The 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

Death and grief, love and sex, gender and race: the year’s best nonfiction demonstrates no shortage of bravery its encounters with major social, political, personal, and historical themes. Nor did these books shy away from the formal daring required to navigate those themes; in many ways, we’ve seen enough stylistic invention, reinvention, and resourcefulness in one year to last us the next five. That’s because each of these books presses into new ways of negotiating personal struggle with the promises and expectations of society. The results, as you can see, are staggering.

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Missoula, Jon Krakauer

Krakauer turns campus rape into a gripping true crime story, following several cases in the titular Montana college town from a reconstruction of the incident through trials and aftermath. This is an accurate, blow-by blow account that looks at rape as a crime outside any political context except its own grim parameter — and it makes a damning, riveting read. I wish it weren’t necessary to tell the story this way, but it is. — Sarah Seltzer

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Spinster, Kate Bolick

With her casual parade of handsome and kind boyfirends, her love of interior decorating and her roots in small-town New England, maybe Bolick doesn’t belong at the head of a diverse crusading army speaking for all the single ladies (“[Spinster] might be the whitest thing i’ve ever read” a friend joked to me). And yet, this is a beautiful book, one that functions less as a call to arms and more as a personal and critical exploration of female solitude and independence, both in the author’s life and in the life of several literary icons she admires. — SS

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The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick

A meditation on friendship, love, womanhood and literature, but mostly an ode to walking around the city of Gornick’s birth, this is a book that will actually change the way readers go about their days. Since reading it, I’ve found myself seeking resonance in the details I observe traveling through our shared hometown of New york, connecting the details of what’s observed with my inner life. — SS

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The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Nelson’s in-depth look at building a family and changing bodies and identities pairs her own pregnancy with her partner’s gender transition. Spanning literature, psychology, art, critical theory, and memoir, this is a book that’s lyrical and surprisingly accessible. I wanted to underline nearly every sentence and write “yes!” in the margins. — SS

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Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’ long letter to his son laments the treatment of young, black, male bodies by the United States’ law enforcement systems, in the name of the United States’ citizenry. Between the World and Me is an intimate, wise look at a problem that’s finally getting nationwide attention — but Coates would tell you that “police brutality” is a feature, not a bug, in the American way of being. — SS

About Women

About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter, Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot

A unique book that is simply a long conversation between women who span nationality, generation, and artistic discipline. They talk about their very specific circumstances and the women in their family who influenced them, and yet that specificity makes the book feel like you’re eavesdropping on the most interesting coffee shop conversation in the world.  — SS

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The Brothers, Masha Gessen

With another “homegrown” self-radicalized terror attack stealing headlines, this in-depth book about the Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers — and the government’s handling and mis-handling of their case — feels more pertinent than ever. — SS

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The Occupiers, Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky

This account of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from roots to branches — including tales of police repression, internal fighting and major actions — is an important read. It helps explain the dynamics of mass movements, as other protest movements like Black Lives Matter rightly take center stage — and reminds us what helped set the stage for the conversation on income inequality and financial malfeasance that’s been galvanized by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. — SS

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H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

MacDonald’s much-praised grief memoir takes her into wild territory — literally, as she copes with the loss of her father by adopting Mabel, a fierce young goshawk. As they live together and Helen helps Mabel hunt and live, the borders of who is raising who, who is tamed and who becomes ferocious, begin to melt, but without the kind of cliche you might expect. As Vicki Constantine Croke wrote in the Times Book Review, “Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.” — SS

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Negroland: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)

When we look back on our era of hybrid nonfiction and performative memoir and diary, Jefferson’s Negroland will likely be revered as a classic of the form, especially for the way it fuses historical sensitivity with good humor and wit. No more agile prose was committed to print this year; Jefferson can seemingly stop time with her observations about mid-century black life — and the hierarchical, even aristocratic aspirations of white America — before pirouetting into virtuoso microhistories worthy of high scholarship. — Jonathon Sturgeon

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After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, Renata Adler (NYRB)

A certain class of New York literary reader and writer has recently made something of an idol out of Adler, especially since the republication of her fictions Speedboat and Pitch Dark in 2013. This impossibly broad and deep collection of essays, reportage, and criticism — which stretches from the mid-1960s to the 2000s — should humanize her, which is to say that it’s simply impossible to agree with everything she writes. It should also dispel any doubt that she is among the very best American postwar writers in any form. — JS

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The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press)

Even if the way human societies treat their dead is not often a matter of philosophical speculation, Laqueur shows, in this huge, searching work of scholarship, that the question was there from the beginning of Western culture, when Diogenes suggested that his own corpse should be flung over the city gates to be devoured by dogs. Not only that, Laqueur maintains that our material and imaginative care of the dead signifies our “emergence from the order of nature into culture.” — JS

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Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS, Dale Peck (Soho)

A moving yet unsentimental coming-of-age story set during the AIDS crisis, Peck’s memoir earns its title reference to Eliot by virtue of its appealing erotic frankness. It’s also a collagist work quite literally composed of visions and revisions of sex and activism, one that is as boldly erudite as it is formally engaging. — JS

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Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross (Verso)

Although slim and devoted to a short-lived historical moment, Ross’s book on the intellectual and cultural underpinnings of the Paris Commune is one of the most important political books of the year. Plainly put, the ingenuity and collective good sense of the communards will challenge any reader who struggles to reconcile egalitarian politics with concerns over state violence and power. And the role of art and artist’s lives may have been more important to the stirring of political events than readers could imagine. — J.S.

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I Can Give You Anything But Love, Gary Indiana (Rizzoli Ex Libris)

Indiana’s memoir shifts effortlessly from vignettes of modern day Cuba, where the writer and artist sometimes lives, to even-handed remembrances of an unselfconscious (if tumultuous) boyhood in New Hampshire, to moments of sex and friendship in California and New York City. It’s all the better because its shape resembles something like life as it is actually lived and remembered. And every moment is done up with the author’s unimpeachable good taste. —J.S.