Best Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!

We come to the end of our bookish 2016 chimes-ringing with the admittedly vague category of general nonfiction, which can extend to all kinds of reportage and memoir and often, I’ve found, connotes a particular kind of narrative fire, a particular urgency. These works tend to be telling new stories, bearing dispatches from the frontiers of events that are unfolding right before the author’s eyes, and they tend to be more meditation than summation. But no matter how I might define the exact parameters of the category, these books were far and away the best examples of it:

way-to-the-spring10. The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich (Penguin Press) – Ehrenreich’s concentration on one West Bank village and one family in that village serves as the blade by which he slices open the whole broader question of the Israel-Palestine question, and as old a narrative tactic as that is, it works: the book is depressingly gripping from start to finish. You can read my full review here.

9. Against Democracy by Jason Brennan (Princeton against-democracyUniversity Press) – Brennan’s book was long in preparation and appeared in August, but even so, it’s brutally topical. His central contention is that most of the things citizens of democracies tend to think about democracy as a means of government – that it’s fairer than any other system, that it’s more representative than any other system, etc. – are demonstrably wrong, mainly due to the abundance of what came to be known during the 2016 US presidential race as “low-information voters.” These voters – through a jaw-dropping combination of stubbornness, irrationality, and simple stupidity – demonstrated on Election Day 2016 that Brennan’s is completely, incontestably right on all points made in this the-genenow-more-important-than-ever book.

8. The Gene by Siddhartha Mukerjee (Scribner) – The many, many readers who found themselves swept up in Siddhartha Mukerjee’s smart, attentive storytelling in his book The Emperor of All Maladies will find the same combination of scientific knowledge and personal insight on display in his latest book, The Gene, which not only details the amazing story of mankind’s study of its own biological blueprints but also asks plenty of questions about the future of the science. You can read my full review here.in-gratitude

7. In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury) – This book – in which novelist and essayist Jenny Diski chronicles not only the highlights of her life but also the process of its ending (due to the lung cancer she assiduously courted in a lifetime of chain-smoking) – was in many ways inevitable; long before Diski made a career out of transmuting her life into writing, she’d made a habit of it. And the resulting narrative is heartbreakingly sad and bittersweet. You can read my full the-last-of-the-lightreview here.

6. The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson (Reaktion) – This slim book was an endless revelation to me. It’s a study of the many roles played in human art and society over the centuries by twilight, that strange, pessimistic stretch of time that’s no longer day but not yet quite night. It’s an easy subject about which to be trite or boring, and virtually every other book or essay I’ve read on the subject has been either trite or boring, but Peter Davidson’s book eye-opening and wonderful, as lovely and gentle and strange as the daily phenomenon it describes.

5. City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence (Picador) – Human rights researcher Ben city-of-thornsRawlence spent the better part of four years visiting and living in the sprawling Kenyan refugee city of Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, and the stories he tells in this arresting book are like nothing else I read this year, delving into the lives of the men and women (and, most miserably, the children) who live in a place that isn’t and can never be their home, on the sufferance of strangers, in the middle of a desert, seemingly in perpetuity. Rawlence is a clear, merciless narrator of the many injustices folded into Dadaab’s very existence, and children-of-paradisethe book is brilliant.

4. Children of Paradise by Laura Secor (Riverhead Books) – Laura Secor’s searing, emotionally vibrant book is a portrait of contemporary Iran, the weird, contradictory madhouse-nation that sprang out of the 1979 Khomeini revolution in which a wave of murderous religious zealots took over a modern society and began an ongoing experiment in transforming it into a working theocracy. Secor is scrupulously fair to all sides of the resulting society, and she’s especially effective in her portraits of the multifaceted ongoing resistance to that theocracy. The long aftermath of the Iranian Revolution has been waiting for a book like this one.

3. Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum (Belknap Press) – It’s always antrack-changes unsettling and amazing feeling to read the history of a series of events you watched unfold in real time in your own life, and that’s a part of what makes Matthew Kirschenbaum’s history of relatively short lifetime of word processing so fascinating: if you’re online right now, the chances are very good that you’ve experienced four-dimensional-humanmany of the changes detailed in this book personally, and Kirschenbaum writes it all with an infectious flair, which is also true of Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human (WW Norton), a book that tries to assess the changes we’ve all needed to make to our lives, our legal rights, and even our personhood as a result of all that online writingcyberspace-peace and writing and writing. If Track Changes is the best history of word processing I’ve ever read, The Four-Dimensional Human is the best study of how the Internet itself is changing its users. And likewise this year I read the best popular study of cyberspace yet written, Cyberspace in Peace and War by Matthew Libicki (Naval Institute Press), a massive, comprehensive examination of this whole new realm humans have invented in which they can do business, create relationships, and make war. These three books combine to make absolutely essential 21st field-guide-to-liescentury reading.

2. The Field Guide to Lies by Daniel Levitin (Dutton) – In many ways, this great book by Daniel Levitin is the user’s manual to the previous three; it’s a guidebook, a demystifying road-map through the sprawling, infinite wilderness of masterless information that now bombards every person with access to a cellphone. Levitin breaks down not only that mass of information but the ways of thinking that are required to approach it in the first place.the-new-trail-of-tears Absolutely riveting reading.

1. The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Encounter Books) – The best nonfiction book of 2016 was this bleak, unrelenting expose of the current state of the American Indian reservation system, a horrific, hopeless open-air penal system for the innocent, a gulag that combines the systematic injustices of Ben Ehrenreich’s book and Ben Rawlence’s book and then situates them squarely in America, where most Americans firmly believe they’d be impossible. No nonfiction book this year rivaled Riley’s work for its power and urgency.

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