25 Of The Best Nonfiction Books Of 2016
Some may say that 2016 is a year best forgotten, but by at least one standard, it was far from a disappointment: When it came to new books, writers gave us readers countless reasons to cheer. Each month, there was a plethora of nonfiction new releases, and so many of them managed to entertain, educate, and enthrall us.
It’s never easy to choose a favorite, especially when it comes to books, but luckily, I don’t have to. Instead, I chose 25 of 2016’s best, each with something unique to offer. The picks on this list span a variety of topics, just as the genre’s new releases did. Whether you enjoy digging into the factors that triggered current events, laughing over a comedy writer’s memoir, or getting hooked on a true crime story, 2016 had it all.
For everything that you didn’t like seeing or experiencing this year, consider these books a silver lining. They can’t undo anything, but they may have the power to at least temporarily turn your frown upside-down. It’s worth a shot — at worst, you’ll have read another high-quality book.
Below are 25 of the year’s best nonfiction books, because you won’t want to forget them.
Black Flags by Joby Warrick (Doubleday)
There’s a reason why Joby Warrick won the 2016 Pulizter Prize for general nonfiction with Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. His engaging and well-executed book lays out the perfect storm that led to the formation of the Islamic State. You'll emerge equipped to break down the timely topic yourself.
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books)
Racial tensions have seemingly increased over the past year, making Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America essential reading. The National Book Award-winning work shows how our country’s long history of racism affected the thinking of even great intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, among others. The book points to the roots of the problem, offering lessons on digging them up.
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Turtleback Books)
March: Book Three, the third and final installment in a graphic novel series, snagged the National Book Award for young people’s literature this year. Co-written by key civil rights figure Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, the book is a must-read. It offers captivating and essential history lessons, all accompanied by illustrator Nate Powell’s impressive work.
First Women by Kate Andersen Bower (Harper)
Kate Andersen Bower’s First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies reveals how the role is frequently underestimated. To make her case, she spotlights the most recent 10, starting with Jackie Kennedy and ending with Michelle Obama. It’s a revealing look at some very intriguing individuals.
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeffrey Seller (Grand Central Publishing)
Broadway poster child and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and theatrical producer Jeffrey Seller’s recent book offers fans more than just the smash hit’s libretto. Hamilton: The Revolution shares the story of how the musical came to be, told in part by entertaining footnotes, emails, photo, and interviews. There’s no escaping the Broadway sensation, so you might as well enjoy it.
Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry (St. Martin’s Press)
If you loved Serial, you won’t want to miss Adnan's Story: Murder, Justice, and the Case that Captivated a Nation by Rabia Chaudry. Not only does the Syed family friend revisit the case that hooked a nation, she offers us a glimpse into his life in prison and looks at recent legal developments. You know you want more.
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts by Laura Tillman (Scribner)
A grisly crime is the subject of Laura Tillman’s The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City. The journalist explores the 2003 murder of three Texas children at the hands of their parents, both from the standpoint of what caused the crime and its impact on the community.
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (Crown)
Long-listed for the National Book Award, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy analyzes how mathematical models impact our lives. Sure, math may not be everyone’s favorite subject, but O’Neil makes it accessible and — dare I say — fascinating. Big data’s impact is profound, and you’ll see its influence on everything from education to health care to car loans.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow)
The space race wasn’t won by white men alone. In Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, we learn about its oft-overlooked contributors. Author Margot Lee Shetterly focuses on five brilliant women, in particular — the “human computers” whose math made John Glenn’s groundbreaking voyage and Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” possible.
Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein (Harper)
Peggy Orenstein paints an interesting picture with Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. To do so, she interviewed dozens of young women, plus psychologists, academics, and other experts. The result is a deeply-researched book that tackles everything from hookup culture to helicopter parenting, and virginity to porn.
