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The Best Books of 2016: Nonfiction

Books Lists Best Of 2016
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From poverty in Milwaukee to the history of microbes, the topics explored in the following best nonfiction books of 2016 are as diverse as they are fascinating. This list includes our 30 favorite titles of the year, and we believe you’ll love them as much as we do. So whether you want to dive into captivating memoirs or educate yourself about turbulent periods in history, these books promise to deliver compelling reads.

30. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me by Steven Hyden

Like Chuck Klosterman, his former cohort at the late Grantland, Steven Hyden knows how to fold autobiography into cultural criticism. So much so that the best parts of his debut book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, are those that reveal the sometimes embarrassing but always honest assessments of his life and work. Heyden melds them into his discussions of the intraband conflicts, media-driven feuds, and occasionally physical confrontations that have pockmarked the last five decades of popular culture, resulting in a frothy yet substantive gem of a book. —Robert Ham

29. Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr

The long-awaited memoir from The Smiths’ Johnny Marr is an honest—if not revelatory—account of a lifelong love affair with the guitar. From his childhood to his transformative years in The Smiths as the creative partner and foil to Morrissey, Marr’s recollections are vivid and detailed. There’s no dirt or juicy new controversy present, but it’s clear that Marr has no intentions for settling scores. The strongest and most resonant passages deal with his songwriting and ever-present urge to simply create music. It’s easy to forget that Marr was just 23 when The Smiths dissolved, and though his account of the years since can sometimes read like a long string of anecdotes, he makes the case that his later work is equally substantial. —Eric Swedlund

28. The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

There’s a lot to cover in Batman’s 78-year history and, as Glen Weldon iterates with charming anecdotes from Comic Con floors, it’s evident that everyone has their own idea of what defines the character. But The Caped Crusade is more than a history of an icon; it chronicles how the nerd culture of four full generations has evolved. There are plenty of trivial tidbits to chew on (like the time fans got to vote on whether to kill off a Robin), but Weldon demonstrates that there’s a reason Batman appears to be the coolest of all superheroes—and it may be more primal than we ever appreciated. —Jeff Milo

27. But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman, a charismatically self-deprecating author and music journalist, investigates “collective wrongness” in his essay collection. While we often state (with the utmost certainty) that so-and-so was on the right side of history, how can we possibly know what people in the future will believe of our arguments? “If 90% of life is inscrutable,” Klosterman writes, “we need to embrace the 10% that seems forthright, lest we feel like life is a cruel, unmanageable joke.” Klosterman interviews luminaries from the culture scene as well as the history, philosophy, and science communities, covering topics from physics to sports, music to politics, and just about everything in between. What is certain? Is anything certain? Klosterman talks you down from the existential-crisis ledge, and it’s awesome. —Jeff Milo

26. Cyberspies by Gordon Corera

From World War II’s ancient computers to Stuxnet’s sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program, Cyberspies traces the invisible timeline of surveillance, hacking, and espionage in the digital age. Written by BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera, the book chronicles a history that’s more important now than ever to understand—a history that is yours. The paradox of privacy versus security may never truly be answered…and definitely not to everyone’s satisfaction. What Corera seeks to do instead is to arm us all with that which spies so feverishly desire and hoard: information. —B. David Zarley

25. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Combining art history and memoir, Olivia Laing’s exploration of loneliness is an engaging dive into a poorly understood emotion. Laing loosely builds the The Lonely City’s narrative around her time in New York City, when she experienced acute isolation. She also pinpoints the ways loneliness inspired well-known artists, delving into the life, work, and legacy of one artist in every chapter. Whether it’s Warhol’s self-conscious separation from the group he so carefully built or David Wojnarowicz’s activism during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Laing reveals how loneliness can define a life and questions the shame that surrounds this universal experience. —Bridey Heing

24. In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

To say that Jenny Diski had a turbulent childhood doesn’t begin to cover it; her adoption by Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at age 15 only begins to scratch the surface of this intense book, which is both a memoir of her youth as well as a map of her relationship with Lessing. It’s also the chronicle of a brilliant writer grappling, in real time, with a devastating cancer diagnosis in July 2014. First published serially in The London Review of Books, In Gratitude slices through whatever pieties you may have cultivated about literary heroes and cancer stories alike. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

23. Tranny by Laura Jane Grace

Though Against Me! lead vocalist and transgender icon Laura Jane Grace treats the pages in her memoir as a confessional to lay her self-described narcissism bare, Tranny is a much wider ambassador for the gender revolution currently sweeping through public restroom policy and National Geographic covers. She illustrates a life narrative of frustration, drugs, and power chords that culminates in the realization that the person born Tom Gabel should be Laura Jane Grace. No matter your stance on the issue, Grace articulates that process with humanity, making this book a potent tool for empathy that hasn’t quite existed in pop culture. Even without that immediacy, Grace and co-writer Dan Ozzi spin green room drama and rock star recklessness into a gem of rock bio that belongs on a shelf alongside Hammer of the Gods and Get in the Van. —Sean Edgar

22. Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

In the years that preceded his death in June, Muhammad Ali became, in the words of biographers Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, a “silent sphinx,” the complexities of his life as a once-outspoken black separatist and convicted draft resister long since forgotten. But Roberts’ and Smith’s book turns back the clock to Ali’s tumultuous 1960s, focusing on his broken brotherhood with black nationalist icon Malcolm X. Blood Brothers captures the rise and fall of their friendship as it evolved in parallel to Ali’s pursuit of the heavyweight championship and Malcolm X’s expulsion from the Nation of Islam, which forced Ali to choose between Malcolm X and Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. No previous biography of either man has so clearly revealed the depth of their brotherhood—or the ways that Ali’s loyalty became a sort of bargaining chip between the two Muslim leaders as their relationship dissolved. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

21. Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff

Considering the LP’s decline, you could point a finger at the iPod, Napster, Spotify, or any other defendant in an ever-growing pile of guilty parties. But while many critics reveal how artists can exist in an age of digital excess, few writers have attempted to unfurl today’s infinite listening landscape. This is New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s aim within Every Song Ever, which deconstructs 20 musical themes through the lens of the modern listener. Ratliff rarely addresses genre, historical context or even the character of the musicians in his essays, instead exploring themes like speed, repetition, and improvisation. He jumps between decades of recorded history with quick-fire examples, flying by legendary musicians like James Brown alongside mega-pop artists like Kesha. For whatever type of listener you are, Every Song Ever includes a chapter that addresses the specific way you consume music. —Tyler R. Kane

20. The Land Shall Be Deluged In Blood by Patrick H. Breen

In one of the more confounding events in American literary history, William Styron won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner, a fictional psycho-history of the country’s bloodiest slave revolt. Styron’s Confessions enthralled millions of readers while reinforcing virtually every insidious, racist stereotype ever imposed on black men and American slaves. Patrick H. Breen’s The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood goes further than any book to date to set the record straight, revealing just how fascinating the story of the Southampton slave rebellion is when stripped of suspect agendas. His book is most enlightening in the Afterword, in which he meticulously deconstructs Turner’s prison interview with attorney Thomas R. Gray—published in November 1831 as “The Confessions of Nat Turner”—which the historian calls “the most important work on slavery written and published in the slaveholding South.” Did Turner really spill his story to Gray? Did Gray transcribe and compile it accurately? Breen’s brilliant breakdown alone makes The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood an essential work. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

19. Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr

The key to The Replacements’ biography is the access that Commercial Appeal writer Bob Mehr was able to get. Unlike other writers and documentarians who have tried to tell the combative and talented quartet’s story, Mehr was able to get frontman Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson on the record, going over every last ugly derailment and small triumph with them. The level of detail and research that Mehr put into this book, as well as the hundreds of other interviews he conducted with family members, supporters, and behind-the-scenes folks, combines for a thorough portrait of these alt-rock legends. —Robert Ham

18. Back from the Dead by Bill Walton

Just as his broadcasting style can jump from the action at hand to Bob Dylan lyrics to world history, retired NBA All-Star Bill Walton covers more than basketball in his memoir. The book opens a few years ago at his life’s lowest point, when he was experiencing excruciating physical pain from a lifetime of injuries and surgeries. In prose that’s honest and buoyant, Walton writes of his youth in San Diego, his numerous championships, and his friendships with personal heroes (like Larry Bird and Jerry Garcia). He also describes the joy he found as he physically recovered, a joy that will stay with the reader long after the final page. —Eric Swedlund

17. Uproot by Jace Clayton

Jace Clayton, also known as DJ Rupture, proves a keen observer and storyteller in Uproot, his musical travelogue. Rising to renown after a remarkable mixtape release in 2001, Clayton reserves the autobiographical portions of his career as a world-famous DJ to only about 35% of the book, while the rest is more a memoir of ethnomusicology, one that will ensnare the attention of anyone still fascinated with the way music appreciation and production have evolved over the last 17+ years. —Jeff Milo

16. The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963 by Ed Ward

What was the first rock and roll record? Opinions vary, but few would say Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920), the first of more than 600 records woven into the enthralling narrative of Ed Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1. But that’s where the rock and roll story begins, Ward contends, and the history lesson he delivers is all about stories. Ward knows thousands of rock and roll stories, and anyone familiar with his irresistible radio shows on NPR’s Fresh Air, which covers topics ranging from Slim Harpo to the Beach Boys, should be well aware that he knows how to spin a tale. Ward’s new book proves that he’s a master synthesist, interweaving four-plus decades of tales from Mississippi to Memphis to Liverpool into a cohesive whole. Volume 2 can’t come soon enough. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

