19 Nonfiction Books From 2016 That Will Expand Your Mind

Read 'em and learn.

While we do love our fiction at HuffPost Arts & Culture, 2016 ushered in ample nonfiction work that’s just as worthy of your time and eyeballs.

What many need after a drawn-out and frightening election season are resources to unplug and reconnect to our humanity. The sprawling category of “nonfiction” works in the universe could fit the bill for anyone’s particular reading needs, with authors providing insight and elucidation to the true world around us. In a time when the fleeting pace of newsfeeds and the viruslike spread of fake news dominates headlines, it can be a relief to reflect on and learn from a static, thorough object like a book.

If you’re looking to sink deep into a life story, or simply allow your mind to open up to an experience that’s unlike your own, consider these 19 selections from HuffPost writers.

"Sex Object" by Jessica Valenti
Dey Street Books
Feminist blogger Jessica Valenti knew she would receive backlash for naming her memoir “Sex Object.” Despite the fact that no woman appreciates being demeaned to the status of an object, Valenti predicted that trolls would object to the name, claiming Valenti wasn’t attractive enough to deserve the dehumanizing title. And she was right. This is but one infuriating circumstance Valenti explores in her essay collection, which recalls with vulnerability and force the experience growing up a sex object first, a human being second. Readers might be surprised at how many of their own repressed memories bubble up reading Valenti’s account, how many times instances of misogyny have been laughed off or brushed under the rug. -Priscilla Frank
"Known and Strange Things" by Teju Cole
Random House
Teju Cole divided his collection of nonfiction essays into three parts (“Reading Things,” “Seeing Things” and “Being Here") plus an epilogue. His writing touches on the stories we come across in books, in museums, in the news, and on social media, contextualizing everything from a famous poem to a Snapchat. For those seeking connection in an increasingly disjointed world, Cole makes the case for art — in whatever form, made in whatever time period, encouraging his readers to draw parallels between the past and present. One essay worth reading on its own is "The White Savior Industrial Complex." -Katherine Brooks
"The Art of Waiting" by Belle Boggs
Infertility — and the attempt to circumvent it, to fulfill the desire to have a family — is regarded as an intense, personal journey. And Boggs writes about the topic with a resonant emotional tenor, having gone through IVF treatment herself, while working as a teacher in North Carolina. But she concedes that as a white woman with a good job, she’s far from the only person who’s struggled with the potentially thwarted want to have children. In The Art of Waiting, her own journey is only a piece of the puzzle; she talks with scientists, women of color advocating for infertility and adoption coverage, and a man who was sterilized by the state of North Carolina as part of its eugenics program. The result is heartbreaking, and illuminating. -Maddie Crum

Read our interview with Belle Boggs.
"The Selfishness of Others" by Kristin Dombek
Kristin Dombek, the former advice columnist for n+1, is capable of citing both Sigmund Freud and Tucker Max as reference points for a thoroughly clinical — yet also, at times, subtly funny — investigation of our culture's obsession with narcissism. This is less a guide for those "narcosphere" patrons prone to rashly labeling their bad boyfriends narcissists and more a rabbit hole of pop psychology that turns old ideas about assholes inside out. Her words bite: “Only one person can be the center of another person’s world at any given time, and ideally, this would always be you. This is where all the narcissistic romance websites invite you to be: in the center of the world, stuck in time, assessing the moral status of others, until love is gone.” -KB
"Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching," by Mychal Denzel Smith
Nation Books
Invisible Man is a memoir that traces Mychal Denzel Smith’s life, coming of age in a military family, growing up on hip-hop, and eventually writing for The Nation. But it’s also a thoughtful response to several years’ worth of injustices committed against black men in America, a story that threads familiar feelings of angst and frustration into a personal, linear story of pushing back against the biases of others while recognizing your own. -KB
"Future Sex" by Emily Witt
Tinder and its ilk are ruining romance, or so the story goes. How are we to choose one partner, when there are hundreds — nay, thousands — at our fingertips? Witt reminds readers, at the outset of her book, that not choosing is a viable option, if an unsafe one, particularly for women who aren’t careful when arranging casual meetups. How, then, are we to navigate the new realities of sex, colored as they are by new ways of knowing each other, activities like camming, like free-love-fuelled music festivals, like startups aimed at clinically distributed female pleasure? Witt inserts herself in these worlds — at first, as a voyeur, and later, a more willing, entrenched participant. The resulting book is a wild, informative ride. -MC

