The 15 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year So Far


From a personal examination of the modern definition of spinsterhood to an exploration of the internet’s dark and secret places, literary and journalistic nonfiction has gone to incredibly varied places this first half of the year. Here are the books that have stood out as we reach the half-year mark, all fueled by obsession and reflection, the hallmarks of the genre.

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross

“The commune was both rallying cry and the thing itself,” writes Kristin Ross in Communal Luxury. “[It] was less an uprising than the advent or affirmation of a politics.” Ross’ short but powerful work on the Paris Commune is less a history than a commanding frontispiece for a new politics, one with roots in remarkable events that neither began nor ended in 1871. Readers will find themselves surprised at how persuasive the Communard’s vision of the world — their imagination — could be. — Jonathon Sturgeon

The Upstairs Wife, Rafia Zakaria

Weaving together her family and her country’s history, Zakaria provides a personal perspective on Pakistan that’s much needed in this moment of national strife that has global implications. — Sarah Seltzer

Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, Jamie Bartlett

Bartlett’s book is a welcome deep dive into the anonymous Internet, one that begins in the 1990s and takes us right up to the present moment, with the fall of Silk Road’s Ross Ulbricht. Along the way we meet an array of dark personalities, many of whom helped shape the Internet’s future — and, by extension, our own. — Jonathon Sturgeon

Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon

In a year notable for women-in-rock memoirs, the first half was dominated by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. “By maintaining the laid-back coolness that made her an icon, Gordon is able to give herself a bit of credit without sounding like an egomaniac, which more than half of all rock stars who write memoirs inevitably do,” wrote Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes. — Sarah Seltzer

Chameleo: A Strange But True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security, Robert Guffey

Guffey’s Chameleo, a paranoiac nonfiction techno-thriller and the story of a friendship, is by many miles the weirdest and funniest book of 2015. It tells the story of an oft-recovering heroin addict named Dion Fuller who is believed by the Department of Homeland Security to have stolen a pair of night vision goggles from a military base. From there it becomes a sui generis exploration of conspiracy as a form of art. — Jonathon Sturgeon

Spinster, Kate Bolick

Bolick’s book is frustrating and intriguing by turns, but where it really excels is in her writing on solitude as salvation for today’s woman, a creature who is too often conditioned to define herself by her relationships. — Sarah Seltzer

Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising, Jonathan Littell

Rooted in dreams that — perverted or denied — become nightmares, Littell’s war reportage makes a strong case both as historical artifact and pure literary object. Beginning with perhaps the first sectarian massacre of the Syrian uprising, the Notebooks act as a guided tour through a hell that is all the more terrible for its moments of laughter and forgetting. — Jonathon Sturgeon

Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS, Dale Peck

Peck’s deft, unsentimental, yet deeply felt collagist nonfiction about “the second half of the first half of the AIDS epidemic” showcases a deeply attuned critical mind and a novelist’s gift for retrospection. The phrase “visions and revisions,” borrowed from Eliot’s Prufrock, describes both the book’s form and its unsparing, dialectical style. — Jonathon Sturgeon

The Brothers, Masha Gessen

Gessen’s biography of the Tsarnaev brothers, tracing how they went from disaffected immigrant kids to “the Boston bombers,” complicates the narrative and reveals some painful but important facts about the way our government acted in the wake of that tragedy. — Sarah Seltzer

The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber

A surprising, convincing look at how market fundamentalism, far from cutting back red tape, actually exacerbates bureaucratic bloat. Clearheaded and often hilarious, Graeber’s Utopia will arm the reader against those who would argue for either the market or the state. — Jonathon Sturgeon

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

One of the year’s best books, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a brilliant, concise, shapeshifting look at gender fluidity, love, and language, and the expectations of queer family-making. — Jonathon Sturgeon

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, eds. Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb

A collection of writing about American cities since the financial crisis, City by City showcases a group of talented, mostly young writers as they grapple with moving forward — both personally and politically — in an America defined by its disintegrating sense of self. — Jonathon Sturgeon

Ghettoside, Jill Leovy

At a moment when policing and communities of color is deservedly under a microscope, Leovy’s deep dive into one crime reveals so many of the larger issues at hand. “There’s far more police in the neighborhood per person, far more stops, far more everything. People in the neighborhoods are often suffering from a double whammy. They’re suffering from crime and they’re angry at the police,” the author told Flavorwire earlier this year. — Sarah Seltzer

Missoula, Jon Krakauer

As campus rape explodes across the nation’s consciousness, Krakauer provides a rigorous, jargon-free look at one town’s spate of high-profile rape cases that is just the kind of clear-eyed look at misogyny we need. — Sarah Seltzer

The Odd Woman in the City, Vivian Gornick

Gornick’s delightful memoir in vignettes is the treat of the first half of the year. The author spends her time walking around and observing New York City , while ruminating on friendship, love, and feminism. Reading her book, you feel like you’re talking to the smartest, wittiest mentor in the world. — Sarah Seltzer