• bestof2016 badge

The 18 Best Nonfiction Books Of 2016

These are the essay collections, memoirs, and nonfiction reads that we absolutely loved in 2016. (Ranked in no particular order.)

1. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Rich, engaging, and masterful, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is a biography deserving of a literary great. Using previously unpublished letters and interviews, Franklin keenly illuminates both Jackson's personal life and her astonishing body of work, created under often difficult circumstances.

2. Bullies: A Friendship by Alex Abramovich

Bullies is the story of two boys — one a bully, the other bullied — who become friends, of a sort, years later. When Abramovich, a writer, moves to Oakland to write about Trevor Latham, his former bully and now president of an infamous motorcycle club, he finds himself confronting their violent past and present, all against the backdrop of a city in crisis.

3. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures brings to light the story of the unheralded black female mathematicians whose work make the space program possible. Through the stories of five women who fought racism and sexism at all levels as they helped drive the Space Race, Hidden Figures shows us an entrancing and inspiring part of history that is, thankfully, hidden no longer.

4. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

In I Contain Multitudes, Yong delves into the vast, complex world of microbes, exploring the myriad ways in which microbes can harm, help, transform, and co-exist with us. With great clarity and wit, Yong shows us that bacteria and other members of the microbiome are much more complicated and interesting (not to mention vital to life!) than their bad reputation would warrant.

5. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

With his autobiography Born to Run, rock legend Bruce Springsteen has written a book that equals his music. Springsteen is engaging and honest on a variety of subjects, from his origins to his rise as a musician to his personal demons. Though Born to Run is, of course, perfect for Springsteen fans, it's also a fantastic book for anyone curious about a life in music, as told by one of its greatest storytellers.

6. The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs

A collection of essays about the intersection of fertility, technology, and the natural world, centered on Boggs' own experience of attempting to get pregnant. As Boggs grapples with her own fertility issues, her insights on the struggles of others (be they human or animal others) are no less searching and empathetic. The Art of Waiting is thought-provoking and kaleidoscopic in all its explorations.

7. Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

In the National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning, Kendi, a historian, scrutinizes the history of anti-black racist thought in America from its very beginning to now. By showing how deeply entrenched racist ideas have been — and still are — in America, and thus exposing clearly and discrediting these ideas, Kendi has created not only a great work of scholarship but a much-needed tool.

8. Boy Erased by Garrard Conley

Boy Erased is Conley's memoir of growing up gay in Arkansas as the son of a Baptist preacher. Rather than being ostracized by his family and community, he agrees to participate in ex-gay conversion therapy. Boy Erased takes us on a powerful journey through great trauma and heartbreak to acceptance, love, and forgiveness.

9. Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, and Dylan Thuras

Atlas Obscura is an exuberant, awe-inspiring look at over 600 of the most fascinating places, objects, and phenomena in the world, from an island full of cats to a giant organ made of stalactites. Beautiful to look at and great fun to read, Atlas Obscura shows you that no matter how much you know, the world can still surprise in the best ways possible.

10. The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Edited by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time is a collection of pieces by various authors on race in America, inspired by James Baldwin's 1963 book The Fire Next Time. Where were we then, where are we now, and where are we headed? Through its stunning essays and poems, this collection masterfully explores those questions and more.

11. How to Survive a Plague by David France

How to Survive a Plague by David France, journalist and creator of the documentary of the same name, is the story of how activists and other citizens came together and marshaled scientific research to bring HIV/AIDS under control. Told with passion and urgency, it's a fascinating, in-depth account of a hugely important moment in American history — one that ends with hope, and the knowledge that people working together sometimes can effect widespread positive change.

12. Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Written by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Secondhand Time explores the collapse of the USSR by way of many interviews conducted with ordinary people — that is, the people who don't often appear in history books or other official records except as a vast multitude. With Secondhand Time, Alexievich's manifold genius — contextualizing, asking the right questions, even simply listening — comes together in an incredible work of oral history.

13. Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner

Orner's essay collection Am I Alone Here? is hard to categorize, and all the more captivating for it. In these essays about books, writers, and reading, memoir melds with literary criticism and coalesces into a lovely, never sentimental celebration of reading.

14. The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore

In The South Side, composed of a series of reported essays, accomplished journalist and Chicago native Moore delves into the history and present-day circumstances of segregation in the South Side of Chicago. Moore makes for an ideal teller of this story, and The South Side is a compelling and penetrating mix of sociological analysis, reporting, and personal history that has far-reaching relevance whether you live in Chicago or not.

15. Time Travel by James Gleick

A delightful expedition through science, pop culture, and literature, Time Travel traces the history and evolution of time travel as an idea. Beginning with H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, Gleick explores the vast influence of time travel with a joyful sense of fun and quickness.

16. March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March, a graphic novel trilogy written by Congressman John Lewis (and co-written by Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell), chronicles the history of the American civil rights movement through Lewis, one of its heroes and leaders. Read it to be amazed; read it to be educated; read it to know that such hard-won gains must not be lost, and that there is so much more to be done.

17. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Evicted follows eight families in Milwaukee, each struggling in their own way, all slowly losing the fight to make rent. As we intimately get to know both landlords and renters, Harvard sociologist Desmond also contextualizes their troubles as part of a devastating American trend in which poor families must spend an increasingly large portion of their incomes on housing and evictions are skyrocketing.

18. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

Wall Street analyst turned activist O'Neil reveals the ways in which algorithms — the ones that power banks, health care, education, voting, and so much more — work against us and reinforce discrimination. Weapons of Math Destruction argues an important truth: Because these systems are designed by people, we must always be aware that these systems are as flawed and biased as the people who designed them.

For more Best of 2016 content, click here!