The Best Books of 2016: Nonfiction

Books Lists best of 2016
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The Best Books of 2016: Nonfiction

From poverty in Milwaukee to the history of microbes, the topics explored in the following best nonfiction books of 2016 are as diverse as they are fascinating. This list includes our 30 favorite titles of the year, and we believe you’ll love them as much as we do. So whether you want to dive into captivating memoirs or educate yourself about turbulent periods in history, these books promise to deliver compelling reads.

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30. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me by Steven Hyden

Like Chuck Klosterman, his former cohort at the late Grantland, Steven Hyden knows how to fold autobiography into cultural criticism. So much so that the best parts of his debut book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, are those that reveal the sometimes embarrassing but always honest assessments of his life and work. Heyden melds them into his discussions of the intraband conflicts, media-driven feuds, and occasionally physical confrontations that have pockmarked the last five decades of popular culture, resulting in a frothy yet substantive gem of a book. —Robert Ham

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29. Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr

The long-awaited memoir from The Smiths’ Johnny Marr is an honest—if not revelatory—account of a lifelong love affair with the guitar. From his childhood to his transformative years in The Smiths as the creative partner and foil to Morrissey, Marr’s recollections are vivid and detailed. There’s no dirt or juicy new controversy present, but it’s clear that Marr has no intentions for settling scores. The strongest and most resonant passages deal with his songwriting and ever-present urge to simply create music. It’s easy to forget that Marr was just 23 when The Smiths dissolved, and though his account of the years since can sometimes read like a long string of anecdotes, he makes the case that his later work is equally substantial. —Eric Swedlund

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28. The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

There’s a lot to cover in Batman’s 78-year history and, as Glen Weldon iterates with charming anecdotes from Comic Con floors, it’s evident that everyone has their own idea of what defines the character. But The Caped Crusade is more than a history of an icon; it chronicles how the nerd culture of four full generations has evolved. There are plenty of trivial tidbits to chew on (like the time fans got to vote on whether to kill off a Robin), but Weldon demonstrates that there’s a reason Batman appears to be the coolest of all superheroes—and it may be more primal than we ever appreciated. —Jeff Milo

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27. But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman, a charismatically self-deprecating author and music journalist, investigates “collective wrongness” in his essay collection. While we often state (with the utmost certainty) that so-and-so was on the right side of history, how can we possibly know what people in the future will believe of our arguments? “If 90% of life is inscrutable,” Klosterman writes, “we need to embrace the 10% that seems forthright, lest we feel like life is a cruel, unmanageable joke.” Klosterman interviews luminaries from the culture scene as well as the history, philosophy, and science communities, covering topics from physics to sports, music to politics, and just about everything in between. What is certain? Is anything certain? Klosterman talks you down from the existential-crisis ledge, and it’s awesome. —Jeff Milo

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26. Cyberspies by Gordon Corera

From World War II’s ancient computers to Stuxnet’s sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program, Cyberspies traces the invisible timeline of surveillance, hacking, and espionage in the digital age. Written by BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera, the book chronicles a history that’s more important now than ever to understand—a history that is yours. The paradox of privacy versus security may never truly be answered…and definitely not to everyone’s satisfaction. What Corera seeks to do instead is to arm us all with that which spies so feverishly desire and hoard: information. —B. David Zarley

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25. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Combining art history and memoir, Olivia Laing’s exploration of loneliness is an engaging dive into a poorly understood emotion. Laing loosely builds the The Lonely City’s narrative around her time in New York City, when she experienced acute isolation. She also pinpoints the ways loneliness inspired well-known artists, delving into the life, work, and legacy of one artist in every chapter. Whether it’s Warhol’s self-conscious separation from the group he so carefully built or David Wojnarowicz’s activism during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Laing reveals how loneliness can define a life and questions the shame that surrounds this universal experience. —Bridey Heing

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24. In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

To say that Jenny Diski had a turbulent childhood doesn’t begin to cover it; her adoption by Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at age 15 only begins to scratch the surface of this intense book, which is both a memoir of her youth as well as a map of her relationship with Lessing. It’s also the chronicle of a brilliant writer grappling, in real time, with a devastating cancer diagnosis in July 2014. First published serially in The London Review of Books, In Gratitude slices through whatever pieties you may have cultivated about literary heroes and cancer stories alike. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

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23. Tranny by Laura Jane Grace

Though Against Me! lead vocalist and transgender icon Laura Jane Grace treats the pages in her memoir as a confessional to lay her self-described narcissism bare, Tranny is a much wider ambassador for the gender revolution currently sweeping through public restroom policy and National Geographic covers. She illustrates a life narrative of frustration, drugs, and power chords that culminates in the realization that the person born Tom Gabel should be Laura Jane Grace. No matter your stance on the issue, Grace articulates that process with humanity, making this book a potent tool for empathy that hasn’t quite existed in pop culture. Even without that immediacy, Grace and co-writer Dan Ozzi spin green room drama and rock star recklessness into a gem of rock bio that belongs on a shelf alongside Hammer of the Gods and Get in the Van. —Sean Edgar

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22. Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

In the years that preceded his death in June, Muhammad Ali became, in the words of biographers Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, a “silent sphinx,” the complexities of his life as a once-outspoken black separatist and convicted draft resister long since forgotten. But Roberts’ and Smith’s book turns back the clock to Ali’s tumultuous 1960s, focusing on his broken brotherhood with black nationalist icon Malcolm X. Blood Brothers captures the rise and fall of their friendship as it evolved in parallel to Ali’s pursuit of the heavyweight championship and Malcolm X’s expulsion from the Nation of Islam, which forced Ali to choose between Malcolm X and Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. No previous biography of either man has so clearly revealed the depth of their brotherhood—or the ways that Ali’s loyalty became a sort of bargaining chip between the two Muslim leaders as their relationship dissolved. —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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21. Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff

Considering the LP’s decline, you could point a finger at the iPod, Napster, Spotify, or any other defendant in an ever-growing pile of guilty parties. But while many critics reveal how artists can exist in an age of digital excess, few writers have attempted to unfurl today’s infinite listening landscape. This is New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s aim within Every Song Ever, which deconstructs 20 musical themes through the lens of the modern listener. Ratliff rarely addresses genre, historical context or even the character of the musicians in his essays, instead exploring themes like speed, repetition, and improvisation. He jumps between decades of recorded history with quick-fire examples, flying by legendary musicians like James Brown alongside mega-pop artists like Kesha. For whatever type of listener you are, Every Song Ever includes a chapter that addresses the specific way you consume music. —Tyler R. Kane

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