All reading sharpens our understanding of ourselves and the societies we inhabit, but nonfiction books, in particular, deepen that understanding in a way few other mediums can. Well-researched and well-written nonfiction books, like the 17 on this list, leave us with more information than we came in with about history, politics, sleep cycles, and even the ways we socialize boys about sex and masculinity. As an added bonus, these books have the pacing and storytelling typically associated with novels, making them even more engrossing.
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Journalist Peggy Orenstein has been helping adults better understand teenagers for more than two decades: Since the 1995 release of Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, Orenstein has been a go-to expert on how media, schools, and families socialize children, especially around gender roles and sex, and the long-term consequences of these choices. Orenstein spoke with more than 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20 for her 2015 book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape; in her follow-up, Boys & Sex, she surveyed more than 100 young men between the ages of 16 and 22. Boys & Sex is a comprehensive exploration of how pornography and an indoctrination into a toxic masculinity (a concept that has, admittedly, lost some of its meaning), urges boys toward behaviors —from suppressing their emotions to engaging in homophobia—that are unhealthy to both themselves and others. Boys & Sex is an important book, but we’ve come to expect nothing less from a journalist as thorough and brilliant as Orenstein.
Midlife crises are so normalized that pop culture has memorialized their contours: Men purchase sports cars, trade their spouses in for newer models, and dye whatever’s remaining of their hair. Women get into emotional and sexual ruts that leave them dissatisfied, especially if they have children who are leaving the nest as they hit this point in their lives. Memoirist Ada Calhoun’s second book, Why We Can’t Sleep, suggests that these images don’t represent the full scope of this normal life event, particularly for women born between 1965 and 1980. A new midlife crisis is emerging for Gen X women, and it’s formed in many ways by social forces outside their control. These women (Calhoun describes them as the “Jan Bradys of generations”) are wholly ignored by a society focused on millennials and Baby Boomers, even as they face chronic underemployment, higher debt rates than other generations, rampant depression, and ailing parents who need as much from them as their own growing children. Calhoun is sounding the alarm: She collects stories from a number of different Gen X women to reveal the impact of being bookended by two generations that eat up vital resources.
Black women have “significantly shaped” the trajectory of the United States, but most history textbooks credit others for their victories or overlook their contributions altogether. Berry and Gross are both trained historians who have used their roles as scholars and professors (at the University of Texas at Austin and Rutgers University, respectively) to correct the public record and give Black women their just due. A Black Women’s History of the United States continues this critical work: It further fills out what we know about Black women including explorer Isabel de Olvera, conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, and Senator Shirley Chisholm, who have influenced American life from politics to sports to music.
In 2012, painter and street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art series, Stop Telling Women to Smile, went viral when someone uploaded a photo of one of her Brooklyn-based portraits on Tumblr. Her street-art project pairs portraits of women who she’s talked with about gender-based street harassment with empowering one-liners such as “I Am Not Here For You” and “Harassing Women Does Not Prove Your Masculinity.” Though there are fewer online conversations about street harassment these days, it remains a global issue: Fazlalizadeh cites statistics that show at least 65 percent of women in the United States, 79 percent of women in India, and 86 percent of women in Thailand and Brazil have experienced street harassment—and little is being done to curb it. Stop Telling Women to Smile is an extension of Fazlalizadeh’s street series, featuring 10 women discussing the psychological and emotional impact of the harassment they’ve experienced since childhood.
In February 2017, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler posted a 2,900-word essay on her own website detailing the sexual harassment and discrimination she experienced in her two years working at the rideshare company. Overnight, the screed transformed Fowler from an unknown engineer to a world-renowned whistleblower whose honesty and courage led to the ousting of Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick (along with 20 other employees) and ignited scrutiny on the powerful white men in tech who abuse women and other marginalized groups with impunity. Whistleblower is a longer account of Fowler’s time at Uber, as well as everything that happened in her life up until that point; it also emphasizes the importance of women survivors coming together to create a culture shift where workers can count on abuse and harassment to be believed, taken seriously, and followed through with consequences.
