The 16 Best Nonfiction Books of 2018

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The 16 Best Nonfiction Books of 2018

We look to nonfiction to comprehend the world around us, and in a year like 2018, there’s a lot we need to understand. Our picks for the best nonfiction books of the year tackle everything from transracial adoption to the Beastie Boys to falsehoods in the age of Trump, exploring diverse topics with intelligence and honesty. These are by no means the only incredible books of 2018, but the 16 titles below are our favorites.

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16. How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

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The past two years have seen a proliferation of books seeking to make sense of the world, but Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s attempt is uniquely focused—and paints a stark picture without sliding into a polemic. How Democracies Die charts the warning signs of encroaching authoritarianism, outlining what each means in theory and giving comparative examples from around the world to show the breakdown of democracy in practice. Their analysis of the United States—including the ways in which changes in party politics have opened the door to populism and the development of one-party rule in the post-Civil War South—is especially illuminating, but it’s their comparative approach that provides fascinating insights into our global political crisis. —Bridey Heing

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15. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

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For the justice-minded, 2018 has felt like a year with more losses than victories. With the suspected Golden State Killer’s arrest just months following the posthumous publication of Michelle McNamara’s investigative masterpiece into the GSK’s reign of terror, however, we got one big win. Told through prose so guttingly empathetic that you will experience a palpable sense of loss when McNamara’s voice ends and her true crime/GSK-hunting colleagues finish the narrative—and an even more palpable sense of love and grief when McNamara’s widower, Patton Oswalt, writes the afterword—I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is true crime journalism that even non-murderinos will appreciate. —Alexis Gunderson

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14. Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery

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Writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is more myth than man. But Mark Dery fleshes out the Grandfather of Goth in this new biography, and by doing so, he paints a picture of a fascinating man. Gorey is best known for his picture books, which often revolve around morbid adventures had by children and adults alike. He certainly had a strong interest in the macabre, but as Dery shows, Gorey’s influences range from classic queer literature to his beloved ballet to his own circle of interesting friends. Distant but well-loved, Gorey’s fur-and-ring-wearing public persona was only one facet of the complex puzzle, and Dery fills in the rest of the pieces with affection, admiration and humor. —Bridey Heing

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13. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay

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This collection of essays from every angle of modern American rape culture should be required reading in 2018. Full of accounts that will be depressingly familiar to the majority of the human population who reads it, Not That Bad is stomach-churning in its honest vulnerability. There are no easy answers here; each essay, curated by Roxane Gay with palpable care, clarifies the creeping ubiquity of the evil we’re only beginning to address as a society. But it’s nevertheless critical reading, especially for anyone prepared to engage with the roots of the #MeToo movement. Not That Bad succeeds in illustrating exactly what is meant by the term rape culture: horror everywhere, even in moments that ought to be beautiful, even in moments so mundane they ought to mean nothing at all. —Alexis Gunderson

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12. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

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When you dive into Alexander Chee’s collection of essays, expect to frequently pause and soak up his gorgeous writing. To read Chee is to find yourself submerged in whatever topic—9/11, Tarot reading, his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, rose gardening—he’s discussing until you’re living in between the pages. Chee succeeds in weaving an intimacy born of honesty, bluntly writing about, well, the writing process and the stories we tell ourselves. We knew he was a talented novelist (check out Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night), but with How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee cements himself as a master essayist as well. —Frannie Jackson

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11. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston is remembered as a novelist, but she was just as dedicated to documenting real people’s experiences. Barracoon is a powerful book that collects Hurston’s interviews with Cudjo Lewis (born Oluale Kossola), one of the last known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade. In documenting Lewis’ memories with a ferocious precision that reflects his unique accent, vernacular and conversational eccentricities, Hurston draws the evils of the transatlantic slave trade into visceral, living memory. In a year when white nationalism and Confederate apologias are on the rise, Lewis’ story—conveyed by one of the Harlem Rennaissance’s most compelling writers—is not just welcome, but necessary. —Alexis Gunderson

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10. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

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Theranos promised to revolutionize blood testing. Inspired by its CEO Elizabeth Holmes’ fear of needles, the company claimed to run a myriad of tests on mere droplets of blood—and fast. All of it was revealed as a fraud, and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s book is an exhaustive history of the company-cum-scam. In exposing the fudged numbers, boardroom battles and sickening sums of money tossed Theranos’ way, Bad Blood succeeds in highlighting Silicon Valley’s paradoxical blind spot. Insular corporate culture and benevolent media coverage have allowed a monster to grow in the Valley—one that gambles not just with our smart phones or our democracy, but with people’s lives. Bad Blood reveals a crucial truth: outside observers must act as the eyes, the ears and, most importantly, the voice of Silicon Valley’s blind spot. —B. David Zarley

(Read Paste’s full review here.)