15. The Six by Laura Thompson

Laura Thompson does the storied Mitford sisters justice in her group autobiography, the first since the passing of Deborah, the last surviving sister. Here, Thompson picks apart the myths the women built around themselves to paint a nuanced portrait of the Mitfords and the times in which they lived. She delves deeply into their ideologies and the circumstances that gave rise to Nazism, Fascism, and Communism in the 20th century, sketching out the siblings’ complex relationships. Balancing macro history and the minutiae of the Mitfords’ lives makes this biography a compelling study of some of modern history’s most confounding women. —Bridey Heing

14. The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of over 60 nonfiction works by Neil Gaiman, is best defined by the author himself: “This book is not ‘the complete nonfiction of Neil Gaiman.’ It is, instead, a motley bunch of speeches and articles, introductions and essays. Some of them are serious and some of them are frivolous and some of them are earnest and some of them I wrote to try and make people listen.” From fairy tales to the Syrian refugee crisis to Terry Pratchett, Gaiman discusses an impressive range of topics with his signature wit. This collection is a must read for Gaiman fans old and new alike. —Frannie Jackson

13. The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

This collection, edited by Jesmyn Ward, is at once a celebration, an elegy, and a prophetic vision of black lives in America. It includes pieces by some of the finest American essayists, journalists, and poets working today, including Kiese Laymon, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Claudia Rankine, and Ward herself, among many others. Many of the pieces explore the peculiar tangle of history, which is somehow never as easy as we want it to be (as illuminated in Wendy S. Walters’ essay on, among other things, enslaved Africans in northern states) or as complex (as Claudia Rankine writes, “Dead blacks are a part of normal life here”). The Fire This Time delivers a gutting read, but it’s a brilliant one, too—a much-needed reminder that the country is so much more than the ignorant voices on television and, soon, in the White House. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

12. Homeward Bound by Peter Ames Carlin

Just as he did in his remarkable 2012 biography of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Ames Carlin humanizes and contextualizes an iconic music figure in his book about singer-songwriter Paul Simon—while also refusing to pull any punches. Carlin’s well aware of just how ambitious and, at times, narcissistic Simon can be, tracking Simon’s rise through the folk rock world onto the pop charts and to global stardom. What is never in question throughout the text is Simon’s rare talent, which Carlin brings to life with his tangy prose and subtle wit. —Robert Ham

11. Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante

Ideal for the reader afflicted by “Ferrante fever,” or really anyone interested in watching a brilliant mind at work, Frantumaglia provides an intimate journey into Neopolitan Quartet novelist Elena Ferrante’s life. The collection includes her delightful responses to critics and fans’ queries as well as unpublished essays and marginal notes, making it a must-have for the Ferrante fan. Much of the text reveals Ferrante’s personal history—a history which, according to Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, is itself a fiction. (He alleges, based on leaked financial documentation, that Ferrante is the creation of a Rome-based translator named Anita Raja.) Whether fiction or nonfiction, this intimate collection is well worth a read. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

10. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal

Marketed as a kind of “feminist Freakonomics,” Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? unpacks the myth of the “economic man” and its influence on modern day capitalism. Philosopher and economist Adam Smith first coined the term, arguing that all actions are based in self-interest. But Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal challenges this assumption, exploring how it disregards unpaid work typically performed by women (i.e. cleaning, cooking, childrearing, etc.). What follows is an engaging read that encourages you to rethink both your understanding of economics and your role in the modern world. —Frannie Jackson

9. Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson

This devastating account tracks the tense days before, during, and after the 1971 prisoner’s strike at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Heather Ann Thompson chronicles the prisoners’ inhumane living conditions prisoners, writing against conventional history in portraying their demands as reasonable—making their massacre at the hand of armed troopers four days into the strike all the more appalling. Blood in the Water proves to be an essential work of contemporary history that feels urgent today. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

8. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

“When Orson Welles said, ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone,’ he was mistaken,” Ed Yong writes in his book’s prologue. He explains that each of us is constantly in the company of “an abundant microscopic menagerie,” devoting the rest of his pages to chronicling the history of microbes. What could have been a dry text for readers uninterested in science instead proves to be a fascinating book—due in no small part to Yong’s infectious enthusiasm and accessible writing. With I Contain Multitudes, Yong has crafted an entertaining read that promises to impact your very view of life itself. —Frannie Jackson

7. Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman

The battered face of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago murdered in Mississippi in 1955, was captured in searing photographs taken at his funeral and circulated worldwide. Author John Edgar Wideman, born the same year as Till, recalls seeing the photograph in Jet Magazine and thinking, “That could have been me.” Half a century later, Wideman began exploring the disturbing case of Till’s father, Louis, who was executed by the U.S. Army for rape and murder while serving in Italy in 1945. Knowing the vagaries of Jim Crow justice in the segregated armed forces at the time, Wideman wondered if Louis Till was lynched like his son. What began as a Freedom of Information Act request for the Till file became a personal search into not just the shattered Till family but Wideman’s own, exploring the struggles of African-American fatherhood. The result is a text that navigates a fascinating course between investigation, imagination, confession, and memoir. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