Rachel Vorona Cote (who has contributed to Bitch) is a master of language. It might be a result of the graduate education she received at the University of Maryland or just a natural inclination toward words; but either way, Cote writes sentences that are so beautiful and so clear that it was impossible for me to put her book down. Too Much borrows from Cote’s background as a Victorian literary scholar: She explores how women of the Victorian era were confined by social standards that penalized them for behaviors deemed deviant (including randomly laughing and sighing), and how those same expectations have followed women into the modern era, where they have landed on the likes of Britney Spears and Lana Del Rey. Cote weaves her own experiences with suicidal ideation, divorce, and body image into the narrative, offering important context for how these cultural expectations linger, even among women who aren’t famous or wealthy.
Sociologist Nikki Khanna has been researching racial identity in the United States, especially among multiracial and biracial people, since at least 2004, writing about everything from the “one-drop rule” to prime-time television’s role in teaching us all about race. Recently, though, Khanna, who works at the University of Vermont, has turned her attention to colorism—the system that prioritizes and rewards lighter-skinned people at the expense of darker-skinned people—among Asian Americans. Whiter is the natural output of Khanna’s research: It’s an essay collection that features 30 Asian American women writing about their experiences with colorism within their families, their workplaces, and even their relationships. It’s an eye-opening book that aims to help us better understand the role of skin color in social mobility.
We all get older, if we’re lucky. But somehow, it’s only women who are expected to retain their youth even as their bodies naturally droop, drop, and wrinkle. Cultural critic, author, and Communication Studies professor Susan J. Douglas is not immune to these aging standards, and her latest book examines how this “war on older women” came to be. Not only does Douglas examine the “gendered ageism” that boxes aging women into stereotypes that strip them of their vitality and their humanity, she also explores how pop culture has always reinforced these tropes. Thankfully, since the wildly successful original run of The Golden Girls (which still lives in reruns on multiple networks) we’ve been treated to movies like Book Club and TV shows like Grace & Frankie that diversify the kinds of aging women we see onscreen. But Douglas is calling for more—a complete culture shift that disavows anti-aging products while also considering how to have more respect and resources for our aging populations.
It’s the beginning of a new decade, which means that many adults are about to embark on a “digital detox”—if only a brief one—in an effort to change their relationship with their phones. Journalist Casey Schwartz’s second book is essential for those who want to head toward “digital minimalism” or otherwise shift their reliance on smartphones, social media, and other devices. Attention asks two simple questions: “Why are we so susceptible to all the escape routes our technologies offer us in the first place?” and “What are we fleeing?” Schwartz begins the book with her own story: She began abusing Adderall in college, and though it took at least a decade for her to kick her addiction altogether, it prompted her to explore other people’s relationship to attention itself. She delves into her own obsession with her iPhone; references writers, like David Foster Wallace and Simone Weil, who’ve grappled with the same questions she poses; and seeks the insight of the designers, psychiatrists, and ethicists who are trying to help us focus in a world with increasing distractions.
Journalist Sarah Kendzior has been sounding the alarm about Donald Trump for a long time. Through her informative appearances on MSNBC, her writing at a number of different digital and print publications, and her Gaslit Nation podcast, she has been helping piece together Trump’s connection to foreign adversaries, including Russia, and how his leadership is tied to a global rise in authoritarianism and fascism. The follow-up to Kendzior’s 2015 bestseller, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, pulls the curtain even further back on Trump, exploring how he came to power over the past few decades. But Hiding in Plain Sight isn’t just about Trump, but about how crumbling democracies intent on rolling back the freedoms of its citizens create perfect conditions for the rise of dangerous autocrats.
The Great Migration, a nearly six-decade stretch of time when Black Americans fled the South in droves to secure safer living conditions and more economic opportunities, hasn’t been covered enough in pop culture. Of course, we have Isabel Wilkerson’s canonical 2014 book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration; exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art; and documentaries about this important time period, but too many Americans simply don’t know about a movement that completely reshaped this country’s demographics. Bestselling author Morgan Jerkins adds to the canon with Wandering in Strange Lands, a book that traces her own family’s journey across the United States, from the deep South to Oklahoma, California, and elsewhere. Jerkins’s book should inspire Black Americans to ask the elders in their families about their own journeys; after all, passing down history is one of the only ways it survives.
