Summer Reading: 20 New Nonfiction Books That Will Make You Smarter


Summer! A time of backyards, barbecues, and babes, if you’re lucky. It’s also a time for that glorious practice of summer reading; a good book is a fine companion, whether on the beach, a dock, a picnic in the park, or even your apartment’s fire escape. There’s a world of options for summer reading, but this is the only list you need if you like daring, staggeringly well-written and challenging nonfiction that may just change the way you look at the world.

The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare

A beautifully ambling journey into literary and natural history, Hoare’s book explores what it is when we consider the ocean. He begins at his local slab of where the land meets the sea, eventually traveling the world to tell us about the secret lives of whales and dolphins. A pleasure. (Out now)

American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney

Death: it’s so hot right now (see: the wonderful work of Caitlin Doughty). In Sweeney’s book, excerpted in The Oxford American, she explores the many traditions and rituals that have arisen out of the American way of death, from roadside memorials to necklaces with a lock of someone’s hair. (Out now)

Eating Wildly by Ava Chin

Ava Chin, The New York Times‘ “Urban Forager,” writes about how foraging changed her life. She’s able to find the nature and interconnectedness in everything, even the wilds of New York City, an urban jungle that’s ostensibly for people, dogs, cats, and squirrels — not plants that taste delicious and/or have medicinal properties. (Out now)

Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes by Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson

Later this year, a film called Big Eyes will be released. It’ll be the potential Oscar-bait comeback of Tim Burton, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, telling the story behind the big-eyed American kitsch paintings of the ’60s. But if you want to be ahead of the pack, read this book about the shocking true story of Walter and Margaret Keane, a couple who influenced American kitsch with their tragic, shocking lives. (June)

Let the Tornado Come by Rita Zoey Chin

A young runaway in an awful family situation finds solace in horses. All grown-up, now a mother and award-winning poet, the same girl searches for something better than her trauma — and, again, finds something like redemption with horses. A beautiful memoir of hope in even the most trying of situations. (June)

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

The publication of Dr. Zhivago was a lot more complicated then you’d think. It started with an Italian agent, spread to the west, and, ever so slowly, made its way to the then-Soviet Union. Writers Finn and Covee accessed old CIA files to tell the true, world-beating story of the trouble that comes from just one (impossibly romantic) book. (June)

Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols

In this book for everyone who marvels at the ocean, Nichols takes a journey into the science behind why we like water, and what it does for the human race. Using neuroscience and reports from a variety of water-connected individuals, Nichols makes an argument for why we need the sea. (July)

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber

These days, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to solve crimes like Sherlock Holmes; all you need is a computer connection and an unwavering obsession to solve the coldest, most macabre of cases. Author Deborah Halber follows these obsessives and finds out what drives their curiosity. (July)

The Working Memory Advantage: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster by Tracy and Ross Alloway

Some of the best success stories have to do with memory — look at Bill Clinton’s charisma, the root of which comes from the fact that he never forgets a face. If you want to be considered smarter and wiser, try seeing what these doctors have to say about making your memory into a steel trap. The results may change your life. (July)

Take This Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse

So, you see the name of the author. You assume he is American Indian. But no — the true story of how writer Brando Skyhorse became the person he is starts with his father leaving his family when he was just a baby, and his mother deciding to reinvent herself as an American Indian in California. It’s just the beginning of an odyssey for identity that makes a remarkable story. (June)

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

Cartoonist Liz Prince was a child caught between girly princess desires and the scraped knees of hanging with the boys, and in this funny, charming work, she writes about how she figured out who she was, despite the mixed messages of “how to be a girl.” (August)

Hothouse: The Survival of Art and the Art of Survival at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux by Boris Kachka

Frequent New York magazine contributor Kachka writes smart, slyly witty profiles of who’s who in the literary world, and in this sparkling debut he goes deep into FSG and how it grew to define American culture by publishing some of the greatest artists of our time. Plus: Gossip! (Out now; paperback edition available in August)

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Choices? America’s 67th Secretary of State has made them, and in this memoir, you get to follow Hillary around the world as she works hard to make bad situations better. Consider this shot one in the Hillary 2016 campaign. (June)

Buck: A Memoir by M.K. Asante

Growing up in “Killadelphia,” young Malo is stuck playing the man of the house way before his time, as his father is absent, his brother is caught up in a gang, and his mother is dealing with mental issues. A kid who could be easily swept into street life, Malo perseveres through education and books. A moving story, and it’s all true. (Out now)

Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris

What a project! You may know Clare Boothe Luce as the author of The Women, but as Morris’ epic series of biographies suggests, she was a trailblazer, ahead of her time. In this volume, we follow Congresswoman Luce in Washington, DC, as she tours the western front and becomes the first American woman to be appointed ambassador to a significant foreign power. (June)

Jennifer, Gwyneth, & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time by Rachel Bertsche

Celebrities! They are so fit after childbirth and so beautiful and never age and live such lives of glamor. In this book, journalist Bertsche looks to the stars (as in, the advice in your average US Weekly) to try to change her life, so you can find out whether Gwyneth’s GOOP-y wisdom yields great results, or (probably) a depleted bank account. (July)

The United States Vs. Pvt. Chelsea Manning by Clark Stoeckley

A graphic account from O/R Books, Manning’s trial regarding leaking military information to WikiLeaks was cloaked in secrecy, until now. Stoeckley, a WikiLeaks activist, was inside the courtroom, and his transcripts of the recordings shed a light on what really happened, and what the trial of Chelsea Manning may mean to America and the world. (Out now)

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town by Sarah Payne Stuart

As an exiled New Englander still obsessed with Thoreau’s weird little life, I devoured Stuart’s memoir of returning to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, a place still laden with the ghosts of childhood past: from her family, to the Transcendentalists, there’s a lot of weight there, and Stuart writes it all out in funny, wry prose. (June)

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins

One of the joys of my life was discovering the weirdness of Tom Robbins’ work: trust me, there is nothing more exciting than saying “my book is about lesbian cowgirl hitchhikers” in response to what are you reading? It turns out, Robbins’ personal life makes for its own wild and wacky story, as detailed in this memoir from the now-80-something bohemian. (May)

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist, great writer: Roxane Gay is wildly prolific online as an essayist, commentator, and wonderful literary citizen. What’s impressive, too, is the breadth of her work and how she makes it look so easy. After her critically acclaimed debut novel An Untamed State appeared this month, you could be forgiven for thinking she is simply a good fiction writer — but as Bad Feminist proves, she’s a necessary and brave voice when it comes to figuring out all the crazy mixed messages in our mixed-up world. (August)