1. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Negroland by writer and critic Margo Jefferson is both a memoir and a cultural history of the black middle/upper class in America. With beautiful writing and a clear, unwavering eye, Jefferson describes a life of relative privilege that is also full of tough questions about belonging, race, class, and community.
2. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
One of the most talked-about books of the year, The Argonauts explores and interrogates heady topics such as gender, sexuality, identity, and motherhood. Nelson’s writing is gloriously erudite, movingly personal, and all in all like nothing you’ve ever read.
3. The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
To read The Folded Clock, a diary written by novelist Heidi Julavits, is to curl up happily inside one of the most clever, observant, and odd minds out there. With great charm and intelligence, Julavits chronicles and finds deep meaning in the great and small moments of her days.
4. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
A memoir from renowned neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life is the story of a brilliant, impassioned human being, and the struggles and experiences that shaped him. To read this book is to both mourn Sacks’ recent death and to rejoice that we were lucky enough to live in the same world as him.
5. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper
The title of this collection of music criticism by Jessica Hopper is an opening salvo of sorts, cluing you into both the literal contents of the book as well as the intelligence, verve, and swagger with which it’s written. Containing selections spanning Hopper’s entire career, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic will make you feel the pure joy of musical obsession.
6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Winner of the National Book Award, Between the World and Me is one of the most essential books of this year, and many years to come. Coates’ examination of what it means to be a black man and parent in America today is an utterly engaging, powerful, and brilliant work that is an important addition to the conversation on race, blackness, and the self.
7. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Barbarian Days is a memoir of surfing, William Finnegan’s life obsession. It is a testament to Finnegan’s storytelling and keen eye for detail that, whether you care about surfing or not, you’re riveted as Finnegan travels the world, meets a vast array of colorful characters, and eventually struggles to fit surfing into his life as circumstances change.
8. One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad (translated by Sarah Death)
With thorough research and compelling writing, Seierstad tells the story of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who detonated a bomb near Oslo’s government buildings then attacked a youth camp, killing 77 people in all. One of Us is hard to read—but a must-read nonetheless.
9. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
If you’ve ever enjoyed comedian Aziz Ansari’s hilarious observations about dating, Modern Romance is the book for you. In Modern Romance, Ansari dives even deeper into the subject, partnering with an NYU sociologist to conduct studies and interviews and amass information about the weird, impossible, and occasionally wonderful world of dating today.
10. How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt
In How Music Got Free, journalist Stephen Witt tells the captivating and tense story of how the digital music revolution transformed the music industry, and made criminals out of many of us. Read it to learn all about a landmark moment in music and technology that still affects us today.
11. Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura
In Daughters of the Samurai, Nimura describes a fascinating moment in history: In 1871, the Japanese government sent five young girls to the United States for ten years to receive a Western education, after which they would be brought back to help modernize Japan. What results is utterly engrossing, as we watch these girls (each a distinctive personality in her right) adjust to America… then readjust to Japan.
12. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and The Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman
Journalist Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is a comprehensive and intriguing history of autism from its first diagnosis by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asberger to today. In a sea of misinformation and confusion about autism, NeuroTribes is refreshing, enlightening, and sorely needed.
13. Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland
A fearless, deeply self-searching memoir from award-winning human rights journalist Mac McClelland, Irritable Hearts details her struggle with PTSD after reporting in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. True to her background as an investigative journalist, McClelland also goes outside of her own experience to examine PTSD in today’s world and interview others (such as combat veterans) suffering from PTSD.
14. Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith
In Ordinary Light, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith grapples with what it means to grow up and apart from one’s family. When her beloved mother is diagnosed with cancer, Smith is forced to confront these issues all the more deeply and painfully. A moving and beautifully-written memoir about faith, grieving, and mother-daughter relationships.
15. The Wilderness by McKay Coppins
In The Wilderness, BuzzFeed senior political reporter Coppins draws on his vast expertise as well as over 300 interviews with key players to give us a look into a Republican Party after the 2012 election— a party in turmoil yet determined to lead the country once again. The Wilderness is an invaluable, enlightening, and entertaining guide to the Republican Party today.
16. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
Blackout is an eloquent memoir of drunkenness and sobriety from Salon editor Sarah Hepola, who explores her addiction to alcohol with both humor and honesty. A significant part of Blackout is devoted to Hepola’s life in sobriety, which—without being preachy—delivers the important message that that a sober life can be just as fun, funny, strange, and full of ups and downs as one full of alcohol.
17. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
18. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
In the wake of her father’s sudden death, Helen Macdonald copes with her grief by taking on one of the greatest challenges in falconry: training the vicious goshawk. Moving, smart, and as fierce as the goshawk itself, H is for Hawk is a stunning achievement in both nature writing and memoir.
19. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
Dreamland is the fascinating and disturbing story of a national plague. As Quinones delves into the complex hows and whys behind the spread of opiate addiction in the U.S., he never loses sight of the stories and motivations of the people involved, from addicts, dealers, traffickers, doctors, and so on.