What Nonfiction Do We Study from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s?

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Pierce Alquist

Senior Contributor

Pierce Alquist is a transplanted New Yorker living and working in the publishing scene in Boston. Don’t worry if she fooled you, the red hair is misleading. She’s a literature in translation devotee and reviewer and lover of small, independent presses. A voracious traveler and foodie, you can find her in her kitchen making borscht or covered in red pepper paste as she perfects her kimchi recipe.

In a recent article for The Pudding, a digital publication that explains ideas debated in culture with visual essays, Matt Daniels used Open Syllabus to explore what books from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s are being assigned in college-level classes. It’s a fascinating look at a new “turn-of-the-century literary canon” pulling out the top ten titles for each decade, both fiction and nonfiction. After a deep dive into the fiction titles, I wanted to also examine what nonfiction is making its way onto college syllabi. It’s an interesting mix, too — the titles you might have expected to show up on the lists, the titles you may not have, and why it matters, especially right now, to consider what nonfiction is being taught in classrooms.

It’s probably best to start with the obvious difference between these nonfiction lists and the fiction lists. Many of these books are textbooks or very similar to a textbook. While it’s interesting to note some of the trends in textbooks that appear on these lists — postcolonial and decolonial texts, postmodernism, media studies, and more — I think for myself, and probably most general readers, it’s more interesting what general nonfiction makes the list. For example, what memoirs transcend a general audience to make their way into a college classroom?

Top Ten Nonfiction Titles from the 1980s

  1. Gender Trouble by Judith Butler (1989)
  2. Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)
  3. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (1989)
  4. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (1988)
  5. Renaissance Self-Fashioning by Stephen Greenblatt (1981)
  6. Maus by Art Spiegelman (1980)
  7. The Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Jeanne Haraway (1985)
  8. Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’
  9. Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez
  10. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word by Walter J. Ong

Starting with the top ten nonfiction titles from the 1980s, it’s important to note the large presence of personal narratives. The essays and poems in Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa are rooted in her experience as a Chicana, a lesbian, an activist, and a writer. The book challenged and continues to challenge how we think about borders and identity. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid is a personal essay examining colonialism and its effects in Antigua, where Kincaid grew up. Maus by Art Spiegelman and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez are also nonfiction titles rooted in personal stories. While there are other memoirs in the nonfiction lists for the 1990s and 2000s, they are not as large a presence as in the list for the 1980s.

Top Ten Nonfiction Titles from the 1990s

  1. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (1993)
  2. “Mother Tongue” (essay) by Amy Tan (1990)
  3. Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said (1993)
  4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (1995)
  5. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness by Paul Gilroy (1993)
  6. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison (1992)
  7. The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha (1994)
  8. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)
  9. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson (1991)
  10. Bodies That Matter by Judith Butler (1993)

The lists for the 1990s and 2000s are more scholarly in some ways, less driven by personal narrative, but I also recognize many more of the names and titles on these lists, such as Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, and Alison Bechdel. The mixture of titles for both lists is fascinating. Like in the fiction titles, there is a small but continuous inclusion of graphic books. Maus is one of the most well-known and acclaimed graphic memoirs ever published and Art Spiegelman was awarded the 2022 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. Alison Bechdel is also a beloved and bestselling author and it’s great to see Fun Home make the list, as well as Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud making the 1990s list. Persepolis, Watchmen, and American Born Chinese all made the fiction lists.

It may also be helpful to note that some of the titles listed by The Pudding are actually articles or short pieces, not full books. I was confused to see “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan on the list for the 1990s as I wasn’t familiar with that title but it is actually a short essay, available online. Likewise, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr is an article written by Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic. It corresponds to his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains which was published in 2010. I read The Shallows in graduate school and I’m curious if it’s assigned frequently enough that it would make the list of nonfiction from the 2010s. In a response to a question about the Carr article on Twitter, The Pudding clarified that “The article is what’s assigned in syllabi, not the book. We found several essays, articles, & academic papers among the most-assigned nonfiction, but not many appear in these Top 10 lists.”

Top Ten Nonfiction Titles from the 2000s

  1. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
  2. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (article) by Nicholas Carr (2008)
  3. A Theory of Adaptation by Linda Hutcheon (2006)
  4. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
  5. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
  6. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser (2001)
  7. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (2003)
  8. Undoing Gender by Judith Butler (2004)
  9. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins (2006)
  10. Language of New Media by Lev Manovich (2001)

Like with the fiction lists, there’s a lot here that gives me hope. I’m so glad to see that nonfiction titles by Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Edward W. Said, and others are on classroom syllabi. Judith Butler is on all three of these lists, the only person to do so in both the nonfiction and fiction lists. Their books have been widely influential in feminist and queer theory, cultural studies, philosophy, and the arts. But while there is a range of diverse people on these lists, it is incredibly disappointing to see that the 2000s is very white and is generally much less diverse than the previous decades.

It’s hard for me to not consider these lists of titles without thinking about the increase in book bans and censorship efforts across the United States, especially as they directly affect classroom settings, whether they be elementary, middle, high school, or college classrooms. With Toni Morrison’s fiction often banned, will states, institutions, and other groups, come after her nonfiction like Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination next? Will postcolonial and decolonial texts still be taught in college classrooms? What contemporary titles would have made these lists but might not because of censorship efforts? The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones? Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates? I can’t imagine a more crucial time to be paying attention to the books that are taught and available in classrooms.

We recommend the following resources if you’d like to learn more about book bans and the current rise in censorship:

A Banned Books Week Action List

How to Fight Book Bans and Challenges: An Anti-Censorship Tool Kit

Book Bans Impact Over 4 Million Students: PEN America’s Sobering New Report