The 30 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

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It’s been said that reading literary fiction produces more empathetic people, but the depth of this year’s notable nonfiction titles prove that the same is true for all readers. Nonfiction pieces create a gateway into the public consciousness, and their success, failure and long-term resonance highlight the lines that connect us.

Our nonfiction list of required reading includes Aziz Ansari’s hilarious explanation of Internet-age love (or just a little “Netflix and chill”) in Modern Romance; Kim Gordon’s gritty, inside-the-green-room account of Sonic Youth in Girl in a Band; and Åsne Seierstad’s harrowing exploration of Norway’s deadliest massacre. The nonfiction books we hold closest are those that impact our vision of the world around us, and these are the titles that did so in the heaviest—and most beautiful—sense in 2015.

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Gumption.jpg 30. Gumption by Nick Offerman

In Gumption, humorist and actor Nick Offerman combs through American history in search of the country’s “gutsiest troublemakers.” He profiles 21 individuals, arguing for the traits that make for the greatest virtue, both of our nation and its luminaries. In a book that pairs self-deprecating humor with well-researched passages, Offerman first revisits the founding fathers (“magnificent sons of bitches”) to establish his thesis: Gumption is a fundamental ingredient of America herself and remains a guiding force in the lives of her most notable achievers. What emerges is a deep respect for both the men and women he profiles and the abiding egalitarian spirit that guides him and “gumptionators” everywhere. —Eric Swedlund

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HisForHawk.jpg 29. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald’s book has captivated readers since its release in March, and it’s easy to see why. H is for Hawk chronicles Macdonalds’ fascinating journey to train one of the most ferocious predators, the goshawk, while grappling with the grief of losing her father. An intertwined exploration of falconry and bereavement, the book deserves its equally accurate labels of nature writing and memoir. This extraordinary text will delight history enthusiasts, literary buffs and nature lovers alike, proving that H is for Hawk delivers a unique yet accessible story. —Frannie Jackson

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TheFoldedClock.jpg 28. The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

Heidi Julavits’ diary-meets-memoir delivers a delightful read, beginning every entry with the simple yet powerful words, “Today I . . . ” She proves a prolific chronicler, eager to grab onto the poor writing of her youth and forge something new by sharing comical episodes, philosophical meanderings and relationships in all of their folds. There exists location, movement (water often rests in the background of these entries) and constant self-appraisal. Julavits’ nonlinear, wandering pen is always entertaining and enlightening, crafting text that is pleasantly as much about style as it is about life. —Mark Eleveld

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GirlinaBand.jpg 27. Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Sometimes referred to as “the godmother of grunge” or “the poster girl of indie-rock,” Kim Gordon frames nearly 30 years of recording, touring and performing with Sonic Youth within the perspective of an artist, a mother and a wife. Gordon has been a role model to a generation of vocalists and instrumentalists, and this poetic book offers fans an intimate portrait of the band. There’s hype surrounding Gordon’s vitriolic barbs for her ex-husband (and co-founding member of Sonic Youth) Thurston Moore, as well as Courtney Love. But you must read on to learn of Gordon’s youth in California before she escaped to New York and forged the spectacular creative mindset of Sonic Youth with her bandmates. —Jeff Milo

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Ongoingness.jpg 26. Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso matures into a master of the essay in this book, which is a confrontation with a razor sharp diary she kept for over 25 years. A thinly veiled Proustian of the highest order, Manguso fights her fear of missing “something” in this record of everything that has happened on every day. She balances wit and human fragility on the edge of a sword and dives, repeatedly, into the battlefields of emotional complexity that could easily lay waste to a lesser pen. And although the task is weighty, the book is sparse and often the prose is delivered in terse reflection of the highest order. A highly sensitive and imaginative read, Ongoingness showcases a struggle that is equal parts self-awareness and chaotic persecution. —Mark Eleveld

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MadnessInCivilization.gif 25. Madness in Civilization by Andrew Scull

In this centuries-spanning history, Andrew Scull reveals how mental illness was treated by numerous societies. Shining the spotlight on those who shaped the public perception of mental illness—without moralizing or excusing the often abusive treatment prescribed—Scull explains that the phases of our understanding of mental illness exist on a continuum. Madness in Civilization ultimately tears down the supposed barriers between society and the mentally ill, highlighting the many ways so-called “madness” has been appropriated, marginalized and understood in the course of human history. —Bridey Heing

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SilverScreenFiend.jpg 24. Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

For a good chunk of the ‘90s, Patton Oswalt was addicted to movies—and he has a meticulous log to prove it. At the legendary New Beverly Cinema, Oswalt discovered an enlightening escapism that transported him away from the stress of his career to a quieter, classier realm of beautiful celluloid images. Here rested a soothing world, free of judgment and self-doubt—a world a galaxy away from the noise of Los Angeles. And when Oswalt finally emerged from the theater for the final time, he had broken free of his shell. With a geeky yet sophisticated narrative voice, Silver Screen Fiend presents an eager look at the transformative power of motion pictures. —Jeff Milo

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Argonauts.jpg 23. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets (a stunning book of philosophical aphorisms that report on depression), is prolific and intelligent in content and experience. As Marx flipped Hegel on his head, so too does Nelson flip conventional thinking, living and writing upside down in her latest critical memoir. Weaving a tale of love and marriage with her husband, the transgender artist Harry Dodge, Nelson creates a brilliance that would fade in the hands of a lesser writer. The Argonauts is as much a life-lived as it is theory. It’s outside of the form—and brilliant for it. Equal parts poetry, philosophy, criticism and diary, this text delivers a charged examination of norms that pervert the open-minded necessity of love and the inner struggle to find happiness. —Mark Eleveld

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OnceInAGreatCity.jpg 22. Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Now synonymous with post-industrial urban blight and the devastating economic impact of decades of white flight, Detroit once defined the ambition, innovation and opportunity of a country. If anything, Once in a Great City proves even more ambitious than David Maraniss’ They Marched into Sunlight, combining revealing portraits of Detroit’s luminaries in 1963 at at the height of the city’s glory and the eve of its collapse. Harbingers of the city’s imminent decline seem unmistakable now, but Once in a Great City captures the bigness of a city and its moment, sacrificing little nuance or complexity for the ambition of its narrative scope. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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TheSoulOfAnOctopus.jpg 21. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Whenever I grab food with friends, I’m always met with side eyes when I balk at appetizers featuring octopus. I can’t bring myself to eat a creature so brilliant, and Sy Montgomery only strengthens my resolve in The Soul of an Octopus. Throughout her illuminating book, Montgomery describes her international travels to investigate the noble creatures, specifically the way they act, emote and think. And as the intelligence of the octopus increasingly becomes more accepted by scientists, her tome presents a powerful, beautiful look into the world of the eight-limbed, oft-misunderstood octopus. —Eric Smith

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