Read our review of Future Sex.
"Muslim Girl" by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh
Simon Schuster
In her piercing memoir, media mogul and activist Amani Al-Khatahtbeh describes her family's new reality following 9/11, when she was in elementary school: her mother's tires slashed, threats and insults hurled at her family. A decade and a half later, as evidenced by the hateful rhetoric thrown around about Muslim individuals during the presidential campaign, anti-Islam prejudice is still fully present among the American public. The MuslimGirl.com founder chronicles her adolescence as a Muslim teenager and the experience that led her to fill a niche in pop culture, covering issues and media relevant to young women like her. Her book is a both a must-read autobiography and a call to arms. - Jillian Capewell
"Ghostland" by Colin Dickey
From “Ghostbusters” to Ghostland, this year brought us all the quality ghost-related content we could ask for. The latter, Colin Dickey’s wonderful tour of the country’s ghost legends and alleged haunted houses, manages to explore the issue without utter credulity and without abrasive skepticism by focusing on the cultural, social, historical, and even aesthetic elements that seem to give rise to certain ghost stories. He turns over how slavery and Native American decimation have contributed to America’s specific strains of poltergeist legends, and the particular attachment we have to their land -- and our haunted houses. Ghostland is a little spooky (especially if you’re reading it all alone on a blustery night), engagingly written, and packed with fascinating, gruesome and odd historical tidbits. - Claire Fallon

Read our review of Ghostland.
"How to Be a Person in the World" by Heather Havrilesky
Few advice columns bear up well in book anthologies — it’s a repetitive, short-form style of writing that mostly offers a sort of muffled voyeurism into our neighbors’ problems that grows steadily less exciting after the 14th straight letter about a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of her Dear Sugar columns, is one notable exception. How to Be a Person in the World, a selected anthology of new and previously published Ask Polly columns by the writer Heather Havrilesky, is another. For one thing, Ask Polly is in itself an unusually longform advice column, addressing each query with multi-thousand-word responses seasoned with cultural references and personal memories of Havrilesky’s. It’s also what she calls an existential advice column; the letters mostly address questions about a person’s purpose in life, romantic destiny, ability to be happy or content, or similarly large questions. Effectively, How to Be a Person in the World doesn’t just offer advice, or even voyeurism: It’s a book of essays that broadens a reader’s empathy for herself and for others. -CF

Read our interview with Heather Havrilesky.
"The Fire This Time" by Jesmyn Ward
Simon Schuster
As a nod to James Baldwin's 1963 work The Fire Next Time, author Jesmyn Ward gathered the writings of prominent voices on race, including Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine and Edwidge Danticat, among others. Their writings on racial tension and a call to action ring as true as Baldwin's did in the civil rights era, offering proof that we, as a country, have a desperately long way to go to right historical wrongs. As we close out 2016, the perspectives in this collection are more urgent and essential than ever. -JC
"Every Song Ever," Ben Ratliff
“We are listening to music in the time of the cloud,” Ratliff begins Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music in an Age of Musical Plenty. Regardless of who we are or where we live, today’s digital era provides us access to a seemingly infinite playlist, the ability to listen to anything, anywhere, anytime. This radical abundance, and the experimentation and cross-pollination it engenders, Ratcliff suggests, requires new means of listening and understanding music. Genre, The New York Times music critic suggests, is obsolete. Ratliff goes on to suggest 20 new ways to describe music — based more in feeling than era, technique, or physical origin. Slowness, for example, unites Sarah Vaughan’s “Lover Man” and Sleep’s “Dopesmoker.” And silence or quietness connects John Cage’s “4’33” and Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody.” It’s a fun read, best experienced with Spotify open and ready, and an unorthodox look at music’s past and limitless present. -PF
"Rolling Blackouts" by Sarah Glidden
Drawn Quarterly
Sarah Glidden followed her friends to the Middle East with one goal: to report on the reporters. Her friends were actually members of a journalist collective, traveling to Turkey, Syria and Iraq in order to learn refugees’ stories and report on the after-effects of the U.S. war on Iraq. The result is part travelogue, part memoir and part reportage — an accessible and specific narrative for news-tired readers who have long disassociated from headlines about war and refugees. If this is your introduction to “comics journalism,” don’t let it be the last. -JC

