In an era when time spent trying new things and meeting new people was still a rare privilege, the best books served to please our wandering minds. These works, from well-known writers as well as exciting new voices, dissect a range of subjects from the history of Black performance in America to the value of the 19th-century Russian short story to the intimate pain caused by losing a parent. They are sweeping histories and bold essay collections, powerful memoirs and brilliant literary criticism. Their diversity is a virtue in and of itself, a means of exploring and satisfying our curiosities. Here, the top 10 nonfiction books of 2021.
10. The Kissing Bug, Daisy Hernández
When Daisy Hernández was a child, her aunt traveled from Colombia to the U.S. in search of a cure for the mysterious disease that caused her stomach to become so distended that people thought she was pregnant. Growing up, Hernández believed her aunt had become sick from eating an apple; it wasn’t until decades later that she learned more about Chagas disease. As Hernández describes in her deftly reported book, Chagas—transmitted by “kissing bugs” that carry the parasite that causes it—is an infectious disease that sickens hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., many of whom are poor immigrants from Latin America. She traces the history of Chagas and the lives most impacted by it, offering a nuanced and empathetic look into the intersections of poverty, racism and the U.S. health care system.
9. Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard
In her first book, pioneering forest ecologist Suzanne Simard blends her personal history with that of the trees she has researched for decades. Finding the Mother Tree is as comprehensive as it is deeply personal, especially as Simard explores her curiosity about trees and what it has been like to work as a woman in a field dominated by men. Her passion for the subject at the book’s center is palpable on every page, coalescing into an urgent call to embrace our connection with the earth and do whatever we can to protect it.
8. The Copenhagen Trilogy, Tove Ditlevsen
Originally published as three separate books in Danish between 1967 and 1971, The Copenhagen Trilogy, now presented in a single translated volume, is a heartbreaking portrait of an artist. In precise and brutally self-aware terms, Tove Ditlevsen reflects on her life, from her turbulent youth during Hitler’s rise to power to her discovery of poetry and later to the dissolution of her multiple marriages. Though the story was written decades ago, the complexities of womanhood that Ditlevsen captures are timeless.
7. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders
George Saunders is deeply familiar with the 19th-century Russian short story—he’s been teaching a class on the subject to M.F.A. students for two decades. Here, he opens up his syllabus, analyzing seven iconic works by authors including Chekhov and Tolstoy to highlight the importance of fiction in our lives. In a world bursting with distractions, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain demands the reader’s attention. Saunders begins by breaking down a story line by line—in less thoughtful hands, this exercise would be draining, but Saunders infuses so much heart into the practice that instead it is simply fun.
6. Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe
From the author of the 2019 best seller Say Nothing, which dove into Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Empire of Pain is a stirring investigation into three generations of the Sackler family. Patrick Radden Keefe explores the Sacklers and the source of their infamous fortune, earned by producing and marketing a painkiller that became the driving force behind the opioid crisis. It’s a sweeping account of a family’s outsize impact on the world—and a dogged work of reporting that showcases the horrific implications of greed.
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5. Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu
Born in Tanzania and raised all over the world, from England to Italy to Ethiopia, Nadia Owusu never felt she belonged anywhere. In her aching memoir, she embarks on a tour de force examination of her childhood, marked first by her mother’s abandoning her when she was a toddler and later by the death of her beloved father. Through assessing the people and places that shaped her, Owusu picks up the pieces of her life to make sense of it all. In lyrical and lush prose, she crafts an intimate and piercing exploration of identity, family and home.
4. How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith
Amid a discussion of what students should be learning about history, Clint Smith, a poet and journalist, takes readers across the U.S.—from the Monticello plantation in Virginia to a maximum-security prison in Louisiana—to underline the legacy of slavery and how it has shaped the country. The result, longlisted for the National Book Award, is an insightful dissection of the relationship between memory, history and America’s ongoing reckoning with its past.
3. Invisible Child, Andrea Elliott
For almost a decade, reporter Andrea Elliott observed the coming-of-age of a girl named Dasani, who has lived in and out of the New York City shelter system for most of her life. Dasani’s existence is full of contradictions—her Brooklyn shelter is just blocks away from some of the borough’s most expensive real estate—and Elliott is relentless in her efforts to capture them all. In exact and searing detail, she places Dasani’s story alongside the larger issues of inequality, homelessness and racism in the city and more broadly the U.S.
2. Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner
When Michelle Zauner, founder of the indie-rock band Japanese Breakfast, was 25 years old, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That illness and her mother’s eventual death shattered Zauner’s sense of self—and forced her to re-evaluate her relationship with her Korean culture. In her memoir, Zauner searches for answers about the influences that shaped so much of her life, often ruminating on the food her mother made for her. The memories associated with these dishes—jatjuk, gimbap, galbi—push the narrative along, and it’s food that becomes such a heartbreaking marker of her mother’s decline, particularly when chemotherapy makes it too difficult for her to eat. Remarkably honest and written in animated terms, Crying in H Mart is a potent and devastating portrait of a mother and daughter and the life that they shared.
1. A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib
A finalist for the National Book Award, Hanif Abdurraqib’s work of cultural criticism is an astonishing accounting of Black performance. In essays full of snappy prose, Abdurraqib analyzes everything from the rise of Whitney Houston to a schoolyard fistfight. The author, also a poet, seamlessly blends pop culture references with U.S. history and stories from his own upbringing. The connections that he makes between these stories—both small and large, intimate and collective—point to the enduring influence of Black art. He covers broad ground with ease and wit, an impressive balance for a book that is as bold as it is essential.
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