Years ago, I remember discussing books with my mom, and she told me how she preferred to read nonfiction. She wanted to be inspired by stories of real-life people. While at the time, I simply nodded and went back to immersing myself in the imaginations of my favorite writers, I now understand why she was so drawn nonfiction: Reading any book is a learning process. Fiction can speak to our everyday lives even if the worlds depicted don't resemble our own. But it's when we read about the real lives and experiences of others that we are truly able to expand our horizons and our own understanding of the world around us.
Some of the best nonfiction books this year have been memoirs intertwined with recent history, such as a searing history of the Occupy movement, a frank discussion of the histories embedded in police violence, and an inside look at the people imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. What we can gain from these books, and the others on this list, can't be imparted in the same way through fiction. To truly understand ourselves and society, we need to go straight to the source and read their words.
Whether it's through an intimate personal history or exploring wider issues that encompass and implicate all of society, these nonfiction selections form 2015 are sure to make you think and question assumptions you may have held.
1. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Critical theory doesn't usually lend itself to being romantic, but in Maggie Nelson's hands, theorists from Roland Barthes to Judith Butler become fodder for one of the moving love stories of this new century. And the best part? It's all true. Nelson's short tome gives a glimpse at the possibilities of love and family outside of the traditional constraints of society.
2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Originally scheduled to be released during the fall, Ta-Nehisi Coates' book-length letter to his son was instead published over the summer, and it is not difficult to understand why. Coates meditates on what it means to live in a world that is often hostile to black bodies. With the rising coverage of police violence in the past year, his writing takes on a particular conviction, making Between the World and Me an essential read for everyone.
3. The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
Author Heidi Julavits was a meticulous diarist as a child; when looking back at her old diaries, she found that her younger self "to possess the mind of a paranoid tax auditor." She sets out to journal again, for two years, recording her days and thoughts in a free-flowing and intimate fashion. Except, nothing is in order: Julavits jumbles together her entries, leaping back and forth in time, further revealing the larger patterns at work in her life. You may want to pick back up your diary and begin writing journaling again after finishing The Folded Clock.
4. Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision to Not Have Children edited by Meghan Daum
Of course I'll have a child because that's what I'm supposed to do, I thought for years, even though I secretly felt ambivalent toward the idea of having a mini-me. To read the essays Meghan Daum has edited and selected for this collection is to feel relief knowing I'm not alone. Whether the writers of these essays similarly felt as I did or they just knew from early on they would never be a parent, each essay is moving and considered, shedding light on a conversation we should be having more openly.
5. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
"Isn't all memoir a form of showing off?" Margo Jefferson asks as she begins her own memoir, a meditation on her life in the self-termed Negroland. With her self-aware voice, questioning our assumptions, as well as her own, Jefferson illuminates the history of the black upper class and further examines how privilege functions at all levels of society.
6. Spinster: Making A Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick
Spinster is a loaded term that conjures up an image of a lonely and unhappy middle-aged woman. Following the success of her "All the Single Ladies" feature in The Atlantic, Kate Bolick sets out to dispel tired notions about singledom for women. Being a spinster becomes a mindset of self-determination for all women, whether you're single, in a relationship or even married. Get ready for your reading list to grow, too. Bolick introduces readers to some of her writerly role models, such as columnist Neith Boyce and essayist Maeve Brennan, who have largely gone unnoticed in recent years.
7. Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland
As a reporter who has traveled the world, Mac McClelland regularly reported from fraught regions. But after witnessing an act of sexual violence in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, she finds herself so impacted that she feels as if she is turning inward and disappearing. It is the beginning of her journey of wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder. A history of the illness, as well as a love story between her and her future spouse, Irritable Hearts is a necessary book on trauma, its aftermath, and the difficult road to healing.
8. Witches of America by Alex Mar
While preparing a documentary on modern Paganism, writer Alex Mar encounters the occult and decides to further explore and learn about the practitioners. While commonly thought of as merely witches, Mar's book delves into the deeply spiritual history of Paganism and Wicca, guided by her friendship with Morpheus, a priestess. Ultimately about the power of belief, Witches in America explores what it means to give and dedicate yourself to a larger spiritual system of faith.
9. Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple
Artist and journalist Molly Crabapple takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the early 21st century from New York to Paris to Guantanamo Bay and back again. It's a personal history unlike any other told in Molly's frank and vulnerable prose, fitting one artist's story of gusty survival into the wide arc of recent events.
10. Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Written in 2005 by Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, this heavily redacted memoir relates the difficult history of Guantánamo Bay and one man's experience of injustice at the hands of a system larger than him. He remains detained to this day despite his release being ordered by a federal judge in 2010.