Northwestern University professor Geraldo L. Cadava has broadly focused his work on Latinos in the United States and in the borderlands of the United States and Mexico; he’s taught his students about the American West, Latinx history, and other topics in U.S. history. At the start of an election year, there’s no better historian to turn to for a look at an important counternarrative of American politics. In every election cycle, pollsters and pundits discuss the potency of the Latino American vote, generally with the assumption that these voters can be counted on to choose Democratic candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. However, that assumption doesn’t consider the large swath of Latino Americans who vote Republican, and that’s where Cadava comes in: The Hispanic Republican is a fascinating look at the impact of Latino Republicans since the 1960s, and an examination of how the Republican Party has successfully secured at least a partial section of a critically important voting bloc.
The ’90s were a tumultuous decade for women: Marcia Clark, Anita Hill, Lorena Bobbitt, Monica Lewinsky, and a number of other women were publicly villainized for daring to challenge the status quo, while a counterculture rose to challenge sexism in every area of life, including politics (the Year of the Woman), media (Bitch was born in that time), and reproductive justice (SisterSong). In They Didn’t See Us Coming, UNC Greensboro history professor Lisa Levenstein explores how the feminist gains from that decade laid the foundation for the movements of the 2010s, including the Women’s March and #MeToo.
Call Your Girlfriend is a staple in my podcast rotation: Each week, long-distance friends Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow discuss pop culture and politics while also conducting insightful interviews with some of the most interesting writers and creators shaping our conversations today. Beyond the natural chemistry that crackles between Friedman and Sow, what I’ve long loved most about Call Your Girlfriend is its genuineness and authenticity; it’s clear that Sow and Friedman have a lot of respect for each other, and that their friendship isn’t confined to business. It’s real. Big Friendship, their first collaborative book, functions as something of a guide to developing and sustaining a friendship as beautiful as theirs. Though women in particular are often taught to prioritize romantic relationships, Sow and Friedman make the argument that friendships are equally as important, and that we must nourish them for them to blossom into the life-sustaining force we know them to be.
Lyz Lenz is on a roll: She’s created a portfolio of compelling work with endless reread value, including her 2018 profile of Tucker Carlson for the Columbia Journalism Review, her 2018 Glamour essay about no longer cooking after a divorce, and her 2019 book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America. Now, Lenz is turning her attention to the rising maternal mortality rates in the United States. People in the United States are more likely to die from childbirth and other pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed nation, but there aren’t a lot of policies designed to turn the tide. Belabored explores not only the crisis of maternal mortality, but how cultural beliefs about women and attitudes toward pregnancy have created the perfect conditions for this national emergency.
Mychal Denzel Smith is back again with the back again. His bestselling 2017 book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, was an essential addition to the canon of memoirs from Black men about coming of age in the United States, a society that rewards toxicity, encourages homophobia and violence, and feeds on the very racism it perpetuates. Smith’s follow-up might be a little less personal, but it’s no less urgent: Stakes is High puts a mirror up to the United States to show the country itself, even as some pundits and activists declare that they’re living in a country they no longer recognize. Smith makes clear that America has always been a contradiction, declaring itself the land of the free even as it enslaves its citizens, incarcerates Black and brown people at disproportionately high rates, and uses the law to entrench discrimination.
Ijeoma Oluo is one of our most incisive writers on the subjects of race and white supremacy: Her bestselling 2018 book, So You Want to Talk About Race, offered a roadmap of sorts for those new to the work of racial justice, a one-stop-shop for information about racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, and a number of other issues. Mediocre takes Oluo’s work a step further: The book surveys the last 100 years of U.S. history to examine how white men have deliberately used laws to oppress minorities—including immigrants, people of color, and working-class people—to secure their own power.
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