...and not one book by Malcolm Gladwell.
November 18, 2019 8:48 AM   Subscribe

The 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years. Slate’s list of the definitive nonfiction books written in English in the past quarter-century includes beautifully written memoirs but also books of reportage, collections of essays, travelogues, works of cultural criticism, passionate arguments, even a compendium of household tips. What they all share is a commitment to “mostly truth” and the belief that digging deep to find a real story—whether it’s located in your memory, on dusty archive shelves, in Russian literature, in a slum in Mumbai—is a task worth undertaking.
posted by holborne (51 comments total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, so I was surprised to discover that I had actually read six of these.

They were all excellent.
posted by kyrademon at 8:55 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's an odd list created with odd parameters, but I'm not sure there are a lot of surprises. I suppose having Eggers on there might be the most controversial pick as he is so far out of the zeitgeist now.
posted by Think_Long at 8:55 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's a window into someone else's head, these lists. Things I'd never think of including, a few I would. I'd be unsatisfied if we all agreed.

Thanks for posting.
posted by bonehead at 9:10 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's probably been a decade since I read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and I'm still angry about it. I gather it gets taught in med schools to instill the importance of culturally competent care, but the book itself is an embodiment of the same white supremacy that it's meant to warn against. Very early on in the book, there's a description of Lia's birth. Seemingly no one had explained what to expect during a hospital birth to her mother and the hospital had no Hmong-speaking translator available (in the Central Valley! it's not like she was the first Hmong-speaking woman to give birth at that hospital), so they eventually tracked down a member of the janitorial staff who spoke Hmong. But it's presented as this absurd comedy of errors and it is... until you remember that, oh yeah, there's an actual person this is happening to. She's not some prop.
posted by hoyland at 9:17 AM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

I would humbly include the recently published Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff.
posted by gwint at 9:20 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

A few books I was slightly surprised not to see on this list:

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

The Glass Castle


Nickel and Dimed

Fast Food Nation


The New Way Things Work

The Gift of Fear

The Perfect Storm

Lies My Teacher Told Me
posted by kyrademon at 9:31 AM on November 18, 2019 [15 favorites]

It's a little weird to read that nonfiction often gets ignored because it's considered unliterary assemblages of facts (especially when so many of the books on the list are memoirs, which I'm pretty sure is regarded as obviously literary). To me the fear is often the opposite: that a book will craft a narrative that's compelling but ultimately flawed, biased, or straight-up untrue (aka the Malcolm Gladwell/Freakonomics Syndrome). It's actually caused me to shy away from non-fiction, a genre I used to love, because I sometimes feel like whatever revelations I'll glean from the book will turn out not to be the whole story, and I don't have the time to re-research every book I come across.

Reading the list, then, it makes sense that many of the books tend to be about "smaller" or more intimate subjects—one's own child, specific historical events—and less of the books that purport to offer a new perspective or organizing principle that can be applied to the world in general (your Jacob Diamonds, Malcolm Gladwells, etc.).

A few books I was slightly surprised not to see on this list:

I am shocked to see Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America left off the list; I had to check that it was, indeed, written in the last 25 years. I'm less shocked about Nothing to Envy but would also put that near the top of my personal shortlist.
posted by chrominance at 9:39 AM on November 18, 2019 [11 favorites]

I've read just one of these books -- Paula Fox's Borrowed Finery.

A few months ago I embarked on an endeavour to read all the books that I hadn't previously read on a 2015 Guardian list of the 100 best English-language novels ever written (I'd read 30 of them). Yes, the list is problematic as "best of" lists always are: white men are overrepresented on it, and it's subjective, but it's still a solid list of worthwhile books in the main. I'm currently reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

This list makes me think that perhaps I should intersperse the fiction books from the Guardian's list with non-fiction titles from this list, or a similar list if I can find another list I think is better, for a more balanced reading program.
posted by orange swan at 9:49 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I would have included Evicted - Not only is it a great read, but it's shined a light on the outsized effect housing policy can have on poverty.
posted by Vhanudux at 9:50 AM on November 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

