A collection of book covers against a pale grey background, with dark pink and green shapes
A collection of book covers against a pale grey background, with dark pink and green shapes

The best non-fiction won't just leave you inspired to see the world differently, but galvanised to play your part in making it a better place.

Here are 17 brilliant books from the past year that will do just that, whether it's eating smarter to save the planet, having better sex or just finding your own inner sense of peace with which to treat others.

Black Joy edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire

"Black joy is the infectious laughter of my mum and aunty. It is my dad telling me to be proud of my heritage," writes journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff in the foreword to this uplifting collection of essays from 28 inspiring voices. Brinkhurst-Cuff was motivated to shine a light on stories of joy in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, when narratives of Black trauma and pain dominated the media. To do this she brought together writers and thinkers including Dianne Abott, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé and Travis Alabanza to share their joyful stories to discuss everything from Nigerian dancehall parties to eating chicken and chips after school.

Themes: racial equality, wellbeing

Zen and the Art of Saving The Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh

Before we start to think about making the world a better place, we need to make sure we’re in the best possible mental position to do so. In this persuasive guide, spiritual leader, author and Buddist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains why the most effective tool for making change is our minds. In a book that will resonate with those feeling powerless or defeated in how they can affect the impact of climate catastrophe, Nhat Hanh offers a gently motivating steer to change how we think about the choices we make, the actions we take and how we react in a crisis, bolstered with Buddhist parables and daily meditations. This is a book to help us all understand how to re-think how we can contribute to a collective awakening.

Themes: climate catastrophe, mindfulness

Silent Earth by Dave Goulson

One of the most easily overlooked aspects of our global ecology is also one of the most vital: insects. Love them or fear them, insects have been suffering from devastating population declines for decades, something entomologist Dave Goulson has made his life’s work. In this, his eighth book, Goulson blends a love letter to our smallest creatures with a rousing call to arms at every level – policy, agriculture, industry and, most crucially for many readers, our own homes and gardens. This is a book to help you see the world differently, and to show that even the smallest changes can make revolutionary impact.

Themes: ecology, climate catastrophe

The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

It can often seem like we’re obsessed with the future, envisaging threats and hopes of what is still to come. Archaeologist and author David Wengrow and the late, great, anthropologist and thinker David Graeber – whose work helped to make Occupy Wall Street a historic movement – here show the value of re-evaluating our history instead. Specifically, The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity illustrates the long-lasting impact of 18th-century colonialist thinking on our understanding of ancient history, from agriculture to cities, society to survival, and shows how we can change society by re-examining the past.

Themes: archeology, anthropology, colonialism

Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel

As the collision of climate crisis, civil rights movements and global battle against Covid have shown, everything is connected. It’s a notion deeply entrenched in Rupa Marya and Raj Patel’s remarkable book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. Timely and revelatory, political economist Patel and physician Marya combine their bodies of expertise to demonstrate the extent to which the legacies of colonialism, political and economic injustice and physical health and wellbeing are interconnected – and how the cure for our bodies could be one for the planet more widely.

Themes: health, colonialism, equality

Cut Short by Ciaran Thapar (2021)

Youth worker, social activist and writer Ciaran Thapar walked into a youth club in Brixton in 2015, fresh from graduating with a masters degree from the London School of Economics. It was a life-changing decision: the young men Thapar met urged him to write about gang culture, austerity and youth violence, and, years later, a book. The boys in Cut Short are now on the way to being men, but as Thapar’s book shows, many of them were forced to grow up quickly even when they weren’t. Through the portrayals of boys Demetri, Jhemar and Carl, and tireless community centre manager Tony, Thapar paints a picture of society that is rarely documented with such grace or detail. Cut Short shows how all of us are involved in the societal breakdown that leads to gang culture, even if we’re not privy to it ourselves.

Read more: ‘He holds the shotgun awkwardly’: an extract from Cut Short, on youth violence in London

Themes: gang culture, gentrification, society

On Freedom by Maggie Nelson (2021)

Author, academic and thinker Maggie Nelson had been working on On Freedom for years when the world found itself at its most constricted yet: lockdown. This prescient collection of four essays – or songs, as Nelson describes them - on art, drugs, sex and climate explores where our freedoms have traditionally been found and where solutions to our problems may come from yet. A much-needed exploration of the nuances on subjects such as the #MeToo movement and 'cancel culture', On Freedom not only helps reflect on contemporary issues, but suggest where we go next.

Themes: politics, art

Read more: Interview: How Maggie Nelson found freedom

 

Rationality by Steven Pinker      

In an era of social media, fake news and deep mistrust in power structures, there’s a deep need for some clear-eyed rationality. Enter experimental cognitive scientist and bestselling author Steven Pinker, whose new book is named – logically – after the theory he believes can change the world. “To understand what rationality is, why it seems scarce, and why it matters, we must begin with the ground truths of rationality itself: the ways an intelligent agent ought to reason, given its goals and the world in which it lives”, Pinker writes. This is a book that will help you make better choices with an ultimate goal of showing that rational thinking is the driver behind social justice and moral progress.

