These Are The Best Nonfiction Books Of 2018
Our favorite memoirs, essay collections, and reporting from the year, presented in no particular order.
Zora Neale Hurston’s previously unreleased book Barracoon tells the true story of the American slave trade’s last survivor, Cudjo Lewis, as related by Lewis himself. Told over the course of three months in 1927, in which Hurston traveled to the 87-year-old Lewis’s home in Alabama, Lewis’s unthinkable story begins generations before his birth, outlining the lives of his ancestors, and continues through the battle that led to his imprisonment, his journey on the last “Black Cargo” ship to America, his years spent enslaved, and his utter abandonment after being freed. His story is harrowing — not just for his experience of the atrocities of the slave trade, but also for the struggles after the end of the Civil War, directly related to the country’s failure to assist the men and women from whom freedom meant sudden homelessness. Barracoon is a heartrending firsthand account of a period of time at risk of becoming something abstract, an account readers are lucky to have.
On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library burned for over seven hours, a fire that destroyed more than a million books. When journalist and bona fide library-lover Susan Orlean discovered this story decades later, she was shocked she’d never heard of it and was determined to learn more. What follows is not only a thorough investigation of the fire (and the man purported to have set it) but also an examination of the role of libraries as an institution, and the challenges — new and old — that they face. It is, at its core, an ode to the majesty of the public library, and a must-read for all who share that love.
In All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung, who is Korean, confronts her experience of having been adopted by white parents, coming to terms with the ways in which she resents her alienation from a huge part of who she is — in a family that othered her despite their love and best intentions, and in a community that did the same, though often cruelly. When she gets pregnant, she decides it’s time to find her biological parents, and in the process discovers an entire family. All You Can Ever Know is the messy navigation of Chung’s new reality — her working out the boundaries of these people who are both kin and strangers, her careful confrontation and reconciliation with her parents, and her exploration of the profound, ever-shifting meaning of family.
Read an excerpt here.
In the essays collected in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee writes vividly and tenderly about his many intersecting identities: a gay Korean American man, a tarot reader, a student, a writer, an activist. Through these lenses, he generously shares his hard-earned insights about love, art, and humanity — and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself underlining many passages to return to.
Read an excerpt here.
In Spanish, a retablo is an altarpiece; Octavio Solis describes it as a painting on an “old beaten tin” on which “a dire event is depicted, ... some terrible rift in the person’s life, but which the person survives thanks to the intercession of the Divine.” It is a lot of meaning to pack into one scene, but all of it is there for the viewer who takes a moment to look. The fragments of Solis’s memoir do similar, impressive work: Each depicts the details of a life lived along the Mexico–US border — sometimes chaotic, sometimes tragic, often poignant — but presents a host of “divine intercessions” as understood in retrospection: survival by family, imagination, and faith. Still, it’s hard not to consider the border itself as a representation of a “terrible rift,” a split between homes, communities, identities, generations. While reading this generous and eye-opening account, it’s easy to see how, for the country at large, the rift has only deepened.
Brian Phillips’s Impossible Owls is an absolute blast. It’s always exciting to read a writer who so clearly loves what he’s doing, and this debut essay collection — where Phillips writes about, among other subjects, the Iditarod, sumo wrestling, and people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens — delivers just that. Yes, he might second-guess his decisions (say, to learn how to fly a plane), but Phillips manages to explore subculture without othering his subjects. He is able to navigate extraordinary circumstances with curiosity, playfulness, and humility, and his enthusiasm is best seen in his extensive research within these communities and their histories. And this is why I couldn’t get enough of this book: Phillips is the perfect adventure guide — down for anything, talented enough to translate the experience.
Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur — which chronicles his training to be the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden — is a no-holds-barred examination of masculinity. McBee describes the journey as a way of grappling with his newish place in the world of toxic (and privileged) masculinity, by placing himself in the center of an environment that, from an outsider’s point of view at least, is its pinnacle: an environment of concentrated violence, toughness, anger. It is a way of examining the effects of this culture from within it, but, too, it’s a way of feeling out the boundaries of McBee’s own masculinity and facing his doubts about its limits. It’s also a compassionate look at what it means to be a man and the circumstances that have engendered our expectations. It is in many ways a happy dismantling of these expectations, an opening of masculinity to make room for love, support, and tenderness — something McBee is pleasantly surprised to find along the way.
