The 20 Best Nonfiction Books of 2017

Books Lists Best Of 2017
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1bbtheycantkillus17.png 10. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

“The truth is, once you understand that there are people who do not want you to exist, that is a difficult card to remove from the table.”

Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays, which tackle everything from racism to music to suicide, are necessary reading now more than ever. Challenging and lyrical, his writing delivers compelling observations in bite-sized pieces, allowing you to digest the deeper ramifications of his insights. And They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is the perfect place to begin with Abdurraqib, as it collects both published and previously unreleased essays into one tome. —Frannie Jackson

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1bbmeetmeinthebathroom17.png 9. Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman

It’s hard to imagine New York as a rock ‘n’ roll graveyard, but that was very much the case in the 1990s, when the city’s music scene shriveled under the sanitized initiatives of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a growing corporate aristocracy. But as history has demonstrated time and again, these depressing cultural voids often become the soil for new artistic roots, and the seeds of messy rock music were getting ready to sprout. In Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman traces the story of that revival, from the dance parties that spawned a community of young rock fans, through the trauma of the September 11th terrorist attacks and the violent spasms of the recording industry, to the rise of era-defining bands like The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio, The National, Vampire Weekend and others. Goodman spent the past six years interviewing just about everyone who played a role, delivering an enthralling history of modern rock ‘n’ roll. —Matthew Oshinsky

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1bbbloodofemmetttill17.png 8. The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson

Over six decades have passed since Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago, was kidnapped and killed in a gruesome lynching in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Yet his death, his killers’ acquittal and the subsequent wave of protests—marking the beginning of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement—continue to impact American culture.

Timothy B. Tyson, a white southern-born historian, was invited to interview the woman who had accused Till of grabbing her waist and uttering “obscenities.” When speaking with Tyson in 2008, the woman said, “That part’s not true.” This remarkable admission, offered up decades after the trial and its aftermath shook the nation, drove Tyson to write The Blood of Emmett Till. The book provides a painstaking recreation of the murder and the trial while also foregrounding the social context. Its best moments come when Tyson dissects the ways in which white supremacy was reinforced at every level of the state and society, puncturing the pieties of those white people—Tyson’s own family included—who believe they, and their ancestors, were free of racial bias. —Lucas Iberico Lozada

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1bbgrownupanger17.jpg 7. Grown-Up Anger by Daniel Wolff

New Bob Dylan books appear so frequently these days, and it’s become a rare treat to find one that distinguishes itself by delving into deeper mysteries than the Nobel laureate himself. Daniel Wolff’s provocative new book, Grown-Up Anger, enumerates the ways Dylan fashioned his early public persona around Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl balladeer image, exploring connections in the anger that came across in the two men’s songs. Wolff particularly focuses on the time-transcending rage that made those songs stick, which established Dylan and Guthrie’s voices as connected but distinct, honest, mature, uncompromising and impossible to ignore. As Wolff says, “We could all use a little grown-up anger.” —Steve Nathans-Kelly

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1bbhowtomurderyourlife17.jpg 6. How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

Press surrounding Cat Marnell’s book deal was dripping with venom. Yellow headlines blared—even a publication as august as The Atlantic couldn’t resist running the headline, “Cat Marnell’s Book Deal Could Buy a Lot of Drugs.” The entire saga was laced with hatred, because although Marnell was achieving media success directly because of her sickness, she was not afflicted with something relatable like cancer. Her main condition, the least pitied of all pathologies, is addiction. Yet Marnell’s memoir is wonderful. Her voice is her single greatest asset—a pure stylist who can tackle both beauty tips and the savage electricity of a life on amphetamine. How to Murder Your Life turns the addict, trucked with so many gallows watchers’ outrages, into her own fully-formed person. —B. David Zarley

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1bbdisappearanceindamascus17.png 5. A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War by Deborah Campbell

Released in the U.S. this year after an award-winning Canadian launch in 2016, A Disappearance in Damascus chronicles the real-life disappearance of a woman in Syria. Deborah Campbell was working as an undercover journalist in Damascus when she hired Ahlam, a talented “fixer,” to help her navigate the city and identify sources for articles. The book begins by highlighting their friendship, slowly revealing Ahlam’s backstory as an Iraqi refugee. By the time Campbell describes Ahlam’s traumatic disappearance, you’ll find yourself devastated for this remarkable woman while anxious to discover what happened. A Disappearance in Damascus succeeds in delivering both a gripping tale and a sobering commentary on the devastating fallout of America’s war in Iraq. —Frannie Jackson

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1bbwewereeightyearsinpower17.png 4. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The title of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power, references Thomas Miller’s statement at South Carolina’s constitutional convention in 1895. A black congressman, Miller recognized that the progress made during Reconstruction was being replaced by white supremacist policies. Coates’ uses this as a jumping off point, introducing his collection of eight essays that were published in The Atlantic during President Obama’s time in office. Although fantastic on their own, the essays—each paired with another introductory essay discussing a specific year—serve as a multifaceted examination of American culture when read together. And Coates, who has mastered the ability to interpret the country’s future by understanding its past, concludes his book with a chilling epilogue that proves necessary reading: his essay on Donald Trump, titled “The First White President.” —Frannie Jackson

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1bbfutureishistory17.png 3. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

Winner of the National Book Award in Nonfiction, The Future Is History follows four Russians from their birth in the 1980s to today. Masha Gessen tackles a tumultuous period in Russian history, as the hope for democracy gradually devolved and an autocratic government stole its place. In spotlighting four individuals coming of age during this period, Gessen transforms a convoluted history into personal stories with personal stakes. The Future Is History proves to be a challenging yet rewarding read, illuminating the terrors of Russia’s modern government. —Frannie Jackson

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1bbthecookinggene17.png 2. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty weaves a compelling narrative in The Cooking Gene, exploring race through the lenses of Southern food and culture. In mapping his own black and white ancestry, Twitty transforms sweeping topics into a personal history, which proves both informative and wonderfully entertaining. His conversational tone and glorious recipes will draw you in, but it’s his insights—namely, that we must confront the nation’s history of slavery before we can find healing—that will stick with you long after the final page. —Frannie Jackson

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1bbpriestdaddy17.jpg 1. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood had an unorthodox childhood. As the child of a Catholic priest, she grew up as an anomaly in the faith, but that detail is only the tip of the bizarre Midwestern upbringing Lockwood recounts in her memoir. Her parents are hilarious and strange, her siblings unique and loud, and Lockwood herself is just as mischievous as her Twitter presence would suggest. But Priestdaddy is more than a series of anecdotes; the book is obscene, moving and complex, with Lockwood not shying away from reflecting on the darker areas of the faith in which she grew up. To read Priestdaddy is to witness quiet moments of gorgeous prose give way to stories about Lockwood’s mom hitting a man with a van known as “thegrindup.com” after leaving the house “under cover of darkness.” It places the beautiful and the filthy side by side, just as any God with a sense of humor would intend.
—Bridey Heing

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Looking for more reading recommendations? Check out our lists of the best novels, best short story collections, best audiobooks and best Young Adult books of 2017.

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