2020 has been, for me, a year of comfort reading. Lots of books were tossed aside by page 6 or 7, if they couldn’t hold my interest. And for a while there, during the deepest part of the COVID-19 lockdown, it seemed like very little could hold my interest. Miles Franklin prize-winners: tossed. New York Times best-sellers: tossed. Quirky little books highly recommended by friends: tossed.

In the end, it was commercial mass-market fiction that saw me through and I’ll share my thoughts about my fiction reads in another post, a follow-up to this one. But if fiction brought me comfort (and it did), then non-fiction kept my brain alive and sparking.

Much of the non-fiction I’ve read this year has lingered with me, keeping me thinking about it while I walked or rode or baked or gardened. That’s all I can ask for in a good book, really. So, for what it’s worth, here’s the best of the non-fiction I’ve been reading during this most extraordinary year.

Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. This outstanding book about Aboriginal ways of thinking managed to lift the top of my head right off, before it reached into my mind and stirred things around. And here I am, still reeling from the stirring.

Sky Swimming by Sylvia Martin, She I Dare Not Name by Donna Ward, and The Love That Remains by Susan Francis. Three quietly excellent and beautifully written memoirs by Australian women that challenged me to review my own life, and loves, and choices, in ways I hadn’t considered before.

Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and deaths of the great vikings by Tom Shippey. Seriously, if you haven’t loved a viking you haven’t lived.

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes. A brilliant, surprising biography of Samuel Pozzi, a society doctor during the Parisian Belle Epoque, which also manages to provide brilliant, surprising insights into the art of writing biography. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this book.

Coventry by Rachel Cusk, Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald, and The Details by Tegan Bennet Daylight.  These essay collections (the first two by UK writers, the third by an Australian) delighted me with the quality of their prose, and the depth of their insights. Each writer can take something small, or mundane, or ubiquitous and hold it up to the light in such a way that the reader is both shocked and delighted by how new and fresh it looks.

One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995 by Helen Garner. Look, I’d read the back of a cereal packet if Helen Garner wrote it and this absolutely lived up to my expectations. But these diary excerpts also deliver a squirm-inducing peek into Garner’s relationship with the man who became her third husband. He clearly held some 1950s views about gender roles and Garner, in love, went above and beyond to accommodate him. Suffice to say that he doesn’t emerge from these pages looking good but, to be fair, Garner is (as always) equally hard on herself. In truth, I think that relationship sheds a great deal of light on why Garner chose to write The First Stone in the way she did – in putting up with, and indeed loving, a man with those particular flaws perhaps she was affronted/shamed/fascinated by the young women of Ormond College who refused to do the same.

So, tell me? What non-fiction have you read this year, that has absolutely blown your mind?