In many ways, good nonfiction is similar to good fiction. Both draw us in with story, they introduce us to characters and situations we wouldn't otherwise encounter, they change the way we see our surroundings, and they show us that we're not alone. The idea that nonfiction can't be lyric or narrative or gripping is constantly disproved by publications that ring stranger than fiction; the idea that only short stories can move us to tears is disproved the second we read a sad essay that actually happened, ugh, why, why?!
Where nonfiction has the upper hand is, of course, in the arena of truth. Nonfiction actually happened. It's real. It's there. When it's done well, that realness gives it a thrill that imagined works struggle to replicate — the sense that, wow, this is my world I'm reading about.
2014 saw the publication of some truly stunning nonfiction books, both essay collections and long-form publications. It sounds horribly cheesy to say this, but these books actually made us better people. They expanded our minds. They taught us to levitate. (Well, fine, metaphorically.) Oh, and this list happens to be all women. It wasn't done on purpose, I promise — the dames are just killing it this year.
Without further ado:
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial)
This much-lauded essay collection offers nuanced, careful thoughts on gender, race, and pop culture in snappy prose that feels fresh off the Internet.
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)
This graphic memoir tackles one of the hardest and least-spoken about subjects of all time: dealing (hilariously, sadly) with your parents as they approach the end of their lives. (Chast was the only female finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.)
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf)
If there's a compliment this book hasn't racked up, I've yet to see it. These essays are beautiful, intelligent, and, by exploring the nuances of empathy, they teach readers how to be more empathetic — all without a whiff of moralization.
The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness by Rebecca Solnit
This collection of essays by the brilliant Solnit covers a range of disparate subjects — from California drought to climate change to Detroit to the Haitian earthquake — all approached with the belief that truth is found in shades of gray.
The Fame Lunches by Daphne Merkin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Because we can't be good all the time, Merkin gives us tales of sad, bad celebrities interspersed with confessions about her own life. Her exploration into the woundedness of fame is as intriguing as it is voyeuristic.
On Immunity by Eula Biss (Graywolf)
The controversy swirling around immunization seems to revolve mostly around mothers, children, and doctors, but Biss turns the idea of inoculation into something much bigger and more important than mumps shots — something that affects and implicates all of us.
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House)
Walking has always been a way to really think, and this essay collection is a distillation of the thoughts that Luiselli's had on her many wanderings. As these essays move around cities and apartments and graveyards, they collect and expound upon the thoughts that sometimes seemed offered up by the landscape itself.
What Would Lynne Tillman Do? by Lynne Tillman (Red Lemonade)
Who is Lynne Tillman? You could call her a writer, a critic, or a teacher, but it might be most accurate to call her "a smart person who has cool thoughts on things." This essay collection, written in abecedary form, starts with Andy Warhol and ricochets on through Don DeLillo and Tillman's various encounters with art, among other subjects.
Women In Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton (Blue Rider Press)
Oh, fashion — perpetually undervalued in the world of Thoughts and Ideas. Women in Clothes dares to dive into the realm of heels and chiffon to suss out the deeper underpinnings of what we wear. The authors asked more than 600 women to fill out questionnaires about style, and the resulting observations reveal the surprising depths of our sartorial side.
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
A mother's death. Middle age. A woman who doesn't want to have kids. These are the things we shy away from talking about — except for Meghan Daum, who tackles the unspeakable (and, occasionally, the trivial) in a chatty, let's-talk-it-out voice.
100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl (Faber & Faber)
In these short essays, MacArthur-winning playwright Ruhl writes about creativity, creativity as a woman, and creativity as a woman who's also a mother who's also a writer. Some deal explicitly with the theater, some don't, but all are provocative and intellectually probing.