9 Recent Nonfiction Books That You'd Be Totally Insane To Miss
For most of my life, I insisted that nonfiction was boring. The term conjured unpleasant memories of slogging through Walden in 11th grade and attempting to read 10,000-word articles in The New Yorker. (I did make a rare exception for Sloane Crosley’s “The Pony Problem,” because “A pony!?” will always be the correct response to “I got you something…”)
Then I went to grad school for journalism. As you can imagine, I swiftly learned the error of my ways: sure, some of the books we read were boring, but others were as engrossing as any work of fiction. Susan Sontag and David Foster Wallace showed me the extent of what language could do. Love Thy Neighbor, Robert Maas’ harrowing account of the war in Yugoslavia, had me sobbing inconsolably on the subway. Laura Kipnis’ polemic Against Love taught me the power of taking a radical stance.
At its best, nonfiction teaches us about our world and in so doing tells us something about ourselves. Hopefully, it also entertains us, whether with a gripping narrative, rapid-fire jokes, or a mesmerizing writing style. I’ve collected a list of recent nonfiction that each of these nine books has something meaningful to say about our current moment, and each is full of truly gorgeous prose.
The Empathy Exams By Leslie Jamison
I'm not sure I can fully express how much I love this book, except to say that I have taken to quoting it, at length, to everyone I know. Jamison employs the first-person journalism that's become so popular in men's magazines, but applies it with as much emotion as intellect, substituting sincerity for cleverness. The results are staggering: her reporting on Morgellon's disease is mesmerizing and her account of getting an abortion is affecting. Yet the best essay is undeniably the last, "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," which asks how we can be true to ourselves in a society that pathologizes our emotions.
Why you should read it: Because, as Jamison herself would want, this book might help you be a little more open, both with your own emotions and to those of others.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity By Katherine Boo
This book won seemingly every available award the year it came out, and deservedly so: it's a remarkable feat of both reporting and storytelling. Boo spent three years with the people of Annawadi, a makeshift settlement next to the Mumbai airport, and her retelling of their stories is gripping and gorgeous.
Why you should read it: To appreciate the magnitude of Boo's achievement and to remember how privileged you actually are.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History By Elizabeth Kolbert
If you're somehow still clinging to the idea that human activity hasn't irrevocably altered the planet, New Yorker writer Kolbert has some bad news for you: we've created the most devastating extinction event since the fall of the dinosaurs. Her extensively researched book details both the species we've already lost and those that are hovering on the edge.
Why you should read it: Because it's time for us to start reckoning with the full costs of our actions.
Men We Reaped By Jesmyn Ward
In this devastating memoir, Ward tells the story of how she lost five beloved young men to the circumstances of poverty in rural Mississippi. She's scathing in her critique of how structural inequality cost these men their lives — her pain will haunt you.
Why you should read it: To recognize the far-reaching consequences of racism and poverty.
The Essential Ellen Willis, Edited By Nona Willis-Aronowitz
Until recently, Ellen Willis had been largely forgotten, but she was a pioneering music writer and feminist — not to mention the first pop critic at The New Yorker. Her interests were wide-ranging: she wrote about Bob Dylan, liberal politics and abortion issues all with the same enthusiasm, intelligence, and depth. Not all of her essays hold up, but most do, including her historic takedown of Woodstock and her still surprisingly relevant account of an affair with a married man.
Why you should read it: Because it's important to know your forbearers.
The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America By George Packer
Packer is an exceptional reporter, and in The Unwinding he lays out the slow decay of our national safety net. No book has better captured the change in circumstances between our parents' generation and ours. Prepare to be very, very pissed off.
Why you should read it: To understand what's really at stake in the 2016 election.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
At this point, do I even need to recount the myriad reasons this book is awesome? Gay is one of our foremost cultural critics, and this collection shows off her talent to analyze even the most seemingly disposable pop culture with wit and insight.
Why you need to read it: So you can stop beating yourself up every time you start singing along to "Blurred Lines" — we're all bad feminists sometimes.
Unmastered: A Book On Desire, Most Difficult To Tell By Katherine Angel
This strange, poetic memoir takes on the challenge of reconciling experience and ideas. As she recounts her own sex life, Angel struggles with the ways in which her physical desire as a heterosexual woman conflicts with her intellectual understanding of the often lopsided power dynamics between men and women.
Why you should read it: Because, like many of these books, it will make you think about what it means to be a woman in the world today.
Spinster: Making A Life of One's Own By Kate Bolick
Despite the title, this book involves no actual spinsters — neither Bolick nor her awakeners (the five unconventional women whose lives she explores) generally lack for male companionship. Nonetheless, it's a fascinating and passionate argument for a different way of looking at relationships: as part of a life rather than the purpose of it.
Why you should read it: To feel less alone if you haven't found "the one" or to remember why it's important to sometimes focus on yourself if you have.
Image: Brittany Randolph/Flickr