What to do with Lolita in the #MeToo era? Technically brilliant, as thematically reprehensible (dare I say...icky?) as always, but perhaps less forgivably so as we look at it with a modern eye. In a riveting blend of true crime, historical investigation, and literary analysis, Sarah Weinman adds another another dimension to this already complicated context: the fact that Lolita is a story based on the very real abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948 by a man who claimed, for a year, to be her father. In The Real Lolita, Weinman honors the girl whose trauma fell into the shadow of a literary masterpiece, by placing her at the center — drawing her out, through evidence and inference, as a fully fleshed person rather than a cautionary tale, or a piece of inspiration.
In Never Ran, Never Will, Albert Samaha zooms into the pressing, complicated conversations around privilege, gentrification, and anti-blackness in America by examining them within the context of a boys’ football team in the high-crime and close-knit Brooklyn neighborhood Brownsville. The book follows the Mo Better Jaguars — the coaches, led by Chris Legree, and the preteen players — over the course of five years. And while the games drive the narrative, it’s the way the team shapes the boys’ trajectories that is most compelling. Samaha gets at this by weaving in the history of the town and its residents, the persistence of gang violence and the circumstances that enabled it, and the nationwide threats on the lives of black boys and men. That Samaha is able to give such an intimate view of this large cast of characters is a testament to his dogged reporting and his deep investment in their right to tell their stories. The result is a mesmerizing book that will make you feel like you’re right at the sidelines, breath held, rooting for the team.
Read an excerpt here.
Note: Albert Samaha is currently an employee of BuzzFeed News.
In her graphic memoir Passing for Human, Liana Finck (literally) illustrates the struggle of understanding our lives as a narrative, exploring her and her family’s history in a series of false starts and interruptions. Each “restart” of Passing for Human adds another layer to Finck’s profound inward analysis, creating a full, messy portrait of a person who’s always felt on the outskirts of normalcy. Her art echoes her mind — sparse line drawings in moments of loss, dreamy scenes in moments of discovery — and in channeling her anxieties onto the page, she invites readers to join her.
Read an excerpt here.
Sarah Smarsh’s Kansas roots go back five generations. Her father and his family were wheat farmers, and her mother, like many of the women who came before her, got pregnant with Sarah when she was a teen. Smarsh’s memoir Heartland is a poignant look at growing up in a town 30 miles from the nearest city (Wichita); learning the value and satisfaction of hard, blue-collar work, and then learning that the rest of the country see that work as something to be pitied; and watching her young mother’s frustration with living at the “dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty” and understanding that such a fate might be hers, too. This idea — this projection into the future — is the thread that Smarsh so gracefully weaves throughout the narrative; she addresses the hypothetical child she might or might not eventually have (an unnamed “you” throughout) and in doing so addresses all that the next generation Middle Americans living in poverty will face.
Kiese Laymon’s memoir is a reckoning, pulling from his own experience growing up poor and black in Jackson, Mississippi, and tracking the most influential relationships, for better or worse, of his life: with his brilliant but struggling single mother, his loving grandma, his body and the ways he nurtures and punishes it, his education and creativity, and the white privilege that drives the world around him. Through this exploration — and with shrewd analysis, sharp wit, and great vulnerability — Laymon forces the reader to fully consider the effects of the nation’s inability to reconcile its pride and ambition with its shameful history.
Read our profile of Kiese Laymon here.
Ken Bensinger’s Red Card — a fascinating investigation of corruption in the high-stakes world of professional soccer — is almost impossible to put down. The book spans years of an investigation that gets thornier every step of the way, starting with a single tip and ending in the indictments of some of the highest-ranking soccer officials. It has everything you’d want in a true crime scandal: expertly drawn unsavory characters, questionable heroes, unexpected twists, bribery, racketeering, and prose so evocative (and accessible!) as to read like a novel.
Read an excerpt here.
Note: Ken Bensinger is currently an employee of BuzzFeed News.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ Small Fry is a beautifully wrought, often devastating account of a life spent yearning for a distant father’s love — the distant father just happens to be Steve Jobs. The memoir paints an intimate and unsettling portrait of Jobs, reaching back to Brennan-Jobs’ parents meeting (they were idealistic hippies; she was born on a farm), to Jobs’ public disavowal of her as a daughter, and through their relationship, which would ping-pong between love and cruelty until his death. Brennan-Jobs immerses the reader in the California of her childhood during the ’70s and ’80s, and she allows us to experience her father’s shocking rise and wealth through the eyes of an awestruck child. But it’s also an ode to her mother — an honest and appreciative look at the work she had to do to make up for Jobs’ lack.
Michelle Dean’s Sharp looks at 10 brilliant women whose intellect, writing, and criticism helped shape the cultural landscape of 20th-century America — though their male contemporaries often failed to acknowledge this. Dean connects these women — Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm — for their “sharpness.” In other words: Despite different backgrounds and divergent opinions, each writer was able to articulate their opinions precisely and powerfully. It’s a thorough, captivating deep dive into the lives of these women, and an exploration of the culture and politics of their time.
