The Best Books of 2021: Non-Fiction

by |December 7, 2021
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If 2021 had a theme it would be love, judging by the non-fiction books that became big hits this year — Love Stories, How We Love and Atlas of the Heart. Followed closely by connection, to our loved ones, to our creativity, to our communities, to the voices in our heads. Some of our favourite authors tackled these big themes and universal questions in a year where many of us were once again isolated and separated. When love, connection and mental health were more important than ever.

A Booktopia favourite this year was Campbell Walker (aka Struthless), who let us into his mind and introduced us to his houseboat full of characters, combining journaling tips and whimsical illustrations for this year’s must have mental clarity guide.

There were also great conversation starters — books that challenged us and contributed to the lively discussions held in book clubs and media around the country. Kate Ellis released an insider’s view of parliament’s toxic work culture in the timely Sex, Lies and Question Time. American Damien Cave examined Australia’s risk-taking culture, while Chelsea Watego examined Australia’s racist one. And Bri Lee questioned our institutional prejudices, asking the question ‘Who gets to be smart?’ in the Australian education system.

—Stefania Capogna, Non-Fiction Category Manager

Atlas of the Heart

by Brené Brown


Read a Q&A with Brené Brown here.

Brown takes us on a journey through eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human. As she maps the necessary skills and an actionable framework for meaningful connection, she gives us the language and tools to access a universe of new choices and second chances – a universe where we can share and steward the stories of our bravest and most heart-breaking moments with one another in a way that builds connection.

Buy it here

Into the Rip

by Damien Cave


Damien Cave has always been fascinated by risk. Having covered the war in Iraq and moved to Mexico City with two babies in nappies, he and his wife Diana thought they understood something about the subject. But when they arrived in Sydney so that Cave could establish The New York Times’s Australia Bureau, life near the ocean confronted them with new ideas and questions, at odds with their American mindset that risk was a matter of individual choices. Surf-lifesaving and Nippers showed that perhaps it could be managed together, by communities. And instead of being either eliminated or romanticised, it might instead be respected and even embraced.

Buy it here

Love Stories

by Trent Dalton


Read our review of Love Stories here and listen to our podcast with Trent Dalton here.

Trent Dalton, Australia’s best-loved writer, goes out into the world and asks a simple, direct question: ‘Can you please tell me a love story?’ A blind man yearns to see the face of his wife of thirty years. A divorced mother has a secret love affair with a priest. A geologist discovers a three-minute video recorded by his wife before she died. A tree lopper’s heart falls in a forest. A renowned 100-year-old scientist ponders the one great earthly puzzle he was never able to solve: ‘What is love?’

Buy it here

Sex, Lies and Question Time

by Kate Ellis


Read our review of Sex, Lies and Question Time here.

It’s time to call bullshit on the toxic Canberra culture. Alongside her own experiences from fifteen years in parliament, Kate Ellis reveals a frank and fascinating picture of women across Australian politics, including Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Linda Burney, Sussan Ley, Penny Wong, Sarah Hanson-Young and Pauline Hanson. Kate explores issues like sexism, motherhood, appearances, social media, the sisterhood and, of course, sex. But she also celebrates everything Australian female politicians have achieved.

Buy it here


by Matthew Evans


Read our review of Soil here.

For too long, we’ve not only neglected the land beneath us, we’ve squandered and debased it, by over-clearing, over-grazing and over-ploughing. But if we want our food to nourish us, and to ensure our planet’s long-term health, we need to understand how soil works – how it’s made, how it’s lost, and how it can be repaired. In this ode to the thin veneer of Earth that gifts us life, commentator and farmer Matthew Evans shows us that what we do in our backyards, on our farms, and what we put on our dinner tables really matters, and can be a source of hope.

Buy it here

How We Love

by Clementine Ford


Read our review of How We Love here and listen to our podcast with Clementine Ford here.

Clementine Ford is a person who has loved deeply, strangely and with curiosity. She is fascinated by love and how it makes its home in our hearts and believes that the way we continue to surrender ourselves to love is an act of great faith and bravery. This tender and lyrical memoir explores love in its many forms, through Clementine’s own experiences.

Buy it here

Who Gets to Be Smart

by Bri Lee


Read a Q&A with Bri Lee here and listen to our podcast with Bri Lee here.

In 2018 Bri Lee’s brilliant young friend Damian is named a Rhodes Scholar, an apex of academic achievement. When she goes to visit him and takes a tour of Oxford and Rhodes House, she begins questioning her belief in a system she has previously revered, as she learns the truth behind what Virginia Woolf described almost a century earlier as the ‘stream of gold and silver’ that flows through elite institutions and dictates decisions about who deserves to be educated there. The question that forms in her mind drives the following two years of conversations and investigations: who gets to be smart?

Buy it here

Your Head is a Houseboat

by Campbell Walker (Struthless)


Listen to our podcast with Campbell Walker here.

The only truth we really know is that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in our own houseboat (our head) so it makes sense to make that houseboat as good as possible. In Your Head is a Houseboat, Campbell Walker (aka Struthless on Instagram) demystifies brain functions, mental health, emotions, mindfulness and psychology – but with less complex terminology and more bizarre metaphors. It’s a book filled with illustrations, journal exercises and words that will probably hit too close to home. At its core, this is a funny, accessible approach to understanding your head and making it a nicer place to live.

Buy it here

Another Day in the Colony

by Chelsea Watego


Read an extract from Another Day in the Colony here.

In this collection of deeply insightful and powerful essays, Chelsea Watego examines the ongoing and daily racism faced by First Nations peoples in so-called Australia. Rather than offer yet another account of ‘the Aboriginal problem’, she theorises a strategy for living in a social world that has only ever imagined Indigenous peoples as destined to die out.

Buy it here

The Luminous Solution

by Charlotte Wood


Read a Q&A with Charlotte Wood here.

When Spectrum published Charlotte Wood’s essay ‘The Inner Life’ in mid-2020, it struck a chord with readers all over the country. Charlotte received many personal and public messages asking for more on the inner life and her creative process, and she realised that these are topics that have obsessed her for years and which had already widely addressed in her writing. In short, she had unwittingly written many chapters of the kind of book that people are searching for right now. That book is The Luminous Solution.

Buy it here

We’re rounding up the Best Books of 2021 — check it out!

The Best Books of 2021
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