Read our interview with Sarah Glidden.
"Violation" by Sallie Tisdale
Hawthorne Books
Sallie Tisdale’s name might not be immediately recognizable to readers, but after finishing this collection, you won’t soon forget her. Tisdale, a nurse and mother as well as a writer, explores various topics in a quietly revealing manner. One standout is “We Do Abortions Here,” first published in 1987 and all the more relevant in a political climate where women’s rights are routinely dismissed and threatened — most recently in the new Texas law requiring clinics to cremate or bury aborted fetuses. Tisdale’s writing is spectacular and her observations valuable: She’s a voice to listen to. -JC
"You Belong to the Universe" by Jonathon Keats
Oxford University Press
Buckminster Fuller, the inventor and artist known for his love of geodesic domes, his faith in Dymaxion cars, and his desire to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity,” is a fascinating subject. He was both an intellectual and a character straight out of a sci-fi novel, who believed so deeply that collaboration was necessary to combat our planet’s changing circumstances. Jonathon Keats manages to bring the 20th-century ideas of Fuller into the 21st century, arguing that the visionaries’ utopian proposals are more possible than ever. -KB
"Girls & Sex" by Peggy Orenstein
Modern women may bristle at the idea of a book that wrestles with the pros and cons of sex-positive feminism. Fair enough. But as a mother, Orenstein finds the question working its way into her personal life. So, as a journalist, she pursued it fervidly, interviewing over 70 college girls, getting to know the gritty details of their sex lives thus far. In doing so, Orenstein has created an illuminating ethnographic study of feminine youth. Sections of the book are dedicated to hook up culture, to rape culture, and to the celebrities upheld as emblems of sexual expression. Orenstein confronts a generation that seems foreign to her with openness and kindness, and in doing so shows us a thing or two about ourselves. -MC

Read our review of Girls & Sex.
"Where Am I Now?" by Mara Wilson
Allow yourself to be drawn into this memoir by Mara Wilson-as-Matilda's sweet cover photo, stay for the well-wrought insights on fame and loss. Wilson, the rare Hollywood scribe who is as compelling on the page as she was on the screen in her heyday discusses the death of her mother, mental health and — yes, of course — fascinating tidbits from the "Matilda" set and beyond. -JC
"Agnes Martin and Me" by Donald Woodman
Lyon Artbooks
Donald Woodman describes himself as "assistant, friend, and sometime adversary" to the late, great Abstract Expressionist Agnes Martin, for whom he worked for seven years . Martin lived in isolation in New Mexico, producing minimalist canvases and concise, meditative mottos summarizing her practice. She said things like "No, I am not any of those stereotypes that are placed on women. I am an old woman, but I insult the male ego so men don't like me around." If you love the artist, you'll love this quiet recounting of her life and influence. -KB
"Adnan's Story" by Rabia Chaudry
St Martins Press
If you listened to "Serial," the smash hit podcast that investigated the harrowing case of Adnan Syed, a man convicted under peculiar circumstances of murder in Baltimore back in 2000, then you'll fly through this book. Rabia Chaudry certainly provides a biased recounting of Syed's story -- she believes thoroughly that he's been denied justice, a foil to the critical lens provided by Sarah Koenig. But if you can't let the case go, here's your extended reading. -KB
"Land of Enchantment" by Leigh Stein
Land of Enchantment is the official nickname of New Mexico, where writer Leigh Stein lived briefly when she was in her early 20s and madly in love. She met Jason at a play audition, and the two moved to New Mexico together so he could work while she wrote; the plan was that after a year they’d move to LA so he could audition while she worked. Instead, he became abusive and the relationship fell dramatically apart. Several years later, by then a professional with a new boyfriend and living in New York, she got a phone call from an unfamiliar number: Jason had been killed in a motorcycle crash. The elegiac, poetic memoir Stein wrote about their tortured relationship, her grief for him, and her lifetime of depression and isolation hits on resonant notes for anyone who’s unexpectedly lost a loved one, been through an abusive or unhealthy relationship, or struggled with mental health issues. That means if you’re prone to weeping while you read, you should have a hanky ready. -CF

Read our interview with Leigh Stein.

Writing contributed by Claire Fallon, Maddie Crum, Priscilla Frank, Katherine Brooks and Jillian Capewell.

Before You Go

"The Vegetarian" by Han Kang

Best Books of 2016

Popular in the Community


What's Hot