The 19 Best Nonfiction Books of 2019

Books Lists best books
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 19 Best Nonfiction Books of 2019

Our picks for the best nonfiction books of the year tackle everything from living with schizophrenia to the history of high heels, exploring diverse topics with intelligence and honesty. We’ve especially gravitated to memoirs in 2019, seeking to understand and learn from unique voices during a tumultuous time. These are by no means the only incredible books of 2019, but the 19 ranked titles below are our favorites.

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

nowallsbb19.jpg 19. No Walls and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco’s memoir plays by similar rules to which she’s lived her life and worked her career: there are no conventions; nothing is sacred; she will tell the tale however she pleases. No Walls and the Recurring Dream could’ve been twice as long and remained fascinating, but after detailing her early family life, love of folk music and formation of Righteous Babe, the book ends in 2001 with so much left to tell. If/when DiFranco decides to pick this tale back up, whether it’s in memoir form, song, interpretive dance or whatever format floats her boat, we’ll be thrilled. This is a worthy read for those interested in folk music, social activism, DIY recording and general badassery. —Brad Wagner

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

high school 1.jpg 18. High School by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin

You don’t need to be a fan of Tegan and Sara’s music for the twin sisters’ memoir to be a dream reading experience. Written like a game of hormonal hot potato and structured like a dynamic YA novel, High School is peppered with a treasure trove of archival photos and lyrics from the duo’s earliest forays into making music as queer teens in 1990s Calgary. Both Quins are such smart, self-reflective writers that reading about their high school experiences is like being punched back in time, over and over again. When it comes to punk-adjacent rock memoirs, that’s a feeling that’s hard to capture and even harder to beat. —Alexis Gunderson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

longlivethetribebb19.jpg 17. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

T Kira Madden’s debut memoir is viscerally honest, exploring her coming-of-age experience as a queer, biracial teen. Offering snapshots of formative years marked by privilege and neglect, Madden’s captivating voice reveals a girl desperate to belong. What makes this book a must-read is not its luminous prose (which is stunning) or its twists (which you’ll remember months later); it’s the fact that you’ll believe she’s weaving a story personally for you by the end. Madden has already proven herself as an essayist, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls confirms she’s just as skilled a memoirist. —Frannie Jackson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

dreyersenglishbb19.jpeg 16. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

As far as reference books on copy editing go, Dreyer’s English is remarkably readable and fun. Written by Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, the book insists that we give ourselves grace as we strive for clear communication. And in a historical moment when written English feels more battered by the minute, being reminded that there is structure—and meaningful creativity—to fall back on is a relief. Whether or not you believe “literally” is acceptable to use as a rhetorical (and not literal) flourish, you’ll love Dreyer’s English. —Alexis Gunderson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

whatdoweneedbb19.jpg 15. What Do We Need Men For? by E. Jean Carroll

E. Jean Carroll, of the long-running Elle advice column, sets off on a Didion-esque quest to answer the titular question, crossing through towns named for women along the way. Interspersed with vignettes of her remarkable life and the collected demonology of “The Most Hideous Men of My Life List,” What Do We Need Men For? is more than an account of rape in a Bergdorf’s dressing room. It’s a big idea with a big question to ask, and America’s foremost advice columnist succeeds in providing a compelling answer. —B. David Zarley

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

dreamaboutlighningburgsbb19.jpeg 14. A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons by Ben Folds

Rock star memoirs are typically self-mythologizing affairs. And while Ben Folds does do some of that in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, what makes his memoir special is his insistence on revealing the not-so glamorous parts: the piano lessons, the music classes, the teachers that shaped him along the way. And unlike many rock memoirs, Folds tells the full story, spending more time on how he failed in his career than when he succeeded—not even getting to the formation of Ben Folds Five until just over the halfway point. Folds is frequently heartfelt and hilarious at the same time, highlighting what it actually took to become the piano legend that he is today rather than simply focusing on the entertaining rock star antics that happened after he was already famous. —Steven Edelstone

