From the birth of James Bond in Jamaica to an exploration of romance in the age of Tinder, we’ve collected 15 nonfiction must-reads below. With authors ranging from a British neurologist to a rock critic to a high-powered CEO, these captivating books are sure to entertain you for years to come.
Kent Russell is a conscientious man, aware that our current cultural standard of masculinity is broken and yet still enthralled by its reptilian brutality. Via memoir and some of the finest nonfiction reportage to be found anywhere, Russell explores what it means to identify as a man in modern society. He discerns where he and his father fit in amongst the raging male demigods he profiles, including hockey butchers, islands and serpent’s foils. The self-envenomer is the book’s finest section; the ability to write all this sans fedora its finest quality. —B. David Zarley
Without Jamaica, there is no James Bond. This simple yet unrealized truth lies at the heart of Matthew Parker’s examination of Bond author Ian Fleming’s island; last bastion of colonial Britain, a final redoubt for the kind of atavistic and priapic masculinity of which Fleming was a subscriber. It is in Jamaica, not nacreous, obfuscated London, wherein one finds a setting to match 007’s spirit. In tracing both Fleming’s and the island’s fortunes, Parker explores the nascency of a pop culture icon and, most impressively, has something new to say about James Bond. —B. David Zarley
In Gumption, woodworker, humorist and actor Nick Offerman combs through American history in search of the country’s “gutsiest troublemakers.” Profiling 21 people, from founding fathers to writers, comedians and craftsmen, Offerman lays out his argument for the traits that make for the greatest virtue, both of our nation and its luminaries.
In a book that pairs breezy, self-deprecating humor with well researched and insightful passages that go beyond mere achievements, Offerman first revisits the founding fathers (“magnificent sons of bitches”) to establish his thesis—that gumption is a fundamental ingredient of America herself and remains a guiding force in the lives of her most notable achievers. While it’s in these chapters that his humor shines (particularly in the fart jokes about Benjamin Franklin), the book grows more intriguing as Offerman moves away from the past to write about those troublemakers he’s had the pleasure of meeting. What emerges is a deep respect for the men and women Offerman profiles, based on the high caliber of the group overall, but also for Offerman himself and the abiding egalitarian spirit that guides him and “gumptionators” everywhere. —Eric Swedlund
No matter the decade, the idea of going through life without children remains controversial for some U.S. families. But those looking for support can stop at Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, an anthology of essays brought together by author Meghan Daum. These pieces aren’t crafted by theorists or experts on the subject—rather, Daum’s collection cracks open the mind of 16 writers who are staunchly defending their position to never change a diaper, ever. The essays have a broad lens—from humorous to contemplative—but the voices behind Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed are settled; never receiving a crayon-decorated card on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day is just fine by them, thanks. —Tyler R. Kane
Eighty-two-year-old songwriter and American icon Willie Nelson still has stories to tell, and he tackles his most complex tale yet with It’s a Long Story: My Life. The 400-page reflection on Nelson’s days on Earth might seem redundant to some fans. He published a book of road tales two years ago titled Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, an autobiography back in 2000—and who could forget 2007’s philosophical Tao of Willie? But It’s a Long Story proves to capture the Red Headed Stranger in a direct light, and fans have plenty to gain within its pages. —Tyler R. Kane
Fans of Dr. Oliver Sacks have waited decades to dive into a proper memoir of the life led by the famous and charismatic neurologist. Throughout his 60 years of working in medicine he has touched lives and expanded minds, filling several books with case studies from real patients. Rendered in such an enticing manner with his charming narration, these books have illuminated the universal curiosities and profound mysteries waiting to be unlocked in the human brain. While he slipped a handful of case studies into this memoir, it’s much more personal and doesn’t shy away from any startling encounters, disconcerting exchanges or heartbreaking interactions. On the Move sheds light on his experience as a gay man in 1960’s America, his supernatural attraction to motorcycles and his Herculean triumphs at weightlifting at Muscle Beach. We meet his parents, we feel the weight of their expectations, we empathize with his patients. Above all, everyone we encounter has their humanity poignantly augmented by this inherently empathetic man. —Jeff Milo
Sometimes referred to as “the godmother of grunge” or “the poster girl of indie-rock,” Gordon frames nearly 30 years spent recording, touring and performing with underground icons Sonic Youth within the perspective of an artist (who just happened to play music) and a mother and a wife (who sincerely wanted the best for her family). Gordon has been a role model to a generation of women singers and instrumentalists, and this book is not only poetically narrated but also offers SY fans a tantalizing glimpse behind the feedback curtain for an intimate (blunt and unforgiving) portrait of how the band worked. There’s hype surrounding Gordon’s vitriolic barbs for her ex-husband (and co-founding member of SY) Thurston Moore as well as Courtney Love, but you have to read on to learn of Gordon’s youth in California with her troubled older brother before she escaped to the artist’s nirvana of New York and forged the spectacular creative mindset of Sonic Youth with her band mates. —Jeff Milo