Themes: social science, politics

Rough by Rachel Thompson

How changing our attitudes towards sex impact the world? In a surprisingly powerful way, actually. Journalist Rachel Thompson probes into the unspoken elements of modern sex lives to examine issues like gender imbalance and violence, how it got there and what we can do about it. Through candid interviews with 50 women and non-binary people, research and expert insight, Thompson’s unflinching book calls for change that oppresses all of us. As Rough shows, true gender equality begins in the bedroom.

Themes: sexual politics, gender equality

Let That Be a Lesson by Ryan Wilson (2021)

There have been a flurry of career memoirs in recent years, giving readers a valuable – and often unexpectedly salacious – insight into industries such as law, medicine and even farming. Education, however, hasn’t had the same treatment, until now. Ryan Wilson’s frank and funny may give a whole new angle on sports day, teenage love affairs and the pressures of parents’ evening, but, as Jacqueline Wilson says, Let That Be a Lesson has “a very serious message”. By unpeeling back the veneer of our secondary school systems, Wilson shows where the cracks – and heart – of out education really lies.

Themes: society, education

This Can’t Be Happening by George Monbiot (2021)

Some thinkers, activists and writers have been campaigning against climate crisis for decades – and long before most people would listen. George Monbiot is among those who were undeterred, and thank goodness. Over the years Monbiot, a writer, broadcaster and Guardian columnist, has made a career from a rallying cry. This Can’t Be Happening acts as a perfect introduction to his work for the uninitiated, and an must-read addition to those familiar with it. This slim but vital book sees Monbiot call on humanity to stop averting its gaze from the destruction of the planet, and make efforts to halt the crisis, instead. Part of the Green Ideas series, This Can’t Be Happening is possibly the most important paperback ever to grace your pocket.

Themes: climate catastrophe

Read more: Why Penguin Classics are going Green

Go Big by Ed Milliband (2021)

For the past five years, Ed Miliband has been boldly exploring the largest of questions and most unwieldy of issues through his podcast, Reasons to be Cheerful, interrogating and exploring the myriad ways that people are making change around the world. In Go Big, the former Labour Party Leader expands this approach to show that the really big matters of concern today – affordable housing, the omnipotence of big tech, climate crisis and putting power back in the control of people – can be achieved if enough people harness the need for change.

Themes: societal change, politics

Read more: Ed Miliband on the five books that changed his life.

The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye (2021)

Few issues have as heated in recent years as that of trans rights. Into the fray of social media outrage and frenzied media coverage comes Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, a clear-eyed and compassionate read that gives trans people the very least of what they deserve: a meaningful voice. Journalist and advocate Faye reclaims the notion of the “transgender issue” to tell the story of what it really means to be trans in a transphobic society. She speaks to trans people from youth to the elderly, exploring how everyday essentials such as healthcare, housing and family can be navigated as a trans person. In the process, Faye writes a manifesto for change, calling for justice and solidarity in a more united world.

Themes: trans rights, gender equality, healthcare

Read more: 21 Questions with Shon Faye

Living While Black by Guilaine Kinouani (2020)

For the past 15 years, therapist, psychologist and researcher Guilaine Kinouani has worked to help hundreds of Black people protect their mental and physical health while living in white supremacist system. She’s spoken on Tedx stages and founded Race Reflections, an organisation committed to rethinking and combatting inequality. In her debut, Living While Black, Kinouani explores the different kinds of trauma experienced by Black people in the Western world, while offering toolkits to help the reader make meaningful change in their life. From institutional gaslighting to the need to make space to experience joy, Living While Black offers a vital exploration of Black oppression – and the tools needed for a more equal future.

Themes: racial equality, Black trauma, colonialism

Exponential by Azeem Azhar (2021)

Found yourself feeling that life’s moving a little too fast lately? It might be bcause it is. Azeem Azhar, technologist and writer behind the acclaimed Exponential View newsletter, outlines a daunting prospect in this enlightening book: that technology is developing at an increasing rate, while human society can never progress as quickly. The result? An exponential gap that can help explain some of society’s most pertinent problems. But while this may sound troubling, Azhar’s book also offers a means of understanding – and therefore changing – the impact of this gap, as well as getting a better grasp on the technology that we are so reliant upon.

Themes: big tech, societal change, economics

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (2021)

Sometimes we need cold, hard numbers to understand the extent of inequality in everyday modern life. And that’s what Mary Ann Sieghart’s incendiary book, The Authority Gap, offers. Blending eye-opening data (did you know, for instance, that when asked to estimate their child's IQ, British parents will place their son at 115 and their daughter at 107?) with insightful interviews with women such as Bernardine Evaristo and Baroness Hale, Sieghart uncovers unconscious bias so that we can begin to address it.

Themes: gender equality, society

A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough (2020)

For nearly the past 70 decades, David Attenborough’s pioneering reportage on the other living things we share the planet with has informed, entertained, and inspired generations. But Attenborough’s expert gaze has noticed something else, too: what he calls “the tragedy of our time – the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.” A Life on Our Planet is Attenbrough’s “witness statement” to this devastation and a vision of our future – how we can, if we act now, remedy our mistakes and lighten the footsteps. With this poignant and persuasive audio recording, one of the most famous – and best-loved – voices in British broadcasting offer an insightful lookback on an incredible life.

Themes: zoology, climate catastrophe

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