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

highheelbb19.jpg 13. High Heel by Summer Brennan

Summer Brennan’s brief book about the titular object combines beautiful prose and insightful analysis to create a text that interrogates gender, power, fashion and history. Brennan seamlessly weaves together meditations on mythic women, pop culture and the quotidian nature of high heels to call into question what they represent. While never dismissive of the confidence a stiletto can bring, Brennan’s book challenges the reader to hold two ideas of what a high heel can be—empowering and painful, a mark of beauty and of limited mobility—at one time, complicating the narrative in a deeply engaging way. —Bridey Heing

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

oncemorebb19.jpeg 12. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene

Once More We Saw Stars begins with disbelief. Jayson Greene and his wife Stacy are blazing through New York City, trying to get the hospital where their two-year-old daughter Greta is lying after a freak accident involving a brick that tumbled from an eighth-floor window. What follows is the story of the events after Greta’s death, as Jayson and Stacy are forced to endure the aftermath. Greene, a music journalist and writer, takes his reader along for this journey through grief to renewed life. He’s the one who faced unfathomable trauma and tragedy, yet he’s gentle with his audience, writing plainly about spirituality and death the way he might describe a piece of music. Once More We Saw Stars is clearly an act of bravery and big love, and anyone who reads these pages will be all the better for it. —Ellen Johnson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

witchescomingbb19.png 11. The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

Lindy West rose to fame as part of the early wave of women writers who defined a sharp corner of online cultural commentary. In her latest collection of essays, West turns her wit to our troubling times, taking aim at pop culture and politics. She’s adept at finding fresh ways to cover well-tread ground, in part because of her ability to balance skillfully punching up (at the creators of South Park and the president) and showing tenderness (to her home city of Seattle or Adam Sandler movies). Essays about her experiences in Hollywood making her Hulu show Shrill sit easily alongside considerations of climate change thanks to West’s ability to crack a joke while taking her subject matter seriously. Funny and cathartic, The Witches Are Coming is a book that cuts through the noise like few others. —Alexis Gunderson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

howwefightbb19.jpg 10. How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones

An award-winning poet, Saeed Jones weaves a radiant coming-of-age saga in his new memoir. How We Fight for Our Lives chronicles his experiences growing up Black and gay in the South, juxtaposing beautiful memories of his mother with heart-rending accounts of surviving violent and racist encounters. You’ll fly through Jones’ brief tome, as his gorgeous prose guides you through his youth, adolescence and young adulthood. And by the end, you’ll want to revisit his words all over again. To read Jones is to be swept into a powerful journey that illuminates race and class relations in America today, and this memoir ensures he’ll be an author to watch for decades to come. —Frannie Jackson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

threewomenbb19.jpg 9. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

At times sensual but often heartbreaking and raw, this gripping exploration of female desire and sexuality follows three women as they grapple with their fantasies, messy realities and the nature of what they want. Maggie is taking her former high school teacher, who seduced her while she was a student, to court; restaurateur Sloane sleeps with other people while her husband watches; Lina, a housewife, is having an affair with her first boyfriend. Lisa Taddeo, who spent 10 years with the titular women, focuses on the intricacies of each situation and homes in on the complicated ways in which sexual fantasy coincides with broader fantasies about who we are, how we live and what our relationships mean. —Bridey Heing

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

hideanempirebb19.jpg 8. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr

In his history of the United States, Daniel Immerwahr shifts the focus from the U.S. mainland to the territories and overseas holdings it has controlled throughout the nation’s history. From expansion into what would become the Western United States to the myriad abuses carried out against the Philippines to the continued poor treatment of Puerto Rico, Immerwahr makes the case that these spaces have played a much larger, albeit obscured role in the history of our country. By shifting the narrative to include those stories, he poses crucial questions about how the United States came to be. —Bridey Heing

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

trickmirrorbb19.jpeg 7. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino is the perfect age (31) and possesses the perfect byline history (The Hairpin, Jezebel) to chart the departing decade in culture writing—from the personal-essay boom to the medium’s corporate #sponcon co-opting and ongoing death by vulture capitalism. In the pages of Trick Mirror, Tolentino is neither contrarian nor band-wagoner, and she’s less interested in tossing a thought-bomb into a crowded room than in picking complicated topics apart piece by piece to get at why we’re all in a huff. Across nine essays, some personal (her evangelical upbringing and its potential relationship to the drug ecstasy) and others more universal (the always-on internet era), Tolentino offers no easy solutions to our societal ills but blessedly little fatalism, either. Trick Mirror is as potent as the personal essay gets in the highly curated world of today. —Steve Foxe