6. The Black Panthers edited by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Read any Black Panther history that focuses on party leadership and you’ll learn three things: why the Panthers scared Hoover and Nixon enough to marshal the FBI’s counterintelligence program’s resources to destroy them; how effective COINTELPRO’s efforts were in killing, jailing, and sowing mistrust among Panther leaders; and how co-founder Huey P. Newton struggled with leading a national organization after he got out of prison. Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams’ new oral history, The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution, shifts the focus to the Panther rank-and-file. It reveals how the Panthers’ community “Survival” programs—breakfast for schoolchildren, bus rides to visit relatives in prison, free health clinics, protection and care for the elderly—were built and sustained from the bottom up. More than any other element of the Panthers’ platform for reform and revolution, this message from the grassroots proves more instructive now than ever. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

5. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye

Bobby Kennedy’s life and career, cut short by an assassination less than five years after the death of his brother, have long been discussed as mythic. As the smallest (though not youngest) of the sprawling Kennedy family, Bobby’s rise to Attorney General under his brother and then his own presidential run was the stuff of legend, helped in part by his willingness to fight for civil rights, smarter solutions to systemic poverty, and migrant worker protections. But in Larry Tye’s biography, the myth gives way to the complex reality, in which Bobby got his start working for Senator Joseph McCarthy of Red Scare fame, was regarded as “ruthless” by his enemies, and used his privileged position to pull strings when it suited him. Without getting mired in the anecdotal details that often fluff out Kennedy biographies, Tye zeroes in on key phases in Bobby’s career and interviews those closest to the subject, including Bobby’s widow. But rather than tarnish Bobby’s name, Tye ultimately makes the man a more nuanced individual. —Bridey Heing

4. I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

Whether or not you’ve listened to Tig Notaro’s iconic live set from 2012 (in which she opened with, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer.”), the comedian’s memoir is an essential read. I’m Just a Person chronicles how, in the span of four months, Notaro was hospitalized for an intestinal disease, grieved her mother’s death, went through a breakup, and was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. This personal narrative successfully walks the line of heartbreak and hilarity, delivering a raw account of Notaro’s experiences. By the end of the book, you’ll believe you’ve found a witty, honest friend. —Frannie Jackson

3. How to Survive a Plague by David France

It’s almost impossible to imagine today that a plague could sweep through America’s cultural centers, kill thousands upon thousands, and garner a negligent response from the country’s leaders. But in the immediate past of the AIDS epidemic, David France finds humanity and science at its very worst and, conversely, at its very best. Every impacted individual, every new drug, every opportunistic infection moves the reader from tears to rage to joy. Thoroughly researched and peppered throughout with France’s own experience on the front lines, How To Survive A Plague serves as an essential reminder of the dead, the living who fought for them, the knowledge gained, and the venom sprayed, ultimately revealing the extremes of humanity’s empathy and cruelty.

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

There’s a specific gravity to reading a man’s thoughts about why life is worth living after he’s passed away. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015 from stage IV lung cancer, mere months after completing a decade of training as a neurosurgeon and becoming a father. When Breath Becomes Air, drafted by Kalanithi and completed posthumously by his wife, chronicles his years in medicine and his transition from a doctor to a patient after the diagnosis. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality,” he writes, “in a sense, had changed nothing and everything.” Possessing the heart of a poet and the mind of a scientist, Kalanithi tackles impossible questions with wisdom and grace, crafting a moving portrait of love and loss. —Frannie Jackson

1. Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted focuses on conditions in a single city, but what it reveals about cyclical patterns of poverty and their impact on American families extends far beyond Milwaukee. The book documents two years in the private housing market in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, where a family’s need to keep a roof over its head clashes with a landlord’s need to make a profit. Focusing on the always-one-crisis-from-eviction experiences of six tenant families and their I’ve-got-a-business-to-run-here landlords, Desmond intimately portrays both sides of the tenant-landlord divide with admirable balance and dry-eyed ethnographic discipline.

Many readers and critics have compared Evicted to Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), which became one of the most influential books of its era by awakening future president Theodore Roosevelt and a generation of reformers to New York City tenements’ deadly overcrowding. Evicted also arrives at a critical juncture for America’s urban poor, making a case for systemic reform every bit as compelling as How the Other Half Lives. Though it’s almost too painful to read, it’s also too important to ignore. Now what becomes of it is up to the rest of us. —Steve Nathans-Kelly


For more “Best of 2016” reading recommendations, check out our best novels and best Young Adult books lists.

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