Random Family entirely changed everything I ever thought about how poverty and money works in this country. Before then, I bought into the idea that anyone could probably pull themselves out of poverty with hard work and gumption and bootstraps and all that, and afterward, I needed to know a lot more about how systems keep entire populations struggling. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.
posted by xingcat at 10:04 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is a very.... American list.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:09 AM on November 18, 2019 [12 favorites]

If I get to add one, it's Catch & Kill.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:10 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

A fine list. I would remove the DFW book and replace it with Michael Muhammad Knight's Journey to the End of Islam.
posted by NoMich at 10:16 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

(regarding Cheryl Mendelsohn's Home Comforts) "...nearly deranged in its comprehesiveness..." Ain't no "nearly" about it, that book is terrifying in its scope and scale.
posted by hearthpig at 10:19 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I thought Home Comforts was going to be a useful book, but it felt more like a manual for domestic slavery.
posted by gwint at 10:23 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hm. I'd have said I read a fair bit of NF and I have hardly read any of these, although I have noted some down now for near future consumption, so yay.

Is the Henrietta Lacks book any good? Because I recently watched the HBO movie (and yes yes a movie is not a book) but it...wasnt...that...good?

If you havent read Fun Home you should. It's fantastic. I also picked up Bechdel's "Are You My Mother?" on the strength of Fun Home and found it to be much tougher sledding...but come to think if it that was at a time in my life when it was not easy to read about therapy, even someone else's.

If I was to make this list it would have a Bryson and a Mary Roach on it at least. Maybe that makes me low brow, I don't know.
posted by hearthpig at 10:26 AM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Some of these books sound fascinating and I've read a couple that I liked but the inclusion of the execrable Into the Wild makes me want to light my computer on fire.
posted by sinfony at 10:29 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal, 2010) is one of my favourite nonfiction books of recent years. It's an astonishing portrait of the onset of World War II – after reading it I felt as if I understood much more clearly how a country can slip bit by bit into fascism. It's chilling and prescient and beautifully written.

I've read 7 of these and the only one I really, really loved is The Old Ways. I would swap Dave Eggers' book for something by Joan Didion in a heartbeat. And yes, Persepolis! Nine of these books literally have "America" in the title, it's very US-heavy.
posted by oulipian at 10:43 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

As a science writer, I can verify that Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is a pretty incredible feat of explication for a general audience.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2019 [10 favorites]

execrable Into the Wild

Nonsense. It's an excellent book. Trying going back and reading it when you're 21.
posted by dobbs at 10:52 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm working my way through Sam Kean...
posted by jim in austin at 10:59 AM on November 18, 2019

As a twentysomething, I found that nonfiction cracked open my brain and heart and changed the ways I could perceive the wonders of the world; much fiction I've read (or tried to read) only left me feeling more locked in to my own perspective instead of seeing through fresh eyes.

So it's a delight to see a canon list of nonfiction, even if it's not all stuff I would have selected. I share gottabefunky's content that Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is astounding. It would have been nice to see Susan Casey's The Wave (insurance drama + surfing + climate change + globalization? Yes please), Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires, Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed, Helaine Olen's Pound Foolish, Colin Woodard's American Nations, David Sax's The Tastemakers ... I love canon lists because I also love the opportunity to examine what I'd put on my own canon list and why.
posted by sobell at 11:00 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Reading Far From the Tree fundamentally changed the way I thought about a lot of things. It is worth the large investment of time required to read it, especially if your life struggles have been fairly common ones.
posted by sallybrown at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I thought this was a good list. Under the heading of general interest non-fiction, I'd also nominate Hyperbole and a Half and Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Also, folks dropping into this thread might appreciate the Really Gripping Biographies AskMe question from this weekend.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Is the Henrietta Lacks book any good? Because I recently watched the HBO movie (and yes yes a movie is not a book) but it...wasnt...that...good?

