The 16 Best Nonfiction Books of 2016 (So Far)

Books Galleries
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 16 Best Nonfiction Books of 2016 (So Far)

It’s been said that reading literary fiction produces more empathetic people, but the depth of this year’s notable nonfiction titles prove that the same is true for all readers. The best nonfiction of 2016 (so far) includes Katrine Marçal’s exploration of feminist freakonomics in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?; Glen Weldon’s celebration of Batman in The Caped Crusade; and Paul Kalanithi’s discussion of what makes life worth living in When Breath Becomes Air. The nonfiction books we hold closest are those that impact our vision of the world around us, and these are the titles that did so in the heaviest—and most beautiful—sense in 2016.

16. Cyberspies by Gordon Corera

From World War II's ancient computers to virus Stuxnet's sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program, Cyberspies traces the invisible timeline of surveillance, hacking and espionage in the digital age. Written by BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera, it's a history that is more important now than ever to understand—a history that is yours. The paradox of privacy versus security may never truly be answered…and definitely not to everyone's satisfaction. What Corera seeks to do instead is to arm us all with that which spies so feverishly desire and hoard: information. —B. David Zarley

15. Back from the Dead by Bill Walton

Just as his broadcasting style can jump from the action at hand to Bob Dylan lyrics to world history, retired NBA All-Star Bill Walton's memoir covers far more than just basketball. The book opens at his life's lowest point, just a few years ago, with excruciating physical pain from a lifetime of injuries and surgeries. In prose that's honest and buoyant, Walton writes of his youth in San Diego, his numerous championships and his friendships with personal heroes (like Larry Bird and Jerry Garcia). He finds joy as he physically recovers, a joy that will stay with the reader long after the final page. —Eric Swedlund

14. Stories I Tell Myself by Juan F. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson, the mad king of gonzo journalism, is often viewed as the embodiment of debauchery and self-destructive behavior. You know, this guy. But if you want to understand the man beneath the legend, his son, Juan, crafts a three-dimensional portrait with this dual biography. It's compelling not only to discover what Hunter was like as a dad, but also to glean Juan's own perspective of growing up in the Hunter household (spoiler: lots of guns, animal carcasses and screaming). Juan proves a captivating narrator, as erudite as his father yet less frenzied. His gaze is unblinking in its subtly brutal unveilings of moments, actions and exchanges of failure on Hunter's part. But there is still love, respect and appreciation. —Jeff Milo

13. Detroit Hustle by Amy Haimerl

Many people harbor preconceptions about Detroit, drawn from sensationalized media outlets rendering visions of a post-industrial wasteland. But Amy Haimerl cuts through the hyperbole to highlight the modern day Motor City experience. After being priced out of their Brooklyn neighborhood, Haimerl and her husband moved to Detroit and bought a gutted, ghostly 1914 Georgian Revival house they nicknamed "Matilda." She chronicles their journey to refurbish Matilda, detailing surprising encounters both within its walls and on the streets of Detroit. Haimerl's narrative isn't told from a soapbox; she's just fixing up a house that happens to be in a city in great need of a proper, refreshed rendering. —Jeff Milo

12. The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood by Patrick H. Breen

In one of the more confounding events in American literary history, William Styron won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner, a woefully misbegotten fictional psycho-history of the country's bloodiest slave revolt. Styron's Confessions enthralled millions of readers while reinforcing virtually every insidious, racist stereotype ever imposed on black men and American slaves. Patrick H. Breen's The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood goes further than any book to date to set the record straight, revealing just how fascinating the story of the Southampton slave rebellion is when stripped of suspect agendas. His book is most enlightening in the Afterword, in which he meticulously deconstructs Turner's prison interview with attorney Thomas R. Gray—published in November 1831 as "The Confessions of Nat Turner"—which the historian calls "the most important work on slavery written and published in the slaveholding South." Did Turner really spill his story to Gray? Did Gray transcribe and compile it accurately? Breen's brilliant breakdown alone makes The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood an essential work. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

11. Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff

Considering the LP's decline, you could point a finger at the iPod, Napster, Spotify or any other defendant in an ever-growing pile of guilty parties. But while many critics reveal how artists can exist in an age of digital excess, few writers have attempted to unfurl today's seemingly infinite listening landscape. This is New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff's aim within Every Song Ever, which deconstructs 20 musical themes through the lens of the modern listener. Ratliff rarely addresses genre, historical context or even the character of the musicians in his essays, instead exploring themes like speed, repetition and improvisation. He jumps between decades of recorded history with quick-fire examples, flying by legendary musicians like James Brown alongside mega-pop artists like Kesha. For whatever type of listener you are, Every Song Ever includes a chapter that addresses the specific way you consume music. —Tyler R. Kane

10. But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman, a charismatically self-deprecating memoirist, author and music journalist, investigates "collective wrongness" in his new essay collection. While we often state (with the utmost certainty) that so-and-so was on the right side of history, how can we possibly know what people in the future will believe of our arguments? "If 90% of life is inscrutable," Klosterman writes, "we need to embrace the 10 percent that seems forthright, lest we feel like life is a cruel, unmanageable joke." Klosterman interviews luminaries from the culture scene as well as the history, philosophy and science communities, covering topics from physics to sports, music to politics and just about everything in between. What is certain? Is anything certain? Klosterman talks you down from the existential-crisis ledge, and it's awesome. —Jeff Milo

9. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Combining art history and memoir, Olivia Laing's exploration of loneliness is an engaging dive into a poorly understood emotion. Laing loosely builds the narrative of The Lonely City around her time in New York City, when she experienced acute isolation. She also pinpoints the ways loneliness inspired well-known artists, delving into the life, work and legacy of one artist in every chapter. Whether it's Warhol's self-conscious separation from the group he so carefully built or David Wojnarowicz's activism during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Laing reveals how loneliness can define a life and questions the shame that surrounds this universal experience. —Bridey Heing

8. The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

There's a lot to cover in Batman's 78-year history and, as Glen Weldon iterates with charming anecdotes from Comic Con floors, it's evident that everyone has their own idea of what defines the character. But The Caped Crusade is more than a history of an icon; it chronicles how the nerd culture of four full generations has evolved. There are plenty of trivial tidbits to chew on (like the time fans got to vote on whether to kill off a Robin), but Weldon demonstrates that there's a reason Batman appears to be the coolest of all superheroes—and it may be more primal than we ever appreciated. —Jeff Milo

7. The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of over 60 nonfiction works by Neil Gaiman, is best defined by the author himself: "This book is not 'the complete nonfiction of Neil Gaiman.' It is, instead, a motley bunch of speeches and articles, introductions and essays. Some of them are serious and some of them are frivolous and some of them are earnest and some of them I wrote to try and make people listen." From fairy tales to the Syrian refugee crisis to Terry Pratchett, Gaiman discusses an impressive range of topics with his signature wit. This collection is a must read for Gaiman fans old and new alike. —Frannie Jackson