All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister (Simon & Schuster)
In All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister examines the vast changes women’s lives in America have undergone in recent decades. She delves into numerous factors, including sex, money, and education, both with anecdotes and data. Even if you don’t count yourself among the single ladies, you’ll want to put your hands up for this book.
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein (Grand Central Publishing)
The struggles of adolescence and womanhood come into the spotlight in Jessi Klein’s memoir You’ll Grow Out of It. Klein draws on her own experiences, awkward teen years and all. You’re bound to cringe at points, but her well-honed humor will have you laughing as well.
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (Galley Books)
If you love Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo won’t disappoint. The comedian goes all in, using her love life, adolescence, family, and more as source material. As you can imagine, you’re in for a lot of laughs, but she’ll tug at your heartstrings, too.
Elizabeth and Michael by Donald Bogle (Atria Books)
With its focus on two icons, the whole of Elizabeth and Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and the King of Pop: A Love Story is greater than the sum of its parts. Donald Bogle tells a tale of beautiful friendship. It turns out Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson are #bestfriendgoals.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Random House)
After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 36, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi started writing When Breath Becomes Air. His unflinching memoir captures the experience of going from doctor to patient, from living to dying. It’s a heartbreaking read, but his reflections are beautiful and powerful.
Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books)
Frequent fiction writer Jennifer Weiner tells her own stories in the essay collection Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, and the result is every bit as compelling as her previous work. She digs deep, candidly discussing everything from miscarriage to family to parenthood.
Unmentionable by Therese Oneill (Little, Brown and Company)
Therese Oneill spoils all romantic notions of life in the Victoria era in Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. You’ll forgive her, though, because the book is a treasure trove of bizarre and fascinating information. The little-known tidbits she shares range from how women washed their hair (ammonia) to anti-aging treatments (lead). Oh, what a time to be alive.
You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson (Plume)
Comedian and podcaster Phoebe Robinson takes on race, gender, and pop culture in You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain. She does it with style, wit, and smarts, while making sure not to always be in what she describes as “after-school special” mode. The result is an essay collection that is both insightful and entertaining.
Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett (Harper Wave)
Sexism at work might not be quite at Mad Men levels anymore, but neither is it just a memory. In Feminist Fight Club: An Official Manual for a Sexist Workplace, Jessica Bennett draws on personal stories, research, and more to arm women for the fray. As a bonus, she makes her advice and tools as fun as they are practical.
My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Simon & Schuster)
The Notorious RBG offers insight on a variety of topics in her first book. My Own Words is comprised of a collection of the Supreme Court justice’s writings and speeches, accompanied by biographical information penned by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the wise RBG herself.
The Black Presidency by Michael Eric Dyson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Whether you want to face it or not, President Obama is on his way out of office. Michael Eric Dyson gives him a fascinating farewell with The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America. The powerful book explores how Obama and others’ treatment of his race impacted his eight years in office.
Love Wins by Debbie Cenziper, Jim Obergefell (William Morrow)
The gay rights victory that came with June 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision is celebrated in Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality. Written by Debbie Cenziper with lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell, the book sheds light on the moving love story that inspired the case.
It's Okay to Laugh by Nora McInerny Purmont (Dey Street Books)
It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmont will inspire both emotional reactions mentioned in the title. The poignant memoir recounts a series of very, very unfortunate event’s in Purmont’s life: the deaths of her father, husband, and unborn child, all within weeks of one another. In spite of her pain, she keeps her sense of humor and shares stories of love, loss, and moving forward.
The Abundance by Annie Dillard (Ecco)
Past Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard offers up her own carefully curated collection in The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. Opening with an introduction by fellow writer Geoff Dyer, the book features Dillard’s beautiful observations of the world. She lives up to her reputation with stunning scenes and captivating narratives.
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman (Ecco)
Blair Braverman tells a story of mental and physical challenges in Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North. Her memoir recounts her attempts to be a “tough girl” while living in male-dominated cultures, and offers thought-provoking reflections based on her experiences in Norway and Alaska.