2017 was a tough year for reality, in the sense that many of us spent the year trying as hard as possible to avoid it. But the only way 2018 is going to be a better year is if we learn a few things, and there’s no better way to improve your understanding of the world than via high-quality non-fiction books. It doesn’t get better than the 25 on this list, which represent some of the best writing of the year, and all of it based on reality—or at least someone’s perception of it.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, by Sherman Alexie
As well as a beloved author, Alexie has been a poet, filmmaker, and screenwriter. He’s won praise and generated controversy for his outspokenness, especially when Arizona recently banned his works from schools as part of a cull of Mexican-American studies programs. His first memoir tackles the complex and difficult relationship he had with his mother. Her death Forced Alexie to confront his bond with the intelligent but often abusive woman he left behind.
Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, by Joe Biden
Joe Biden, former vice president and possible future presidential candidate, lost his son Beau to brain cancer after a momentous struggle. When Beau was in the midst of his fight against the disease, he made his father promise that he would be all right. Over the next year, Joe Biden served his country while his son slowly lost his battle. In this remarkable memoir, Biden opens up about that period of his life, discussing with disarming intimacy the personal and political struggles he endured while working to make the world a safer place and trying to decide if he would run for president in 2016. Biden’s wisdom and advice for anyone who has lost someone close to them is powerful, and his insights into life’s problems come from someone who has dealt with some of the most difficult challenges in modern times on the world stage.
Grant, by Ron Chernow
Pulitzer-winning author Chernow tackles one of our most perplexing presidents with another sharply-written, deeply-researched book. Chernow sets out to prove that Grant, the brilliant general, was a far better president than he’s usually given credit for. Chernow paints a detailed picture of Grant as a man of action who withered in inactivity, a man whose alcoholism followed a unique cycle of binging followed by lengthy periods of sobriety, a man often mistaken for homeless prior to the Civil War who brought a willingness to engage the Confederate armies head on to his tactics that proved to be the key to winning the war. As he did with Alexander Hamilton, Chernow takes a familiar but opaque figure of American history and fleshes him out, revealing the human being under the engravings.
Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin
Bringing a level of factual rigor to the legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Dodge City isn’t an easy task; the story of those pioneering lawmen, and the famed gunfight at the OK Corral is slathered with mythic overtones. In this revealing work, Clavin strips away the unnecessary flourishes to focuses on the facets of the story he can verify—and that unadorned tale turns out to be just as fascinating, especially his telling of the lesser-known Dodge City War, a bloodless affair that saw Earp and Masterson return to the area years later to firmly establish the rule of law, once and for all. You might think you know the story of Dodge City’s most famous gunslingers, but like as not, you only know the Hollywood version. Here’s your chance to fix that.
We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This collection of essays are drawn from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for The Atlantic during the years 2008 to 2016, roughly paralleling the Obama administration and ending on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. These are the essays that made Coates a figure no serious person could ignore; they trace the evolution of his thought from the optimism of Obama’s first election to the somewhat darker mood of the later years. Coates adds a wealth of background material, including introductions in which he reflects on the essays, notes and background taken from his journals, and even personal stories that expand on and illuminate his themes. Coates is one of our best and most important living writers, and this collection is a must-read for any thoughtful American.
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
Gessen takes a personal approach to tracing Russia’s transformation from collapsed empire into “mafia state,” following four principle figures (herself, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Seryozha, scion of a political reformist, and Lyosha, a homosexual in what is rapidly becoming the most homophobic nation in the world). This intimate focus grants a frightening immediacy to the story of a country that was once perceived as a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism but now seems to have reverted back to its fascist roots. Along the way are plenty of insights into the current political situation around the world, making this as much an important work of history as it is a memoir.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
Considering how important they were in shaping the modern age, the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s are remarkably little-known today. When the Nation became incredibly wealthy after oil was discovered on their land, more than 20 of its members of were murdered between 1921 and 1926. As public outrage grew, the federal government was pressured into putting the obscure Bureau of Investigation, led by a young Herbert Hoover, in charge of the case. Hoover used the notoriety of these awful crimes to establish what would soon be known as the FBI as the nation’s preeminent investigative body, and himself as its all-powerful chief. Grann, of The Lost City of Z fame, does a marvelous job catching you up on vital history that’s been nearly forgotten.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
History normally looks back and attempts to say, with certainty, what did or didn’t happen. Harari takes a different approach: looking forward. While admitting that no one can accurately predict the future, he attempts to take all the information on hand and make bold predictions as to the most likely course of future human history—and his conclusions aren’t very reassuring. While he sees plenty of achievements in store for us, his theory is that humanity’s progress is inevitably making us insignificant, resulting in a future where we won’t be in control of our existence—if we’re even still around (the “post-human future” is certainly in the tea leaves.) It’s up to you to decide if Harari makes his case—but whether you agree or not, the time spent with this book is worthwhile.
