How can I possibly write a list of the best nonfiction books 2021 has to offer? I can’t. I mean I can, because here you are reading this list, but it’s not ALL the best nonfiction titles of the year. It’s 15 of them. So manageable. And definitely with something for everyone. But not even close to all the best. But every book on this list is the best.
It’s not that I didn’t want to add more, nor that I was being lazy or anything, it’s that I would never stop adding to the list because nonfiction has been amazing lately. Amazing! There are so many fantastic stories, voices, interesting things to learn — it just doesn’t end. And because the nonfiction genre has seen an influx in voices that publishing traditionally kept out, I feel like a kid in a candy store getting to hear so many stories. And let me tell you, the audiobook versions narrated by the author are always my first choice option for nonfiction. It feels like cooking, walking the goat (who is an angry goat trapped inside a dog), cleaning, crafting, and puzzling with a friend telling me a story. It was really difficult to choose only 15 titles, but below I have a wide range of top nonfiction books of 2021 including true crime, sociology, memoir, history, and even a deep dive into the history of food. Let’s get started.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
I am forever in awe of people who can not only recount difficult times from their lives, but also do it with nuance, kindness, and deep self-awareness and processing. Ford is an incredibly gifted writer and deserves every amount of praise for how beautifully she is able to share the details of a truly difficult situation: growing up wishing the parent you had with you was instead the one that is incarcerated, only to grow up and learn why he was imprisoned and have your world turned upside down. Her narration of the audiobook is exceptional and I look forward to anything Ford does next.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
If you like fascinating reads and reading about cults, language, and society, you won’t be able to put this one down. Montell became fascinated with cults when she found out her father’s history with one as a child and this book is in part that same curious person asking questions, which let’s be honest, all of us are. But it goes much further than just recounting the history of various cults and instead ties it to the language cults and leaders use, and how we see that language in many other places, including business marketing.
¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer
This is one of those memoirs that will have you feeling all the emotions: I snorted I laughed so hard in one chapter and in another I was all choked up. What started as a parody advice column ended up becoming a real one, and here Brammer uses the format of responding to advice seeking letters to tell of his childhood in Oklahoma in one of the only Mexican families and coming into adulthood as a gay man. There’s a beautiful spirit in this book as Brammer not only looks at the difficulties of being biracial and gay in the U.S., but also at not fitting into the cultural box you’re expected to, as well as who gets to give advice.
The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley
Britney Spear’s pleas to end her conservatorship, her revelation in court that she was forced to keep an IUD, and the women who came forward last year saying hysterectomies were performed on them while in immigration custody all show that this book, and the case it covers, are in many ways still a current issue. Farley takes a look at the court case and story of Maryon Cooper Hewitt, who had her daughter, Ann Cooper Hewitt, sterilized without her consent or knowledge for an inheritance. It also takes a look at the history of eugenics and how it created the laws that allowed this, and how this is not a long ago history.
If you read true crime, especially related to serial killers, and come across a case that you’ve never heard of at all, you can place your money on the bet that the victims were not the ones our society likes to care about. In this case, Green does a fantastic job of bringing voice and attention to the victims of a serial killer who prayed on New York City’s gay community in the ’80s and ’90s.
My Broken Language: A Memoir by Quiara Alegría Hudes
If you audio I highly recommend that format for this book, narrated by the author herself. Quiara Alegría Hudes is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright who is gifted at storytelling. This book is not only a recounting of stories from her life, but is also so much about language — all formats, especially being in between languages — and love of family. With stories of history (like her mother fighting for Puerto Rican women’s reproductive rights), family (the house where you find todos los primos), creativity, art, and the many places that come alive in these pages, you’ll be so absorbed while reading this.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
If you’re not already reading Abdurraqib right now is the moment to remedy that. Brilliant people who talk about their passions in an accessible way are my catnip. It seems fitting that this is written in such a lyrical, beautiful, and rhythmic way considering the subject, but that is truly not an easy thing to do and here it seems effortless. By looking at specific performances, Abdurraqib examines the way Black performance is part of American culture but so far from a textbook sort of way, instead infusing every single emotion in his prose.
As much as I love when a nonfiction title tells you everything you need to know with a punch, I hate how accurate it is. Author Dara Horn noticed that the publications that were asking for her to write articles all had something in common: they never wanted her take on a living Jewish person, but rather only ones that were dead. Here she takes on a slew of topics through essays with the goal of tackling why Jewish lives aren’t respected but dead Jews hold fascination and how “the benign reverence we give to past horrors is itself a profound affront to human dignity.”
White Magic by Elissa Washuta
A beautiful essay collection that is an essay collection but is also much more — you’ll just have to read it to understand. A member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, Washuta writes about addiction and drug treatment — stemming from a bipolar disorder misdiagnosis — colonization, PTSD, magic, Indigenous history, ghosts, therapy and so much more. If you want something powerful to sit and slowly read — because you’ll want to really absorb this — grab this book.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
This is hands down one of those books where either the title or the cover will absolutely entice you into needing to pick it up. And then it’s like winning the lottery when the inside is also fantastic. This is more than a memoir on grief: while Zauner lost her mother to cancer, she also explores the feeling of losing the connection to her Korean roots. It’s the kind of memoir that is so impactful and beautifully written that you don’t need to know anything about the author (lead of the rock band Japanese Breakfast) to fully appreciate this book and her life story.
1. I absolutely love getting to say “Hey, did you know!”
2. Bittman’s How To Cook Everything is one of my most used cookbooks.
3. The history of things is always a thing I gravitate towards.
If you nodded along to any of those three, this should definitely be on your TBR especially if you’re looking for how to make the future better.
You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience Edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown
Countless times I have heard someone say something regarding anything self-help not being for them and immediately follow it up with “except for Brené Brown!” Now add in Tarana Burke, the activist who started the Me Too movement, and imagine a text between these two women that led to a call about how Brown’s vulnerability lessons in principal made sense but were not as easily applicable when in a Black body in the U.S. Thus this essay collection was born which includes a bunch of amazing voices — including Laverne Cox and Jason Reynolds — edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown. Not that you need a bonus on top of all that amazingness, but the audiobook has standing ovation–worthy narrators.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 Edited by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi
I love that anthologies offer so many different voices and open the door to find new favorite writers. In this case you get an expansive and epic history book told by 90 Black writers! Four Hundred Souls begins in 1619, a year before the Mayflower landed with 20 enslaved Ndongo people in a British colony in America. From there, essays, poems, biographies, and more chronicle 400 years of history of the Black American experience. And the audiobook has 87 narrators!
Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: Essays by Phoebe Robinson
If you’re already a Robinson fan, then certainly you ran to this the second it released. If you’ve yet to discover Robinson, you are in for a real treat if you enjoy laughing while listening to someone recount stories and discuss pop culture. And that title! I honestly want to ask her if it was between that and “Please Stop Voluntarily Telling People You Don’t Bathe.” Anyhoo, I can not stress enough that the best way to enjoy her books, if it’s an option for you, is the audiobook.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
The author of Say Nothing has once again tackled a big case with history and family at the heart. The catalyst for the opioid crisis was OxyContin and the family behind making and marketing OxyContin was the Sackler family — one of the richest families in the world world who profited off a drug that created a crisis. If you’re a reader of narrative nonfiction and reporting, grab this book.
It’s so hard to stop here. The nonfiction genre has just been putting out amazing work, but my TBR is calling and I’ve got to go read more books! But if this list wasn’t enough for your greedy eat-all-the-books brain, here’s a great list of historical nonfiction books.