50 notable works of nonfiction

The year’s best memoirs, biographies, history and more

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‘Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me,’ by Ada Calhoun

Calhoun’s memoir offers an unsparing portrait of her father, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and the difficulties of their relationship. She also dives into the lives of a host of influential artists and writers, many of whom Schjeldahl interviewed for a biography of the poet O’Hara that never came to pass.

‘American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,’ by Adam Hochschild

America has fallen prey to mythical enemies and demagogues several times in its history, as Hochschild reminds us in his portrait of one era, 1917 to 1921, when racism, white nationalism, and anti-foreign and anti-immigrant sentiment challenged the country’s ideals.

‘Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation,’ by Maud Newton

Troubled by her family’s legacy of violence, mental illness and racism, Newton delves into genetics and cognitive science to wrestle with questions of inheritance. She also draws on anthropology, history, religion and philosophy to understand our national obsession with genealogy.

‘As It Turns Out: Thinking About Edie and Andy,’ by Alice Sedgwick Wohl

In this family memoir, Wohl discusses her sister Edie Sedgwick’s important but brief collaboration with Andy Warhol. The book also offers a troubling look into the siblings’ complicated family life.

‘Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, From Vietnam to Today,’ by Craig McNamara

In this staggering book, McNamara struggles to come to terms with his father, former defense secretary Robert McNamara, who supervised the tragedy of the Vietnam War and was a distant, uncommunicative parent.

‘Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge,’ by Ted Conover

Conover lends a compassionate ear to “the restless and the fugitive, the idle and the addicted, and the generally disaffected” living outside the American mainstream on an isolated Colorado prairie. With his thorough reportage, he conjures a vivid, mysterious subculture populated by men and women with riveting stories to tell.

‘Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan,’ by Darryl Pinckney

In the 1970s, the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick guided the 20-something Darryl Pinckney through the upper echelons of Manhattan literary and intellectual life. This memoir of that apprenticeship — by one of our most distinguished writers on African American culture, literature and history — provides a “you are there” account of those thrilling years.

‘Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America,’ by Maggie Haberman

In this illuminating portrait, Haberman lays special emphasis on Trump’s ascent in the late-1970s and 1980s New York world of hustlers, mobsters, political bosses, compliant prosecutors and tabloid scandalmongers.

‘Desperate Remedies: Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness,’ by Andrew Scull

Scull tells the story of psychiatry in the United States from the 19th-century asylum to 21st-century psychopharmacology through its dubious characters, its shifting conceptions of mental illness and its often-gruesome treatments.

‘Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery,’ by Casey Parks

Despite its title, this memoir is about two misfits: Parks and an enigmatic character named Roy Hudgins. Parks, a reporter for The Washington Post, captures life in small-town Louisiana and probes Hudgins’s story to explore questions she asks herself about her own sexuality.

‘Easy Beauty: A Memoir,’ by Chloe Cooper Jones

Jones, a philosopher and journalist, uses her experience of disability to examine the ways others perceive bodies they find difficult. In the process, she writes about subjects from tennis to motherhood to Beyoncé in elegantly tuned prose.

‘Eliot After “The Waste Land,” ’ by Robert Crawford

Drawing heavily on T.S. Eliot’s often romantic correspondence with Emily Hale, which was under seal until 2020, this mesmerizing biography helps unpack the personal life of the famously ascetic poet.

‘Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir,’ by Marina Warner

In this double portrait of her parents during the first years of their marriage, Warner follows them from the English countryside to Cairo. The book, largely constructed from documents, family stories and imaginative projection, recaptures a worldly, decadent atmosphere.

‘Finding Me,’ by Viola Davis

Davis is known today as the acclaimed actress whose credits include “Doubt,” “Fences” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” This memoir covers her career, but it’s more focused, with brutal candidness, on her traumatic childhood and how it shaped her later success.

‘Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History,’ by Lea Ypi

Ypi’s beguiling memoir of innocence and experience in Albania’s communist era and its aftermath is told through intimate stories of a taken-for-granted life devolving into uncertainty. It serves as a profound primer on how to live when old verities turn to dust.

‘Getting Lost,’ by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L Strayer

This book by the French writer, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature, is made up of diary entries she wrote from 1988 to 1990. They document a Parisian affair with a married Soviet diplomat, a relationship she fictionalized in her short novel “Simple Passion.”