In the acknowledgments to Blood Done Sign My Name, his first-person narrative of a racially motivated murder in a North Carolina town, Timothy B. Tyson described fellow historian Charles L. Hughes as “a dangerous man who must be stopped.” Perhaps we should have taken Tyson’s warning more seriously. With Country Soul, a revisionist history of the Southern studio music scene that yielded many of the finest soul, R & B and country records of the 20th Century, Charles L. Hughes has ruined everything. Earlier Southern soul books gave us the heartwarming tale of how post-racial America was born in a Memphis recording studio in 1965, as black and white musicians came together to transcend the racism of their times while cutting the era-defining records we know and love. In Hughes’ telling, the studio groups that backed up soul superstars Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, as well as Nashville-identified artists like Willie Nelson and Jeannie C. Riley, were often interracial ensembles. But their members’ relationships with each other and the burgeoning Southern music business they helped build were more complicated than other historians (or the white musicians typically tapped tell the story) have claimed. Hughes aims to set the record straight. In doing so, he adds an essential chapter not just to the history of Southern music, but the history of the South itself. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
You’ve heard about Wilbur and Orville Wright since you were a kid, but what do you honestly know about them? David McCullough dives behind the mystique of the “pioneers of aviation” to reveal the brothers’ astounding history. It’s the iconic American Dream story: two boys from a poor home (lacking indoor plumbing and electricity) possess just a public high school education yet risk death to fly. But McCullough steers clear of romanticizing their story, highlighting the brothers’ mechanical ingenuity without glossing over their failures. The Wright Brothers delivers an entertaining, well-researched slice of history, proving (yet again) that McCullough is a master of the historic narrative. —Frannie Jackson
With Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari had a goal: “I started asking people I knew if there was a book that would help me understand the many challenges of looking for love in the digital age. I found some interesting pieces here and there, but not the kind of comprehensive, in-depth sociological investigation I was looking for. That book simply didn’t exist, so I decided to try to write it myself.” Judging by the pages that follow, Modern Romance is a success. It’s a snapshot—a fair, non-judgmental one, at that—of a specific time and place. And though the book doesn’t shove readers in any particular direction, and it doesn’t provide concrete solutions to the realm of modern dating, most millennials will finish reading Modern Romance with an increased appreciation for the beings that exist behind iPhone screens. —Tyler R. Kane
If you’re a fan of music writing, you owe it to yourself to read Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. After that, you should recommend it to your friends who don’t even gravitate toward music journalism. Like the best critics, Hopper’s thoughts shared here transcend the boundaries of their subject matter. You’ll question the implicit misogyny of emo Rock, the moral legitimacy of booking a person of dubious moral character and whether or not you should give Bruce Springsteen the same kudos your dad always offered. This is nonfiction about how music has helped Hopper understand what it means to be a good human, and it helps us understand as well. —Mack Hayden
Rape on campus might have iffy connotations in the media thanks to a certain magazine cover story earlier this year, but Missoula by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven) is that story’s antithesis. The meticulously researched book unveils rape in the American college system—and examines why so few are willing to report it. Krakauer documents three separate accounts of campus rape in the city of Missoula, Montana—not merely through the horrifying experiences, but through the aftermath: police questioning, talks with lawyers, family reactions. The pages that follow will stick with you for decades. —Tyler R. Kane
If you’ve listened to 10 or more episodes of This American Life, you’ll know Etgar Keret for his hilarious, surreal and insightful stories. If he can hold the attention of Ira Glass, it’s fair to say he can garner the attention of us all. The Seven Good Years is Keret’s first collection of nonfiction, and it’s as playfully profound as any of his fiction. Focusing on the years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret manages to critique and celebrate family life, living in Israel and the art of writing while still maintaining a coherency of tone and purpose most writers should envy. —Mack Hayden
It doesn’t matter how interested (or uninterested) you are in learning about such a pivotal moment in American history, you’ll want to come aboard Erik Larson’s latest read. He’s proven himself as one of the best non-fiction authors of the last 20 years, specifically for his talent to forge an infectious readability onto some of history’s overlooked episodes and unknown actors.
Larson had his work cut out for him in Dead Wake with the sinking of the Lusitania, the act of hostility that brought the United States into World War I. The details of the suspected torpedoing of this British ocean liner have long been debated and disputed. But Larson not only sheds light upon the crew of the Lusitania—he also highlights the German U-boat that pursued it, slipping between both sides of the event in his cinematic style of enticing (and, sometimes, downright suspenseful) narration. Best of all, as with all of his books, Larson has crafted a time machine to give you a picture of a lost world and insight into the prevalence of overconfidence at the crest of the industrial revolution. —Jeff Milo
With a subheading like “a true story of high finance, murder and one man’s fight for justice,” you know this book is either a hyperbole on steroids or a sincerely gripping story. A mere five pages into Red Notice, you’ll realize it’s the latter.
Bill Browder rose from a childhood in Chicago’s South Side to run the largest investment fund in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But Browder’s conscience clashed with the Russian oligarchy, leading Vladimir Putin to turn on him for exposing corruption. He escaped with his life, but his Russian lawyer was imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Since his lawyer’s death in 2009, Browder has fought to bring the individuals implicated in the murder to justice.
While Red Notice reads like a thriller, it’s made all the more chilling for it’s foundation in reality. But Browder never wallows; instead, he champions a future where the Wild East of Russia is held accountable for its citizens’ actions. A page-turner with surprising heart, Red Notice should skyrocket to the top of your reading list. —Frannie Jackson