2013’s bounty of long-form journalism, essay collections, biographies, history books, and memoirs covering a broad range of topics — from race and politics in America to unusual childhoods to the current Golden Age of television — has resulted in more than enough great nonfiction to choose from at the end of this year. These ten books merely scratch the surface of all the noteworthy nonfiction published in the last 12 months, but they also represent what we consider the best of the best.
Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury)
If the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Salvage The Bones wasn’t evidence enough that Jesmyn Ward is one of our finest writers, Men We Reaped has proven both her talent and her vital importance to American literature. This deeply honest memoir interweaves the story of Ward’s youth in poverty-stricken rural Mississippi with chapters recounting the death of one young black man from her community — and even her own family — after another, examining how the author dealt with the grief, and interrogating why this country still can’t fix the plagues of poverty and institutionalized racism. Put simply, Men We Reaped is 2013’s most necessary book.
The Unwinding, George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Do you really want to take a look at America circa now? Do you really want to think less about where we already went wrong and more about where we are continuing to go wrong? George Packer’s The Unwinding is one of those unique achievements in American investigative nonfiction in which the author perfectly sums up the here and now by examining the people and places that make our world go ’round. The Sam Waltons, the Jay Zs, the Florida city of the future that didn’t pan out, Silicon Alley — Packer tackles all of these topics and more, and spins them into a tight book that raises the uncomfortable question of whether this country will ever be truly exceptional again.
White Girls, Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)
It’s automatically an event when one of our greatest cultural critics puts out his first collection in over ten years, but it’s a whole other thing when said collection raises the bar for personal-essay writing in its opening piece and just keeps going from there. With lines like, “But couldn’t he see I loved him more than any of those horned-up lunkheads, and that he could sometimes be like them in that he wanted to get at some essential part of me that was my own and couldn’t be touched,” Als just pulls out our hearts and lets us look at them for the duration of “Tristes Tropiques” — then places them gently back in our bodies in time to move on to topics like Eminem and Flannery O’Connor. A superb and masterful example of the art of nonfiction.
The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Alongside his novels, Aleksandar Hemon had been amassing a nice collection of essays about his homeland of Bosnia, as well as his adjustment to life in America, all published in various places. The results, time and time again, have been outstanding. In collecting his life story in one volume — from childhood hatred of a new sibling and learning that the term “Turk” could be derogatory to chess and a fantastic piece on playing soccer with other immigrants in Chicago — Hemon shows us that nothing is perfect, and nothing is easy, but the world is still full of hidden greatness.
This Is Running For Your Life, Michelle Orange (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Considering the remarkably strong voice — one that’s sardonic enough to laugh at the darkness just a bit — and sharp mind Orange brings to This Is Running for Your Life, you might assume that the author is an old hand at this sort of thing, with plenty of essay collections to her name. In fact, this is her first. Especially in a year when so many writers were trying to say “Goodbye to All That,” Michelle Orange was more subtly earning her place as of one of Joan Didion’s heirs. All we can do is sit back and hope she keeps running with it.
Drinking With Men, Rosie Schaap (Riverhead)
In this memoir, Schaap accomplishes the difficult feat of compiling the train cars and dive bars of her life and weaving them into something that pokes at the reader’s every emotional button. A fascinating person with writing chops to match, Drinking With Men will have you raising a glass to its incomparable author and the great bar-stool stories she tells.
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Writing is a tough game. Those of us who rely on it for our livelihood deal with a ratio of sweet to sour that changes on an hourly basis (not frequently for the better), and sometimes we just want to walk away. Few authors have more wisdom to impart about this profession than Dani Shapiro, who’s spent over 20 years as a writer and teacher. Full of little meditations on the craft, this book takes on the highs and lows of the writing life — and deserves a spot on any writer’s desk.
Difficult Men, Brett Martin (Penguin Press)
Brett Martin’s deep dive into what he calls the “Third Golden Age” of television is a comprehensive guide to why binge-watching five seasons at a time has been elevated from something shameful to a socially acceptable humblebrag. Starting with the relatively dry business of which executives hired or fired which other executives and moving through one mercurial showrunner after another, Martin packs his book with insider-y anecdotes and thoughtful analyses of what made series like The Sopranos and The Wire so great. Along with Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, Difficult Men successfully started a conversation about the premium-TV boom of the past 15 years: why it has been so male-dominated; whether network TV still stands a chance; and whether maybe, just maybe, TV might supplant movies (a position more often attacked by movie critics than advanced by anyone in TV). Difficult Men manages to explore the renaissance of an entire medium while keeping the focus tightly individual, a vindication of TV’s newfound artistic merit if there ever was one. — Alison Herman
Dreadful, David Margolick (Other Press)
How do you go from being a famous writer to a mere footnote? David Margolick explores that question in telling the story of John Horne Burns, author of The Gallery, which is by all accounts the best novel written about the Second World War — and also the first widely acclaimed novel to portray gay men with a sympathetic eye. No detail is spared, and David Margolick does what any biographer worth his salt knows is important: he makes Burns’ life a story, not some dry rehashing of the facts.
Crapalachia, Scott McClanahan (Two Dollar Radio)
One of the best things going for indie literature in 2013, Scott McClanahan gave us a double dose with his Tyrant Books release Hill William and this collection of stories from the Appalachia he and his family know. It seems impossible that this two-book-a-year pace won’t keep up forever, but for now there’s nothing to do but be thankful to McClanahan, who is just realizing the full potential of his powers, for giving us so much.