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9. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani

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In her first book since stepping down from her role as Chief Book Critic at the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani pulls together seemingly disparate threads to explain how truth has faded in importance and the subjective sense of reality that has replaced it. From philosophy to pop culture to politics, Kakutani sees the slow erosion of our understanding of the truth as rooted in many facets of our culture, each doing its part to chip away at what we collectively can say we know for sure. She argues that in the chasm left behind by truth, we’ve seen the emergence of not just the idea that “opinion and fact are interchangeable,” but a cynicism that takes advantage of the polarization born of truth decay. Instructive and accessible, The Death of Truth cuts through the noise with its clear-headed and engaging analysis. —Bridey Heing

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8. When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches That Shape the World and Why We Need Them by Philip Collins

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In collecting and analyzing history’s most influential speeches, Philip Collins makes a simple point: democracy is better than tyranny. For Collins, democracy cannot exist without rhetoric, and in the impassioned missive that follows, he spans centuries—from an ancient Greece reckoning with the Peloponnesian War to Barak Obama’s presidency—for examples of times when speech shaped the course of civilization. In an era when the spoken word is both more dangerous and more democratic than ever—when an unknown can reach more people on Twitter in an instant than a career politician could address in their lifetime—When They Go Low, We Go High reveals that the finest words still possess the power to stir our souls. —B. David Zarley

(Read Paste’s essay on the book here.)

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7. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

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Family secrets are powerful, and Nicole Chung’s memoir offers an honest look at what happened when she faced her own. A transracial adoptee (she was placed for adoption by Korean parents and raised by a white family), Chung grew up being told that her biological parents gave her up to offer her a “better life.” But as a grown woman expecting her own child, Chung questioned that narrative and began to search for the couple. All You Can Ever Know chronicles that search, delivering a powerful saga about identity with revelations to keep you captivated from cover to cover. —Frannie Jackson

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6. Feel Free by Zadie Smith

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With its essays organized into five thematically instructive sections—In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free—Zadie Smith’s book frames the world not just with journalistic or literary clarity, but with poetry. Smith’s writing is at once ambling and precise, capable of soothing you into the kind of meditation that leads you to form six new, nuanced opinions on subjects you’d never even heard of before reading the book. We all need a lot more nuance these days; give yourself the gift of Smith’s lyrical and cutting text to find yours. —Alexis Gunderson

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5. Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz (and friends)

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The Beastie Boys have never been a musical group to play by the rules, so it should come as no surprise that their opus of a hardcore/hip hop memoir, Beastie Boys Book, isn’t interested in the rules either. Constructed from a series of warm, clever essays written by the remaining band members, Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), this brick of a memoir also includes essays from former bandmates (Kate Schellenbach, from the band’s early hardcore days) and fans (Jonathan Lethem and Amy Poehler, the latter reviewing their entire oeuvre of music videos), Cookie Puss fanfic from Colson Whitehead, a cookbook from Roy Choi, photos from Spike Jonze, half a dozen mixtape track listings from both Beasties and a ton of love for their third bandmate, Adam Yauch (MCA), who they lost to cancer in 2012. You don’t have to be fluent in Beastie to love this book, but you will be by the final page. (And you should listen to the audiobook narrated by Diamond, Horovitz and the wildest musical/celebrity crew: Talib Kweli! Joe Cocker! Bette Midler!). —Alexis Gunderson

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4. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

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This year has welcomed a glorious deluge of books written by women fighting for social, racial and gender justice. But through the strength of her funny, don’t-mess-with-me voice, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race rises above the rest. Balancing between patiently instructive and resolutely deconstructive, Oluo’s writing about America’s racial landscape—and the conversations about privilege, police brutality, intersectionality and activism that coexist in that landscape—is as much an unapologetic clarion call in longform as it is on her Twitter feed and in her essays. You need to read this book, and then pass it on to the next person you see. —Alexis Gunderson

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3. Fisherman’s Blues: A West African Community at Sea by Anna Badhken

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Boasting purple prose which laps against the brain like waves, Anna Badhken’s portrait of a Senegalese fishing village is equal parts journalism and poetry. Fisherman’s Blues forms an indelible impression of an ancient profession endangered by climate change and overfishing by Western powers. A conventional account of life in this community would be fascinating reading by itself, but Badkhen’s writing is more like a life captured in words. As the brilliantly prismatic boats slip into the ever-sparser waters of the Atlantic, Badhken’s text rises to the occasion again and again, encapsulating the struggle, the joy and the sea. —B. David Zarley

(Read Paste’s full review here.)

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2. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro by Rachel Slade

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Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea is an exhaustive account of what happens when tragedy claims a vicious price for our progress and greed. By identifying—via unprecedented access to the ship’s black box—the forces that robbed these mariners of their lives, Slade issues a cry that should be heeded by anyone who cares about a fellow human. Into the Raging Sea reaches far beyond the 33, beyond the shipping lanes and atmospheric science stations, the boardrooms and Coast Guard helicopters, the ever-warmer seas and the ever-angrier storms. It is a testament to the failings of our current machinations—the El Faro a snuffed light in the darkness. —B. David Zarley

(Read Paste’s full review here.)

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1. Educated by Tara Westover

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Combining an extraordinary narrative with beautiful writing, Tara Westover’s memoir delivers a powerful coming-of-age saga. Educated chronicles Westover’s life as the child of Mormon survivalists, detailing her isolated upbringing in the Idaho mountains. Denied access by her father to professional medical care and any formal education, Westover describes a childhood infused with pain. But she created a way out, educating herself and ultimately gaining acceptance to Brigham Young University…and then Harvard and Cambridge. What makes Educated unique is not its success story, but rather its assertion that the American Dream is not a given for people who “work hard.” Westover’s journey is one fraught with abuse and trauma, and her educational success does not magically heal her complicated family relationships. The result is a memoir that proves haunting in the best way, promising the best nonfiction read of 2018. —Frannie Jackson

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Looking for more reading recommendations? Check out our lists of the best novels, best fantasy novels, best Young Adult novels and best book covers of 2018.