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

motherdonttalkbb19.png 6. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence edited by Michele Filgate

In this essay collection based on her essay of the same name, Michele Filgate compiles a heartbreaking, funny, moving examination of what it means to be mothered. Writers like Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Lynn Steger Strong, Brandon Taylor and Leslie Jamison share stories that range from the humorous to the devastating, all circling the question of how we talk to and understand the women who raised us. The result is a fascinating look at the work required of both mother and child to see one another as human beings—and to connect in the face of the flaws that come with it. —Bridey Heing

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

knowmynamebb19.jpg 5. Know My Name by Chanel Miller

For years the world knew Chanel Miller as Emily Doe, the survivor in the Brock Turner rape case. After Turner was sentenced to only six months in county jail for assaulting Miller while she was unconscious, she released her powerful victim impact statement describing the assault’s severe effect on her life. Now, over three years since her statement went viral, Know My Name further chronicles the assault, trial and aftermath in Miller’s own words. She strikes the challenging balance of writing raw truths for over 300 pages with grace and fervor, delivering a gripping narrative that you won’t want to put down. The content alone makes this a must-read in the Me Too era, but Miller’s luminous prose is what makes it one of the year’s best books. —Frannie Jackson

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

collectedschizophreniasbb19.jpg 4. The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (2019)

Esmé Weijun Wang’s memoir of her life with schizoaffective disorder bears the heavy burden of proving its author’s very humanity. Wang’s mental health disorder is the kind which haunts the public consciousness and creates a caricature of her from the moment it is invoked—one she dissipates through fierce fashion choices and her vast rhetorical power. The result is a memoirist who is a person in full, not their book title or a DSM definition, and a memoir of remarkable verve to match the mind that wrote it. What Wang delivers in The Collected Schizophrenias is a panoptic view of the titular affliction. —B. David Zarley

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

yellowhousebb19.jpg 3. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Sarah M. Broom’s powerful memoir is as much about a house as it is about her family and the city of New Orleans. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought the titular yellow house in 1961; it was where she raised 12 children alongside her husband. It was instead destroyed twice—first by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and then by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After Katrina, with the family displaced, the city tore down the yellow house and with it the place Broom’s family had always known as home. This history of New Orleans as seen through one ordinary (amazing, funny and loving) family puts a finer point on Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. In doing so, Broom cuts through what has become a well-known narrative and replaces rote fact with a human saga. —Bridey Heing

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

dreamhousebb19.jpg 2. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Melding personal trauma, academic analysis, speculative trappings and formalist playfulness, In the Dream House follows the arc of Carmen Maria Machado’s first serious relationship, which starts optimistically (as most do) and quickly descends into emotional manipulation and abuse. Machado writes much of the memoir in the second-person, which strengthens the emotional gut-punch of her lived experiences and provides a sort of warning-cum-roadmap for queer women who may find themselves in similar scenarios. Through footnotes, pop-culture metaphor and even choose-your-own-adventure chapters, Machado thoroughly upends the memoir—and perhaps even helps to prevent others from having to look back on their own trauma years from now. —Steve Foxe

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

survivalmathbb19.jpg 1. Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson is one of the finest writers currently working in the English language, and the language he uses is uniquely his own. Examining race and economic disparity through the lens of his own life, Jackson delivers a book that is heavy but not crushing, terrifying but not frightening. In combining Jackson’s experiences in Portland, his voracious mind, his acid blood and his shotgun-lethal tongue, Survival Math evolves into the Konami Code of memoirs. This is a book capable of unlocking depths of pathos, bathos and artistic envy in any reader. —B. David Zarley

Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 4.43.23 PM.png

Looking for even more reading recommendations? Check out our lists of the best novels, the best audiobooks, the best Young Adult novels and the best book covers of 2019.

Also in Books