The Hard-Hitting Nonfiction Reading Guide
Autumn is the biggest season in the publishing world, particularly for serious nonfiction. Below is our fall edit (along with a few summer books we didn’t get to read poolside): a mix of outstanding narrative nonfiction, biography, literary journalism, memoir, essay collections, and guides to living smart. It’s a list made up of books that have the power to expand minds, to change the way we see an issue, place, or person, while also wholly captivating our imagination.
The story of black, female, and wholly under-appreciated mathematicians who worked at NASA during World War II (and, amazingly, under Jim Crow laws) is told here by Margot Lee Shetterly, a new writer who grew up in the same small, science-centric town that the women lived in. Their unbelievable history will give you chills in every sense.
Writer Caitlin Shetterly’s quest to better understand GMOs and the people and processes behind the food we eat takes her across the Great Plains and as far as a beekeeping conference in Brussels. More so than definitive answers, the questions that Shetterly advances are a persuasive reminder of how important the continued fight for true transparency in the food industry is.
From two great minds at Stanford’s d.school, this book shows you how to apply the principles and techniques of design thinking to your life course. Burnett and Evans eschew the meaningless platitudes—find your passion—that so often populate books about how to have a meaningful career and life, instead offering concrete, actionable steps that anyone can take to head in a better direction.
Sady Doyle’s timely Trainwreck asks the question: Why does society seem to enjoy watching its leading ladies fall? While Doyle covers the expected celebrities of our time, she also draws on the past, examining the standards of womanhood that we’ve long applied to legends like Charlotte Brontë and Sylvia Plath. Doyle’s probing questions—What does it mean to be a “good” woman? What pieces of ourselves do we see in female trainwrecks?—are conversation ignition.
When lawyer Al Gerhardstein learned that the marriage of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur would be denied acknowledgement when John, who was dying from ALS, passed away—he began a path, with Jim, that would lead them to the Supreme Court and the 2015 ruling that established the right of same-sex couples to marry in all fifty states. Written by Jim himself and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Debbie Cenziper, Love Wins is the story of what unfolded to get us there.
If you’ve never heard of Irena Sendler before, you’re not alone. While some World War II stories are told often, the life of this Polish woman—a social worker who helped more than two thousand children escape the Warsaw ghetto—has never received the print it deserves. Mazzeo’s portrait of Sendler, and the desperate measures her network of human heroes resorted to in Nazi-occupied Poland, is harrowing; some passages are admittedly difficult to get through, but it feels so important that we do.
The kid in all of us can admire Peter Diamandis’s singular childhood goal to get to space. Young Diamandis’s escapades—scrapping together engines and rockets with “borrowed” parts (from the family lawn motor and his sister’s Barbie house)—set the stage for this narrative of the $10 million prize that Diamandis would go on to offer for a spacecraft (not built by the government) that could make it beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Acclaimed essayist Kristin Dombek dissects the so-called narcissism epidemic in this book-length essay, and it turns out our fascination with self-obsession is, in itself, a form of self-obsession we all share. Her insightful discoveries about the behaviors we often consider selfish in others will make you rethink your perception of what a true narcissist looks like.
It’s no surprise that The Tunnels was optioned for film long before it’s book release date, with Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Identity, Captain Philips) attached to direct. This true tale of the escape attempts designed to rescue East Germans using secret tunnels carved below the Berlin Wall, and the role the U.S. television networks played in them, is made-for-the-big-screen sensational.
J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up in a depressed Rust Belt town, in a poor, white family with Appalachian roots, achieves the transcendent goal of the art, becoming something much bigger than his own personal story. Hillbilly Elegy is a piercing examination of class and culture, and a seminal portrayal of the truths of the American Dream.
Not the first nor the last Beatles book, but this is an interesting portrait of a year in which nearly everything changed for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Turner’s account of 1966 makes you realize just how relevant the group still is today.
Hands down, the most powerful anthology of 2016: Jesmyn Ward has edited a visceral collection of essays on race (including one of her own) that will blow you away. Ward’s response to the tragedies of race past and horrifically all-too-present draws on James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, but the result of the contributor pieces she brought together feels revolutionary.
Book critic Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson is made rich by Franklin’s careful attention to Jackson’s texts and the interplay between works like We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the writer’s own complicated, fraught life. It’s a book designed for literary aficionados, down to the last gorgeous, deckle-edge page.
In Ghostland, academic Colin Dickey isn’t so much concerned with ghost stories themselves; whether they’re true or make-believe is largely beside the point. What Dickey is after is what the existence and nature of ghost stories says about us, and how the power of the past and place informs the way we move through the world.
This book sheds light on the root of all sorts of common health issues, from still-mysterious gut-brain disorders like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), to depression and anxiety, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. We are perennially drawn to research on the gut but Dr. Mayer is really writing for anyone looking to understand how their body works, and (most importantly) how to retrain your two brains to communicate better.
At the age of twelve, Ryan Speedo Green was in solitary confinement in a Virginia juvenile facility. His childhood had been hard and unjust, to say the least. It’s unlikely that anyone could have predicted that twelve years later, he’d win a competition at the Metropolitan Opera, and become a professional singer, which is only part of what makes his story tremendous.
This is not a book about how to make more money, nor is it a critique of consumerism; rather, it is a fascinating look at our relationship to money, based on a wide range of compelling research from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, biology, and behavioral economics. You won’t look at a dollar bill the same way ever again.
Over the past few years, medium and meditation leader Jill Willard has shared her path to becoming an intuitive with us, taught us the power of trusting our gut and how to balance our energy and release stress. Her just-released book has some of this wisdom—and much more guidance on how to connect to your intuition and higher power.
Forget everything you thought you knew about “socialism,” argues Finnish writer Anu Partanen (now a permanent U.S. resident). Partanen’s story of moving to and starting a family in the States is deeply revealing of, yes, Nordic culture (particularly revealing: the case for the government serving individual independence above all), but even more so, it provides a new perspective on American society—from the way financial dependency can interfere with love and family, to the struggle many face when navigating its health care system.
While the math geeks among us will feel a deeper affinity to this exposé of Big Data from Harvard Ph.D. and former Wall Street quant, Cathy O’Neil, you don’t need to be a nerd to appreciate the significance of her message. Algorithms and mathematical models are increasingly influencing (and often dictating) our everyday and future reality, including what economic and career options are available to us and how we are judged in both realms. What’s more, these systems tend to be incredibly biased; Weapons is a must-read for anyone who is working to combat economic and racial discrimination.
New York Magazine’s verbose, profanity-laced “Ask Polly”—penned by Heather Havrilesky—is one of the most empathetic, convincing, empowering advice columns out there. This book showcases Polly’s wisdom at its best, with a collection of never-before-published responses to readers’ letters covering a slew of deeply personal—yet amazingly relatable—issues, from work life to love life to family life.