‘The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet,’ by Nell McShane Wulfhart

Travel writer Wulfhart chronicles how stewardesses organized to combat all manner of indignities, such as forced retirement at age 32, demeaning “girdle checks” and draconian weight limits, and in the process transformed the airline industry.

‘His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,’ by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa

This vivid and moving account by Post reporters Samuels and Olorunnipa draws on more than 400 interviews to help depict the world that George Floyd lived in — and the circumstances that led to his death.

‘Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life,’ by Jonathan Lear

In a world buffeted by multiple catastrophes, from gun violence to the destructive effects of climate change, psychoanalyst and philosopher Lear offers a hopeful path through grief and confusion.

‘The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir,’ by Karen Cheung

In this blend of memoir and reportage, Karen Cheung shows how Hong Kong is changing under the pressures of gentrification and China’s authoritarian crackdown. This is a love letter to the city, but it’s one that is free of romanticized illusion and frank about its failings.

‘Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age,’ by Dennis Duncan

A lively tour, from ancient Egypt to Silicon Valley, of a section of books that readers often treat as an afterthought. Duncan is an ideal tour guide: witty, engaging, knowledgeable and a fount of diverting anecdotes. Don’t skip this book’s own index, which is, of course, a work of art.

‘The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning,’ by Eve Fairbanks

Exploring the realities of life after apartheid in South Africa, Fairbanks depicts the complexities and disappointments of an ongoing period of change. Her journalistic approach welcomes readers who know little about the country, but she also offers a great deal for those more familiar with its struggles.

‘The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness,’ by Meghan O’Rourke

Acclaimed poet O’Rourke brings lyrical precision to this combination of memoir and reportage about “living at the edge of medical knowledge.” O’Rourke’s physical ailments over many years were often misdiagnosed or dismissed by doctors. In this book, she describes living with her pain while also investigating what we do and don’t know about chronic disease.

‘In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss,’ by Amy Bloom

In this deeply stirring memoir, novelist Amy Bloom recounts the emotional journey she took with her husband, Brian, who chose to end his life after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Bloom’s technical prowess is evident in her conscription of banal details to preface profound and sobering insights into love, marriage and death.

‘Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America,’ by Dahlia Lithwick

Arguing that true justice requires gender equality, Lithwick profiles women who have attempted to push back on legalistic attempts to restrict their rights — and those of others. She presents them not as superheroes but as real people who rely on other women in their collective effort to change things for the better.

‘Lessons From the Edge: A Memoir,’ by Marie Yovanovitch

A career diplomat, Yovanovitch was thrust into the public eye during the first impeachment of Donald Trump. In her memoir, she takes readers through her global career while also attending to the ways Trump has changed things at home.

‘A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years, 1933-1943,’ by John Richardson

The fourth and final volume of John Richardson’s life of Picasso is a worthy follow-up to its highly acclaimed predecessors. Completed amid difficult circumstances — Richardson, who died in 2019, was in his 90s and going blind — it is only about half their length. But it is just as rich and astounding.

‘Lost and Found: A Memoir,’ by Kathryn Schulz

This memoir by the Pulitzer-winning New Yorker writer considers the emotional whiplash of a two-year span when her father died and she met the woman who would become her wife.

‘Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self,’ by Andrea Wulf

Focusing on intellectual life in Jena, Germany, at the turn of the 19th century, Wulf explores how a small group of thinkers reworked our understanding of the relationship between philosophy and action.

‘Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life,’ by Margaret Sullivan

Sullivan, the former Washington Post media columnist and New York Times public editor, argues that media outlets are failing to adapt vigorously enough to the distortions of reality in the nation’s daily discourse, putting an already fragile democracy in grave jeopardy.

‘The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil,’ by Tina Brown

This episodic examination of the royal family’s difficulties since the death of Princess Diana in 1997 features a combination of preexisting press accounts and Brown’s reporting. It’s both high-minded and gossipy, and addictively readable.

‘Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,’ by David Maraniss

Thorpe, one of the most accomplished athletes who ever lived, was often met with racist derision during his own day. In this deeply researched biography, The Post’s Maraniss offers a sympathetic portrait of an extraordinarily talented man.

‘README.txt: A Memoir,’ by Chelsea Manning

The general outline of Manning’s story is widely known, but in her memoir she captures the more personal feel of her actions and experiences. “Everyone now knows — because of what happened to me — that the government will attempt to destroy you fully,” she writes. Here she shows how she preserved herself in the process.