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson begins with the presumption that Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the most creative genius in human history and proceeds from there, digesting more than 7,000 pages of notes da Vinci left behind to produce this biography, and the result is unlike anything else you’ve ever read about the most famous artist of the 15th and 16th centuries. Isaacson paints a portrait of a restless mind that exhibited unusual curiosity and made magical connections between disciplines that had never been made before. At the same time, he shows da Vinci as a man whose always-churning mind could leave many projects unfinished as he dashed from idea to idea. When one of our best modern writers tackles one of the most famous minds in history, it’s time to pay attention.
Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, by Scott Kelly
Unless you’ve spent a year in space being studied, you have nothing on Scott Kelly, who holds the current American record for consecutive days off-planet. As a result, Kelly’s thoughts on our space program—including its necessity and utility—are worth reading, as is his description of the challenges that face anyone intending to spend a long time in orbit. In other words, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s really to head into space, Kelly’s book offers the most up-to-date and informative account ever written.
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews
For younger generations, the Kennedy name may no longer be magic, but Chris Mathews does great work to remind everyone just how special the family was at one time. Although JFK gets most of the attention, the Hardball anchorargues Bobby Kennedy was almost as important, and came very close to being president himself—and may well have done so if he hadn’t been cut down in the prime of life, just like his brother. Matthews doesn’t sugarcoat the ruthlessness that made plenty of enemies for Bobby Kennedy, but he also captures the younger Kennedy’s keen intellect and growing empathy for people who were not as fortunate, traits that may have made him a great president.
The American Spirit: Who We Are & What We Stand For, by David McCullough
McCullough is one of the most celebrated historians ever. He has written absorbing accounts of the Wright Brothers, John Adams, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge—winning two Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards along the way. A thinker like that naturally makes a lot of speeches, and he compiles here some of his best—speeches made before Congress, before academic audiences, before groups of fellow historians. This is stirring stuff, the sort of of clear-eyed, patriotic rhetoric we need more of in these divisive and confusing times. McCullough brings a calm authority to his words, equal parts comforting and energizing. It is an ideal book to read if your faith in our institutions is fading.
Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxas
If you ever doubt that one person can alter the course of history, look no further than Martin Luther, a young monk who sought only to spark debate when he posted his 95 Theses to a church door. Instead, Luther’s startling moment of protest launched what came to be known as the Protestant Revolution and remade the Christian faith. Metaxas offers up a fresh perspective on a man so famous he’s more myth than reality these days, finding the humanity underneath the history.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore
Any time someone questions the need for laws protecting workers from the deprivations of profit-seeking companies, this story should serve as a lesson. In the early 20th century, more than a dozen women were employed to paint watches with luminous paint made from the radioactive material radium. These women were fine artists, able to manipulate their brushes expertly, often using their mouths to twist them to a fine point in order to do the detail work. Soon after, many began suffering terrible medical problems, including lost teeth and disease jawbones, sparking a decades-long legal and medical battle that redefined worker’s rights and workplace safety.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy
Stories of World War II often focus on the heroic deeds of soldiers, but newly declassified documents reveal a shadow army of women who also did their part—the codebreakers. Recruited from colleges and secretarial pools for their math skills, these women were set to the task of breaking enemy codes, but their efforts and achievements were top secret, and their stories largely unknown—until now. Battling the expected sexism and hostile attitudes of their male counterparts and supervisors, tens of thousands of women helped to end the war much more quickly than it would have otherwise, and Mundy rescues their stories from obscurity and gives them the credit they deserve. In fact, she makes a solid case that without these women, we might not have won World War II at all.
Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem, by Bill Nye
Nye is something of a modern-day polymath, and in this inspiring book (a combination memoir and textbook) he encourages science- and math-minded folks to use their powers for good. Using his own stories as a starting point, Nye tells the tale of a curious, engaged kid who sopped up information about everything, and argues that if you’re like him, you should spend less energy on comic book trivia and more on solving the world’s problems. It’s also crammed full of interesting information and threaded with an infectious optimism and enthusiasm for knowledge.
Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, by Condoleezza Rice
We find ourselves at an unexpected point in history, as several events that seemed unlikely—or impossible—have come to pass within our own democracy. Which is why it’s welcome to see a book from someone as accomplished and experienced as Dr. Rice—an academic and former secretary of state—seeking to analyze the history of democracy around the world, and offer an analysis of its present state. Few people can discuss geopolitical events with the gravitas and authority that Dr. Rice can muster, making this an essential book for getting ready for the year to come.
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks
Context is everything. Although they lived at the same time, were born in the same country, and fought many of the same enemies, Winston Churchill and George Orwell never met, and there’s no evidence they ever even read each other’s work. Ricks places these two remarkable men side-by-side, however, and finds common ground in their shared philosophies and hatred of tyranny. A study of the lives of two men who never interacted might seem like a strange approach to history, but the result is a deeper look at the larger picture of culture and society that shaped their views, and the impact each had on the world around them.
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Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Despite the fact that grief and loss are experiences we all share, there is remarkably little structure around our processes for dealing with tragedy. Even for a highly successful person such as Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, the sudden, unexpected death of her husband left her wondering how people deal with such events, leading directly to her collaboration with Adam Grant, professor at Wharton and author in his own right. Option B explores the theory and practical application of techniques to help you not only weather grief and survive life’s swerves, but to move on from it and continue to have a meaningful and fulfilling life despite the void left by those we’ve lost. The combination of Sandberg’s raw, personal experience and Grant’s more academic contributions make this a book many will find incredibly fresh and incredibly helpful.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky
Anyone who’s been around for a while knows that the one rule of human behavior is that it’s often unpredictable and nonsensical—we have plenty of seemingly primitive and instinctive reactions to the world around us. The question of how much free will is a factor in our actions as opposed to how much is ‛programmed’ into us is a fascinating one. Dr. Sapolsky, a professor of biology at Stanford University, explores various scientific disciplines as he tries to answer some of the questions about what rules the often contradictory impulses that rule our behavior. Leavened with humor and written in a clear, easily-digested style, this is a science book that offers plenty of insight into what makes us all tick without numbing you with dense concepts and obscure jargon.
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977 – 2002, by David Sedaris
Any new David Sedaris book is a reason to celebrate. He’s one of our great observers, finding deep meaning and, more importantly, reasons to laugh, in even the most mundane events. For decades now, he’s been celebrating the weirdo in all of us, but he’s doing something different with his latest: presenting excerpts of his own diaries from 1977 to 2002. Fortunately, his past self is every bit as funny and trenchant as his present-day incarnation.
Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, by Shea Serrano
Serrano, with an awesome assist from Arturo Torres’ illustrations, offers up a deep-dive love letter to the sport of basketball that every fan should have on hand. Exploring the history and minutiae of the sport, Serrano seemingly discusses every possible aspect, from the sort of debates that fans spend hours chewing on (like how many years Kobe Bryant was the best player in the league) to the arguments that never seem to be settled adequately (like what the precise rules of a pickup game should be). Backed by an obvious (and pure) love of the sport, this often hilarious and always gorgeous book is both a source of hours of reading pleasure and a beautiful work of art to have on display in the house.
Where the Past Begins, by Amy Tan
Bestselling novelist Tan’s unconventional memoir finds her on a journey through her own past via spontaneous storytelling: using fluid writing to search through her own memories to reveal the inspirations and traumas that have shaped her works. In the process, Tan reveals difficult truths about her childhood, and makes connections and uncovers memories that she herself was shocked by.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson is not just one of the smartest men in the world, he’s one of the most personable and charismatic. His book is, therefore, fun. He doesn’t use a lot of scientific terms, but instead explores space, time, and the known universe in simpler ways that even folks who have never had any scientific training will find incredibly easy to understand. It’s like having a conversation with your really smart, really funny uncle.
We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, by Gabrielle Union
Actress Union tells her story with wit and sensitivity, a story that includes her struggles as one of a few black students in a predominantly white high school, the devastating rape at gunpoint that almost broke her, and her recovery and pursuit of a high-octane Hollywood career. Union addresses topics including parenting, raising black kids in a culture often perceived as steeped in racism, and teen sexuality—always with disarming humor and perceptive insights that mark this as much more than a typical Hollywood vanity memoir. Without much of a filter, Union comes across as a nuanced survivor who has managed to keep both her sense of humor and her ability to love despite her experiences.