50 notable works of nonfiction

These books illuminated complicated subjects, deepened our understanding of history and pulled back the curtain on fascinating lives.

(For The Washington Post)

This year’s best nonfiction illuminated complicated subjects, deepened our understanding of history and pulled back the curtain on fascinating lives.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones; edited by Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein

An expanded version of the provocative Pulitzer-winning New York Times Magazine issue includes works by novelist Yaa Gyasi, poet Rita Dove and others.

All In,” by Billie Jean King with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers

King’s memoir explores not only her boundary-breaking tennis career but also her off-court battles for equality and, endearingly, little-known stories of incidents that forged her character.

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The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction,” by Julie Klam

Klam digs into her ancestry to find the truth behind family lore. Her journey takes readers into that fascinating gray area between what we’d like to believe about our pasts and what really happened.

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire,” by Brad Stone

The author of “The Everything Store” focuses on a lucrative but lesser known enterprise that generates the revenue to fuel Amazon’s supercharged expansion: cloud computing. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption,” by Gabrielle Glaser

Glaser explores the human side of the adoption industry through the story of one young mother who was forced to give up her son in the 1960s.

American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850,” by Alan Taylor

This sweeping narrative about the United States’ expansion across the continent following the revolution shows events from multiple vantages: British, French and Spanish; Canadian, Mexican and Haitian; Seminole, Cherokee and Metis; enslaved people and abolitionists; women’s rights campaigners and Spanish-speaking Tejanos.

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted,” by Suleika Jaouad

At 22, Jaouad found out she had leukemia. This record of her treatment is a transformative read even for those who haven’t faced a life-changing — and potentially life-ending — diagnosis.

Best graphic novels of the year

The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream,” by Dean Jobb

In short, highly dramatic chapters, a true-crime columnist delves into the life of a Victorian-era serial killer and the Scotland Yard quest to put him behind bars.

Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” by John Woodrow Cox

A Post reporter explores with tragic clarity the terrible collateral costs children suffer from gun violence.

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race,” by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson lays out a complicated subject — the first DNA editing tool — in lucid prose that’s brisk, compelling and surprisingly funny.

The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History,” by Margalit Fox

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction: Fox recounts the story of two British officers during World War I who escaped from a Turkish prison camp using a Ouija board.

Best feel-good books of 2021

Crying in H Mart,” by Michelle Zauner

Best known as the musician behind the band Japanese Breakfast, Zauner recalls the grief she experienced while caring for her dying mother, and the solace she found in a supermarket chain.

The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” by Annie Murphy Paul

Where does great thinking come from? A biology and social science writer argues that the brain is only part of the answer.

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest,” by Suzanne Simard

A forest ecologist who grew up in a family of tree-cutters describes how her revolutionary findings about the ways trees communicate transformed our understanding of nature itself.

Forever Young,” by Hayley Mills

This affectionate but clear-eyed memoir by the former Disney darling chronicles an unusual career that began at 12 and swelled to global proportions during her adolescence.

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

Dozens of essays by prominent Black writers consider the 400 years since the first African slave ship, the White Lion, arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619.

Best children's books of 2021

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War,” by Louis Menand

The Pulitzer-winning author of “The Metaphysical Club” charts the transformations of cultural and intellectual life during the early years of the Cold War.

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” by Mary Roach

From the author of “Stiff,” “Gulp” and “Grunt,” an exploration of the conflicts between humans and animals. As in her previous books, the popular science writer wows with her unflinching fascination with the weird, the gross and the downright improbable.

Girlhood,” by Melissa Febos

Whether examining the etymological roots of the word “slut” or exploring the evolution of consent, these essays illuminate how women are conditioned to be complicit in their own exploitation.

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” by Clint Smith

The Atlantic staff writer recounts his visits to historical sites in America and West Africa to understand the various ways slavery and its deleterious aftermath are taught.

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

In this follow-up to “A Very Stable Genius,” two Pulitzer-winning Post reporters break down the last year of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency.

Best book covers of 2021

The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present,” by Paul McCartney

This massive, richly illustrated two-volume collection of annotated lyrics essentially serves as McCartney’s memoir. There’s nothing like listening to him talk about the rise of a band that changed the world forever.

Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic that Changed History,” by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

A chronicle by two Post reporters of the United States’ early response to the covid-19 pandemic reveals that whenever public health and public relations came into conflict, public health lost out.

On Animals,” by Susan Orlean

With humor and generosity, the New Yorker writer expounds upon the ark’s worth of birds and mammals she has brought into her life, from apartment-dwelling dogs to disparate livestock.

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” by Maggie Nelson

Considering the “freedom drive” in four realms — art, sex, drugs and the climate crisis — Nelson devotes an expansive essay to each, exploring how notions of liberation and limitation collide.