‘Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy,’ by David J Chalmers

In chapters studded with references to popular culture and informed by high-level philosophical scholarship, Chalmers explores serious questions about whether we live in a simulation. Ultimately, he argues, it may not matter if our world is not as “real” as it seems.

‘Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original,’ by Howard Bryant

Baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was known for his competitiveness, outsize personality and superlative talent. Bryant’s vivid and extensive account, written with access to Henderson and his wife, Pamela, shines a light on this unique and charismatic legend.

‘River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile,’ by Candice Millard

Many books have been written about the 19th-century European explorers who tried to find the Nile’s source, but this one adds new dimensions to the story. It is especially revealing on the conflicts between two of the most famous men who helped direct some of those expeditions, but it also attends to some of those largely ignored by past historians.

‘Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,’ by Elizabeth Williamson

If the horrors of the Sandy Hook school shooting were not enough, the families of the murdered children were mercilessly stalked afterward by conspiracy theorists and confronted with vile and obscenity-laden threats, as Williamson meticulously documents in her account of this assault on grieving parents, truth and society itself.

‘Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,’ by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green

Pointedly frank but never too unkind, this memoir from musical theater composer and novelist Rodgers dishes on Stephen Sondheim and other luminaries. And though it’s full of gossip, it also documents Rodgers’s journey to self-understanding.

‘Solito: A Memoir,’ by Javier Zamora

In this valuable book, Zamora recounts his terrifying nine-week journey to the United States from El Salvador in 1999, when he was 9 years old, and his struggles growing up in the mythic land of Big Macs on his way to becoming a distinguished poet.

‘Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us,’ by Rachel Aviv

Hospitalized at age 6 for “failure to eat,” New Yorker staff writer Aviv became fascinated by the early phases of mental illness, the time before it remakes a person’s identity. In this work, she explores several cases, including her own youthful experience, and assesses the stories people tell themselves about their mental disorders.

‘Tasha: A Son’s Memoir,’ by Brian Morton

“Tasha” is the novelist Brian Morton’s (“Starting Out in the Evening”) bracing account of his mother’s final years. “How can you see your parents clearly?” he wonders. He gives it his best, passionately chronicling his mother’s knotty past alongside his present exhaustion, exasperation and anguish.

‘This Body I Wore: A Memoir,’ by Diana Goetsch

Goetsch, an acclaimed poet, here writes about her life as a transgender woman, from the first stirrings of awareness as a young child to formative adult years in the cross-dressing world of New York to transition later in life. Along the way, her personal story casts light on the history of the larger trans community over the course of her lifetime.

‘Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century,’ by Stephen Galloway

Galloway traces the fraught romance of Leigh and Olivier, a couple whose marriage was characterized by great passion — as well as other, more mercurial passions. He is especially sharp on the question of Leigh’s mental health.

‘Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation,’ by Linda Villarosa

Race plays an enormous role in health care in the United States, with Black people in particular often facing enormously unequal treatment. Villarosa unpacks some of those dangerous inequities in a book that is both deeply researched and profoundly devastating.

‘The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War Mind,’ by Martin Sixsmith

Sixsmith leads readers through many of the misunderstandings that characterized the conduct of both sides during the Cold War. He also records some of the many ways that Russia and the United States provoked one another, sometimes with near-disastrous results.

‘Watergate: A New History,’ by Garrett M. Graff

Though it explores familiar territory, this book brings the Watergate era to life in a new way, thanks in part to its attention to the “flawed everyday people” who shaped the events as they played out. It also works to correct some of the many errors and omissions in past records.

‘Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War,’ by Roger Lowenstein

The Civil War remade America — and paying for it remade the American financial system. Business writer Lowenstein draws on decades of scholarship to tell the story of how that transformation played out.

‘We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland,’ by Fintan O’Toole

Journalist O’Toole brilliantly weaves the story of his life with several momentous decades in his country’s history. The result is a memoir, starting from his working-class roots in Dublin, where he was born in 1958, and an account of how Ireland struggled to join the modern world.

‘When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm,’ by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe

A masterful work of investigative journalism, this book delves into the often-dubious business practices of one of the world’s largest and most powerful management consulting firms.

‘You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays,’ by Zora Neale Hurston

This volume collects 51 essays by the author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” It demonstrates Hurston’s formidable range, showing her skills as a critic, anthropologist, journalist and more. Some of the texts included appear in print for the first time here.

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