The best of the year lists continue, and today I’m focusing on my favorite nonfiction reads. Usually I don’t read enough nonfiction to warrant an entire top ten list, but this year I got really into my nonfiction reading. For this, I’m crediting a reading goal of tackling at least one nonfiction book a month, as well as a particularly exceptional publishing year for memoir, investigative journalism, and essay collections. Here are my ten favorite nonfiction books of 2019.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. This is not only my favorite memoir of the year, it’s one of my favorite books of the year overall. I’ve never read anything quite like In the Dream House. The story of an abusive lesbian relationship was previously missing from my shelves and the message it offers about representation is essential and far-reaching. Machado’s writing is also stylistically and structurally experimental while still being propulsive. I want everyone I know to read this book.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller. This is a very difficult, but essential read...I wish I could gift it to every single one of my students going off to college next year. Miller shares her story of being sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus and takes back the media narrative surrounding her experience and her case. Because she is singularly vulnerable and unbelievably strong, I truly believe she’s the role model young women and teens need right now.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. Yes, this is a book about the #MeToo movement, and if equal rights is something you care about, the stories in this book are sure to infuriate you. But it’s also a book about what good investigative journalism has the power to do, and the dedication and empathy journalists bring to their work. She Said ultimately left me feeling proud, inspired, and motivated.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Bad Blood is shocking and appalling, but also a surprisingly delightful read. Elizabeth Holmes’ deception at Theranos is nearly unbelievable, and John Carreyrou’s writing is smart, witty, and paced like a thriller. I think almost any reader would enjoy this book and it would also make an exceptional gift.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino. I’ve recommended this book to countless people, but I still have a hard time verbalizing exactly what it’s about. Mostly it’s an examination of contemporary life and all the modern realities that shape our identities (the influence of social media, the rise of scam culture, and the pressure to be constantly optimizing, to name a few). Tolentino is earnest, insightful, witty, and, most notably, a jaw-droppingly fantastic writer.
Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard. This collection of twelve essays is just the right balance of personal and scholarly as Bernard shares stories of growing up as a young Black girl in the south, her life as a professor at a predominantly white university, and her experience mothering her two adopted daughters. I adore this whole collection, but the one essay every single English teacher needs to read is “Teaching the N-Word.” It will change your classroom world in the best way.
History and Culture
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister. Technically this is a 2018 release, but I read it in January and loved it so much I had to include it. This book made me mad, in a good way. Traister traces the ways women getting angry have resulted in cultural, societal, and political upheavals throughout history. She also investigates our current political moment, which was a necessary reminder that I’m not alone in the anger I often feel at our world’s injustices.
Furious Hours: The Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cepp. This is a must read for any fan of true crime, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, or the writing process. Cepp dives deep into the completely bananas murder case Lee was investigating for a never-published writing project. Cepp’s writing is phenomenally clear and she presents each of these complex, intertwined stories with respect and nuance.
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I read this book slowly over the course of two months, allowing (and sometimes forcing) myself to personally reflect on what I was consuming. Kendi’s writing is brilliant and cutting. Each chapter begins with definitions and then Kendi shares personal reflection, cultural observation, and action steps for readers who truly want to be antiracist. This book showed me how much work I have to do, but also made me believe that that work is possible.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. There’s a lot of disagreement over this book, but personally I’m really glad it exists and am glad I read it. Taddeo spent eight years talking to women about their sex lives and the result is this very personal, at times voyeuristic, depiction of three specific women’s sexual and romantic lives. While the purpose of this book is quite contested, I found it to be a compelling examination of what happens when a society represses women’s sexual desires but requires them to be sexual objects.
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