The central story of the life and death of Henrietta Lacks is compelling in all the rather horrifying details, and in the book, it's surrounded by a lot of information, both about the journalist meeting with Lacks' descendants and about the medical use of human tissue. I found that it was all woven together, if not exactly seamlessly, at least well enough that the book was very readable. I'm not sure what the HBO movie focused on, in particular, but the book had those three quite distinct and different focuses, and I can't imagine they all got covered in the movie.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:25 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also on MetaFilter: this Ask
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:30 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've only read a few of these, but I will also throw into the mix Graham Robb's The Discovery of France and Parisians. Both are histories (and geographies) focusing on the lesser known people and places of France and its capital. The latter is a series of short stories based on real people and incidents, so possibly might not count as non-fiction, but you can still learn a lot of true things from reading it.
posted by YoungStencil at 11:37 AM on November 18, 2019

I thought Edmund De Waal's history of porcelain The White Road was much better.
posted by PinkMoose at 11:38 AM on November 18, 2019

The movie did not do The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks justice.
posted by dry white toast at 11:53 AM on November 18, 2019

Thanks for posting this. A few I've read or meant to read, and a few I'm adding to my list now.

Nthing the surprise not to see Nickel and Dimed on the list; I also would have included Longitude.
posted by Mchelly at 11:55 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Based on my AskMe, linked by OHenryPacey above, they're missing Orlean’s The Library Book, which got multiple favourites and multiple mentions.
posted by clawsoon at 11:59 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

My own favourite is David Graeber's Debt, which is a big sprawling amazing book of anthropology and economic history, if you're into that sort of thing. It's the kind of book to spawn half-baked theories and arguments, lots and lots of arguments.
posted by clawsoon at 12:04 PM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the comments on Henrietta Lacks; I found the movie focused almost entire on the family (which I get is one of the narrative threads and a good beefy one it is too) but it touched the science so lightly that it might as well have been talking about unicorns and fairies, if you didn't know the underlying bio it would have been so much meaningless noise. and that was disappointing because the bio is a beefy thread on its own.

Happy to see some Bryson love here, agreed that A Short History of Nearly Everything is fabulous, but I was thinking earlier that if I had to pick one for a listicle like this I'd probably offer up At Home, A Short History of Private Life as a better one-pick for a broader audience.

Also for the second time this week I will sing the praises of Oliver Sacks Musicophilia, although come to that in terms of his books that fit this time window I liked Uncle Tungsten better.

One more and then I'll stop: it's probably not "great" enough for this list but The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester is utterly amazing for those of a tech/science nonfic bent.
posted by hearthpig at 12:07 PM on November 18, 2019

This is a really interesting list. It's a weird mix of stuff I've read, stuff I've never heard of but find interesting, and stuff that sounds so obviously awful it makes me question whether I trust the source with regard to the bits that are intriguing. But, I've got several new books on my list. Thanks!

Personally, I'd add Matthew Desmond's Evicted and Tressie McMillan Cottom's Lower Ed to "recent list." And No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mt. Wilson Observatory, 1915 to the "26 years is past the deadline but still worth it" list. And Akasegawa Genpei's Hyperart:Thomasson to the "translated within the last 25 years" list.
posted by eotvos at 12:54 PM on November 18, 2019

The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese was good, but his earlier book My Own Country: A Doctor's Story was better. A devastating book about the AIDS crisis in Eastern Tennessee by an immigrant Indian doctor, it was just heartbreaking. I'm fond of medical writing, and surprised that Siddhartha Mukherjee's epic The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer isn't on this list. It was extraordinary and won a Pulitzer. And anyone interested in further reading about medical experimentation on black Americans without consent after reading Henrietta Lacks might be interested in Harriet A. Washington's Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

I second Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I love Bill Bryson (I am now reading The Body) but A Short History blew me away with its scope.
posted by ceejaytee at 12:55 PM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, I'm glad to see Nickle and Dimed left off the list. I like much of the author's other work and suspect she meant well, but almost everything in the book is obnoxious. It's hard to think of a better example of blind, thoughtless privilege promoting itself on a "progressive" book circuit. The answer to every mournful repeat of, "who could possibly live like this," is, "tens of millions of people who don't start out with fantastic health, great education, and the secure knowledge that they'll be doing it for only a month and can then return to a massive bank balance which will grow with they money they make by writing about the experience." I felt embarrassed as a reader and angry on behalf of her coworkers. There's a lot to be said for gonzo anthropology, but it requires a lot more self-awareness than exists in this book.
posted by eotvos at 1:08 PM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Nthing "The Hare with Amber Eyes" (Edmund de Waal, 2010) and "The Library Book" by Susan Orlean.

This list picked some of my favorites:
"Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World" by Mark Miodownik was wonderful and the utilitarian book cover really does it a disservice.