On Juneteenth,” by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Pulitzer-winning historian interweaves her personal history with that of her home state of Texas to pierce false narratives about the country’s treatment of African Americans.

Oscar Wilde: A Life,” by Matthew Sturgis

Drawing on the most up-to-date manuscript discoveries and scholarship, Sturgis delivers the fullest one-volume account of the iconic fin-de-siècle writer, aesthete, wit and gay martyr.

Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

Through copious interviews, Post investigative journalists describe the waning days of the Trump administration as the 45th president refused to admit defeat to Joe Biden.

The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom,” by Reid Byers

Beautifully designed, Byers’s 500-page masterwork lays out how cultures from antiquity to the present created welcoming, comfortable spaces to house books.

Real Estate,” by Deborah Levy

The most recent memoir by the Booker-shortlisted author of “Swimming Home” finds Levy, at 60, dreaming of the perfect house and pondering what underlies our drive for ownership.

Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China,” by Desmond Shum

With shelves groaning under the weight of books on modern China, Shum’s is a rare insider account of the anti-socialist nexus of money and politics that defines China’s authoritarian political system.

Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” by Spencer Ackerman

Ackerman draws straight, stark lines between the earliest days of the war on terror and its mutations today, with conflicts abroad and divisions at home.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength,” by Alison Bechdel

The new graphic memoir from the “Fun Home” writer-artist explores Bechdel’s many motivations for living a life of aerobic pain and gain.

Shakespearean: On Life and Language in Times of Disruption,” by Robert McCrum

Using accessible prose and modern reference points, McCrum addresses how Shakespeare moves us — still — and how his fearless creativity grew out of a tumultuous era and personal history.

Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic,” by Glenn Frankel

A Pulitzer-winning former reporter for The Post analyzes “Midnight Cowboy’s” controversial subject matter, mournful eye and cynical humor.

Smile: The Story of a Face,” by Sarah Ruhl

Ruhl, a celebrated playwright, reveals her 10-year journey coming to terms with a diagnosis of Bell’s palsy, which left her with a face she no longer recognized.

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone,” by Heather McGhee

A political commentator and policy analyst explores why racism so often ends up being the answer to an increasingly pressing question that affects everyone: Why can’t we have nice things?

Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR,” by Lisa Napoli

During the early days of public radio, four women, who had little time for others’ low expectations, joined forces to change the face (and voice) of journalism.

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life,” by George Saunders

Saunders shares his method for literary analysis using seven stories by four Russian authors in this master class that explores, among other questions, this one: “What makes a reader keep reading?”

Tangled Up in Blue: Policing in the American City,” by Rosa Brooks

A Georgetown law professor recounts what happened when she became a reserve police officer serving the D.C. district with the highest concentration of reported crime.

Taste: My Life Through Food,” by Stanley Tucci

Nowhere in this memoir’s 300 witty pages will you learn what inspired Tucci to become an actor. Instead, the host of “Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy” touches on the food that shaped his life.

There is Nothing for you Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century,” by Fiona Hill

Hill, whose congressional testimony on Russia’s election interference made her famous, uses her personal story and her training in geopolitics to explore the political consequences of socioeconomic conditions.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” by Adam Grant

An organizational psychologist coaches readers on how to better understand their unexamined beliefs while opening up to curiosity and humility.

This Is Your Mind on Plants,” by Michael Pollan

The world-famous omnivore goes deep on three drugs — opium, caffeine and mescaline — tying scientific and historical explorations to gripping personal dramas.

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood,” by Dawn Turner

Through the stories of generations of Chicago women, Turner gives a tutorial of urban decay, poor city planning, and the influence of fads and digital advances on Black urban teenagers.

The Triumph of Nancy Reagan,” by Karen Tumulty

A Post columnist paints a striking portrait of how the unique partnership between Nancy and Ronald Reagan shaped the 40th president’s political career.

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” by Fiona Sampson

In the first biography of the “How Do I Love Thee” poet since 1988, Sampson places Barrett Browning squarely in the midst of the political turmoil that roiled Victorian Britain.

Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene,” by Richard Greene

Richard Greene, who edited Graham Greene’s collected correspondence (though there’s no relation between author and subject), chronicles a life as crazed as a hall of cracked mirrors.

The Vanderbilts: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,” by Anderson Cooper

The CNN anchor’s exploration of his wealthy ancestors is rich in social history, ingeniously organized and brimming with well-written anecdotes.

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service,” by Carol Leonnig

There’s plenty of courage in the Secret Service described by a Pulitzer-winning reporter for The Post, but not as much professionalism as you’d think, and not nearly enough sobriety.

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