Best of 2019: Nonfiction Books

I love nonfiction and seem to read a little more of it each year. I love the new ideas and new perspectives it gives me and the chance to learn about something I may have been less aware of. That said, I definitely have a strong preference for feminist nonfiction as you will see below. It ties into what I loved learning about most in school and getting a variety of opinions and understandings feels critical to me in order to be more comprehensive and inclusive with my own feminism. Not all of these books are recent but many have come out in the past couple years and while some of the topics discussed overlap, there is so much to gain by reading more than one.

As always, I want to hear your thoughts! Do you enjoy nonfiction? What did you read and love this year? What books should I add to my list to read next year?

1. Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly This was so extremely right up my alley and sure enough, I loved it. This book was often rage-inducing to read as it highlights all the ways our anger has traditionally been suppressed but also affirming in its understanding of anger as a tool for change, much like Rebecca Traister’s “Good and Mad” and Brittney Cooper’s “Eloquent Rage” and I strongly recommend that you read all three. This book in particular delves into the sociological forces that influence the expression of women’s anger. There is a lot of discussion of how emotion management (both our own emotions and those of the people around us) is tied to gender roles and the role violation that occurs when women are outwardly angry that is pivotal to understanding how this suppression occurs and how those role violations intersect with other aspects of our identity to create a multifaceted societal response. But it reminds us that our anger has power. Our anger is the reclamation of voices that many would prefer to stay silent and that demands a better world. We can use it as fuel when it is turned outward to push for change and there is strength to be found there, alongside others who have fought, are fighting, and will continue to fight. 

2. Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper In a similar vein to Traister’s “Good and Mad” and Chemaly’s “Rage Becomes Her”, Dr. Cooper reminds us of the virtues of anger and the importance of not settling for what’s been given to us. She writes exclusively about Black female anger and is a much needed voice in this area. The ways in which the anger of Black women is policed differs from the anger of white women and we cannot truly proceed and move forward until we acknowledge that along with the ways white women have been accomplices to this policing. It’s a phenomenal collection of essays that blend the personal and academic to create an incisive and powerful whole that ends in a beautiful benediction that’s stayed with me since reading this early in the year. “May you have joy. May you have gut-busting belly laughter every day. May you ask more and better questions. May your curiosity be unceasing. May your rage be a force for good.”

3. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde How many books, essays, and other internet articles have included Lorde’s quote about anger (“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being.”) in some form? This collection of essays is a classic and for good reason. Lorde’s writing is stunning and powerful as she discusses the way her particular intersections of gender, race, and sexuality have touched her life and how to build a world where we can recognize and celebrate both our similarities and our differences instead of trying to move closer to the idea of a universal experience that can never exist. It’s about sitting with ourselves and our feelings, the good and the bad and learning how to use those feelings and what we can learn from them to create something better. It’s a stunning book that I really can’t recommend enough. 

4. Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom I love books that make me feel challenged to expand my thinking and that’s exactly what this essay collection did for me. It pushed me to think deeper about socioeconomic status and how capitalism works with and exploits existing hierarchies of race and gender. It unapologetically centers black women in its analysis and asks its readers to consider all the ways we and society have failed to do the same. It is an incredibly strong collection that introduced me to a writer I had been missing out on and I’m excited to dive into her other work. 

5. The Witches are Coming by Lindy West I was always going to love this book. It thematically fits with the bulk of the other books on this list and I loved Shrill when I read it a couple years ago. And sure enough, I did. I love the blend of humor and smart insights about the world in which we live. In particular, her essays “A Giant Douche Is A Good Thing If You’re A Giant” and “What’s An Abortion, Anyway?” are wonderful looks at the problems with “both sides are equally bad” as a political stance and the dialogue around abortion and its portrayal in pop culture, respectively. Her passion for these topics and refusal to engage with people who are only interested in bad-faith arguments shine through and are a good reminder that much of the debates around them are manufactured to keep people in the position of needing to defend their humanity to people who would deny it. It’s compassionate and angry and fed up and asks us all to demand and to be better. 

6. You Can’t Touch My Hair/Everything is Trash but It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson Yes, I’m combining both of these books into one because narrowing this list down was hard enough without having to choose between books by the same author. I picked up “Everything is Trash” at the bookstore because I was drawn in by the title and got so much more than I was looking for. If you’re looking for essay collections that are both funny and talk about things like racism and sexism, these are the books for you. Robinson’s writing style won’t appeal to everyone with its multitude of references and asides and use of hashtags but I loved it. It’s direct and draws from her personal experiences and her skills as a comedian and storyteller shine through. You’ll be entertained while also taking pieces with you to think about moving forward and that mix landed perfectly for me.  

7. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander This is both an eye-opening and sobering read. I knew about the differential racial outcomes caused by mandatory minimum sentencing requirements but that was about the extent of the thought and awareness I had given the criminal justice and prison systems in this country. Alexander has laid out a strong case for our current system being intentional in a way that takes advantage of cultural biases but even if you disagree with her conclusion, the statistics and legal background she provides will make you think. She asks you to see prisoners, especially the multitude of black men in prison, as people and that is something we could use more of. 

8. I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum This blog started as a way to deeply look at television, both the industry trends and what it represented about society. So a book that celebrates television and specifically resists the marker of “great” for TV as a substitute for “not about women” and is written by a critic I’ve followed and enjoyed for many years was naturally going to be high on my list of exciting books for 2019. I had already read a couple of these essays (and they were just as good on reread) and as a whole, this collection does not disappoint. I love Nussbaum’s way of interacting with television and criticism and culture as a whole. If you like my occasional essays or the essays over on Nerdy Girl Notes, this is a book you’ll want to read.  

9. Call Them By Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit I’ve read several of Solnit’s books but this one has been my favorite so far. At its heart, it is a collection of essays about the stories we’ve told ourselves as a nation and why their inaccuracies and imprecisions are preventing us from moving forward. Names have power. We’ve known that truth for a long time, it’s a key point in folktales and legends about the fae (literally the stories we’ve passed down) and it’s true when we’re trying to dismantle systemic oppressions. In Solnit’s words, “Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.” By being honest about the world we live in, we can identify where we can improve. By listening to other voices, we can start rewriting the stories. We can learn to hope and it’s on hope and the action that results that change happens.

10. LikeWar by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking There can be no denying that social media has ushered in a new age. It’s changed the way we get the bulk of our information, it’s connected people across the globe, and it’s changed international politics and war. This is an excellent look at those changes and what they mean for us going forward. It examines the tech companies complicity in this by discussing why “neutral” algorithms don’t exist and the real effects of dangerous speech online. It talks about the role of narrative and how savvy users shape it to their advantage. It uses specific examples of social media’s new role in warfare, both physical and digital, and makes it clear how woefully underprepared we are to deal with that in the United States. Despite the seemingly bleak outlook, Singer and Brooking choose to end the book by offering a path forward for both the companies providing the services and us as consumers. Just as it’s important for Twitter and Facebook to recognize the consequences of their policy and do more to promote information literacy, it’s important for users to be diligent about the content they share and recognize their own role in its spread. This is the world we’ve made, now we need to figure out how to live in it and do better going forward.

Honorable Mentions: The Lady From the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meera, Audience of One by James Poniewozik, We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehesi Coates, The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh, Tomorrow Will By Different by Sarah McBride

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