"H Is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald is astonishing.

"Lab Girl" by Hope Jahren pairs up very well with Richard Power's "Overstory", which is one of my favorite fiction read from last year.

"The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration" by Isabel Wilkerson makes an excellent book club pick.
posted by of strange foe at 2:39 PM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I suppose having Eggers on there might be the most controversial pick as he is so far out of the zeitgeist now a bad writer, unlike most of the authors on this list.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:07 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ctrl-f Kondo
No matches.

This list does not spark joy.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:15 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unless, of course, the listmaker found joy was sparked when he removed Marie Kondo's book from the list.
posted by orange swan at 4:28 PM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

Lists gonna list, it's interesting but doesn't feel comprehensive.

My very favorite non-fiction book is Robert Sapolsky's Primate's Memoir.
posted by theora55 at 5:08 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

If anyone is interested in recommendations from this list, Age of Wonder is EXTRAORDINARY. I read it when it came out & I still regularly think about the things I learned.
posted by Buckt at 6:13 PM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

How to Survive a Plague is an amazing work. I don't know what else to say about it, the way that the author was there with everyone, but not exactly in a central role, makes it really come alive.

I kind of wish this had been divided in two. Memoirs and not-memoirs. While both are nonfiction, they seem to be separate genres. I'm more a fan of not-memoirs and would have appreciated more of them on the list, no matter how good the memoirs are.
posted by Hactar at 6:37 PM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

Re-nthing Nickled and Dimed, it's a fantastic book, and is worth reading, for anyone that hasn't. As far as Krakauer, I think more of the backlash against Into the Wild is the weird hero worship that people have attached to the kid he's writing about. The kid was woefully unprepared, and utterly unwilling to listen to nearly everyone he me trying to talk some sense into him, or to at least offer what could have been lifesaving advice. Krakauer is sympathetic but never admiring of the choices the kid made. That, and how he reflects on his own youth, and the similarities, makes it a worthwhile book.

That said, Under the Banner of Heaven, Where Men Win Glory, and Into Thin Air are all better books, in my mind.

Looking at this list is making me wish I still had the capacity to read like I used to. I feel like the living poster child for the deleterious effects of 24/7 net access. I'm trying to fight back, but I've still only read two books this year. I remember being younger, being shocked that the average adult in America (mid-90s) read one or zero books in a year, and now, it me. On the other hand, I've got Evicted on the way, and a lot of free time in December, I'm hoping to bump that number to 3.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:44 PM on November 18, 2019

Things that would have made my list:
Between the World and Me
King Leopold’s Ghost (or maybe Bury the Chains, which I think I liked even better but was less of a Thing)
Mountains Beyond Mountains
posted by naoko at 7:47 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m happy to see A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again on the list. I’m not exactly sure why David Foster Wallace’s stock has been falling for years, and I love that book.
posted by holborne at 8:57 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Glass House and Persepolis are both amazing.
posted by affectionateborg at 9:23 AM on November 19, 2019

I'm most surprised not to see Erik Larson's Devil in the White City on this list (or in the comments). Does narrative non-fiction not count?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:30 AM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hmm, the Guardian also has a list of the 100 best non-fiction books, prepared by the same person who put together the list of 100 best English-language novels I linked to above.

Some other possibilities:

Abe Books' list of 50 Essential Non-Fiction Books You'll Actually Read.

Book Riot's list of 50 of the best nonfiction books of the last 100 years.

Modern Library's list of 100 Best Nonfiction titles.

Of the four lists I name here, only the Abe Books list has a Malcolm Gladwell title on it, while only Book Riot's includes Nickel and Dimed. None include Eggers. Make of that what you will.
posted by orange swan at 1:16 PM on November 19, 2019

I’m not exactly sure why David Foster Wallace’s stock has been falling for years

He was 40% canceled for having obnoxious fans, then 100% canceled for being abusive and horrible. And rightly so.
posted by fleacircus at 4:45 PM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wonder if there's a correlation between someone being a problematic person and having a problematic fanbase. I'd be inclined to think so, because people do tend to set the tone for their followers. But maybe there are cases of people having toxic fanbases for other, extrinsic reasons?
posted by orange swan at 5:43 PM on November 20, 2019

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