Read an excerpt here.
Terese Marie Mailhot’s lyrical memoir is a profound and intimate portrayal of growing up on the Seabird Island First Nation, living through a dysfunctional upbringing, surviving hospitalization for PTSD and bipolar II disorder, and trying to build a life under the weight of a lifetime’s worth of trauma. Through the book’s disjointed essays — begun during that hospitalization — Mailhot writes masterfully about love and forgiveness, and learning to accept intimacy while still protecting oneself.
17. I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé by Michael Arceneaux
I laughed out loud frequently while reading I Can't Date Jesus, which is surprising, since much of Arceneaux’s memoir is rooted in pain — of growing up in a violently anti-gay environment, of trying to push his identity away, of slowly coming out despite being afraid, and of coming to terms with the fact that the church he grew up in hasn’t made room for him. Still, Arceneaux is as joyful as he is shrewd; his writing is affecting, whether describing the pain of his mother’s disapproval or the power of Beyoncé’s music. His moments of levity are like little rest stops on the thorny path through the loss and redefinition of faith as a gay black man. How lucky we are to have Arceneaux as our guide.
18. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
In the 1970s and ’80s, California communities were terrorized by a man who repeatedly sneaked into victims’ homes in the middle of the night, committing more than 50 sexual assaults and 10 sadistic murders. Because of poor communication between police forces and no DNA evidence, the serial murderer and rapist eluded law enforcement and appeared to have gotten away with all of it. Decades later, journalist Michelle McNamara became obsessed with the case, working with law enforcement and a community of independent investigators online to link the crimes, looking for something that everyone else had missed. She died suddenly in the midst of this work. I'll Be Gone in the Dark — which comprises her working draft, notes, interviews, and previous articles — is a testament to her doggedness, keen intellect, and courage. That the Golden State Killer — as nicknamed by McNamara — was caught just months after I'll Be Gone in the Dark came out makes the story even more enthralling.
In her debut memoir Never Have I Ever, Katie Heaney recounted a lifetime of unrequited crushes on the wrong guys. In Would You Rather?, four years later, she writes with the same wit, heart, and unflinching honesty about falling in love — with a woman. Heaney’s re-examination of her romantic history is nuanced, complicating the idea that a person might have an a-ha moment and suddenly fit neatly into an identity; and her story of meeting and falling in love with her first girlfriend is of the same sweep-you-off-your-feet caliber as any classic love story. Anyone who’s struggled to find their place in the world — especially those figuring out their own sexualities — will find comfort and hope in this book.
Check out an excerpt here.
Note: Katie Heaney is a former BuzzFeed employee.
Lorraine Hansberry is probably best known for A Raisin in the Sun, but the writer — whose life was cut short at 34 years — was tremendously influential among the creatives and activists in her sphere. In Looking for Lorraine, Imani Perry gives Hansberry the recognition she deserves, illuminating the ways in which she supported and elevated her friends and contemporaries like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, as well as her work in actively fighting racism. Perry also explores Hansberry’s queerness, something often glossed over because she married a man. It’s a fascinating account of a woman whose talent and intellect changed the shape of mid-20th-century art.
Read an excerpt here.
Whales are giant, beautiful, intelligent enigmas, and in Spying on Whales, Nick Pyenson takes us along on a journey to answer some of the biggest questions about them. Drawing from the Smithsonian’s fossil collections, experiences in the Antarctic waters, and the Chilean desert that holds the largest fossil whale site ever found, Pyenson draws a comprehensive portrait of the ancient past and complex present of whales, and offers a projection into their uncertain future. It’s thrilling every step of the way.
Insomnia reads like insomnia feels — fluid prose, streaming through Marina Benjamin’s experience of sleeplessness, weaving in insights from literature, art, philosophy, and psychology. It’s an ethereal but profound exploration of our relationship with sleep and darkness, and especially of women’s relationship to sleep — why we’re drawn to cultural depictions of women in deep sleep, what keeps them awake. Benjamin’s connections are lucid and illuminating, and joining her through them feels like sharing a quiet late-night conversation.
In her gripping memoir about resilience and education, Tara Westover describes her upbringing in a Mormon survivalist family that forbade, among other institutions, the traditional schooling system. Because of this, Westover’s first experience of education was her first day as a college freshman at Brigham Young University — and the years that follow are full of sheer dedication and perseverance. Westover slowly gains a better understanding of the world and her place — and worth — within it, and comes to terms with the family that kept her from these lessons for so long.