story in the first place. “Even the simplest words keep secrets,” writes Croft, an award-winning translator. “The more you take a word for granted, the less it tells.” In this gorgeous memoir, every word feels considered and true. ​

—Dinah Lenney

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