It’s heartening to realize that there’s a surplus of elegantly written nonfiction books these days — books that can take you to another time, place, and location, and even cause a revolution in your mind. We live in a time when people can go crazy over a giant and expensive economic tome (Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century), or have a peek into the letters written by our second first lady (Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters by Diane Jacobs) — and that’s just two of the year’s notable books. Here’s a sampling of the ten best nonfiction books that have lingered as the first half of the year draws to a close.
10. The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, illustrated by Canaan White
Admittedly, it falls in the category of historical fiction in the form of a graphic novel, but let’s say this: we shouldn’t forget the sacrifice and skill of the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I, and writer Max Brooks and illustrator Caanan White bring the struggle and might of the 369th Infantry in the face of staggering racism to thrilling life. Instead of training on rifles, they trained with brooms. And they still won every battle they fought in, left an indelible legacy in the country, and were a force in the development of jazz.
9. Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy
This book follows a soldier who goes down to an evangelical “demon camp” in order to cast out the “demon” of PTSD — but the reality of the book is more lyrical and complicated than that summary. Percy is a fearless and beautiful writer, and this book is a close-to-the-bone invocation of what PTSD is doing to men, women, and children in the United States of America. It will haunt you.
8. Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill
The wartime romance that flourished between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn may be what gets readers in the door for Vaill’s book, but what they’ll find is the story, and impeccable reconstruction, of an era. Three couples — the aforementioned writers, two photographers, and two members of the press corps — dived right into the Spanish Civil War to find stories, horror, and glory. What Vaill finds is the truth about life during wartime, and how reporting and journalism flourished in this particular epoch.
7. Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn
A little madness with your memoir? This story of how writer Walter Kirn got snookered by the lies and the charms of Clark Rockefeller, one of the greatest and scariest con artists in recent memory, is a chilling and complicated tale of two men who needed something from each other. Kirn raises more questions than he answers, but the psychological journey into his addled mind, as he tries to figure out the pathology driving Rockefeller’s actions, is a deconstruction of how a predator can prey on people’s palpable insecurities.
6. Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris
Mark Harris is an essential film writer. His first book, Pictures at a Revolution, is about how the Best Picture nominees of 1967 were a prescient reflection of the changes to come in cinema and the country. Five Came Back profiles five major directors, from John Ford to Frank Capra, and how World War II entered their lives and changed the spirit of their art. Harris is nearly unmatched in relating how people’s artistic achievements relate to the times, and he’s also a pleasure to read.
5. The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson
A remarkably thorough examination of how radioactivity has changed the world, starting with the zombie-film details about the initial discovery and the work of the Curies (a lot of people burned their flesh, let’s say), and moving on to cover the horrors and ironies of the Los Alamos project and how it all led to Dr. Strangelove. A fascinating book that spans history and is full of impeccable, unforgettable detail.
4. The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor
Meet the new oligarchs, same as the old oligarchs. Taylor does an excellent job of puncturing the lie that the Internet is for “everybody,” as sites like Amazon become monopolies, social media like Facebook mines your profile for irresistible marketing data, copyright and artistic protections are irrelevant, and women and minorities are, again, a vulnerable class. Read this book, a smartly written warning against Silicon Valley’s promises of utopia, and figure out how to make the Internet a better and safer space for human beings.
3. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
The arctic circle is melting, climate change is real — and as a result, the world will lose “one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds,” according to Kolbert. The results will be a disaster for our earth, a real apocalypse, and Kolbert is a fine companion to this disturbing information, as she takes us around the world, telling us how humans have made the planet completely different and what will, should, and could happen next.
2. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
Is this book about the birth of modernism? Is it about how James Joyce wrote a strange book that eventually got out into the world? Is it about obscenity laws? Is it about being an impoverished expatriate writer in Paris’ Golden Age? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. During a time when nonfiction looks at singular books are a bit of a trend (ones regarding Dr. Zhivago and To Kill a Mockingbird are in my queue), Birmingham’s book is the best and most crucial one so far, starting with dirty-minded James Joyce going blind, and ending with a world that’s changed forever and a book that you have to read.
1. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
This book is the one that I keep thinking about, working it over in my mind, and recommending it to friends and acquaintances without reservation. What is it like to be a human being? How do you have feelings towards other people, and what does it mean to have those feelings? If aliens came down to earth and needed a book, they’d take this one, as Jamison, eloquently, beautifully, and urgently dissects just exactly what it’s like to have eyes, ears, and a working heart (that beats too fast), and what that means in regards to living a life. It asks important questions and it changes how you look at other people’s misery as a result, making your heart a little bit bigger. Absolutely necessary reading.