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Best Nonfiction Essay

Electric Literature’s 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2017

We polled staff and contributors on their favorite factual writing

The United States publishes about 300,000 books a year. From this wealth of options, how is a person ever supposed to choose which ones to read? Well, we can’t tell you which books from 2017 you’ll like best, but we can tell you which ones we liked best. We polled Electric Lit staff and regular contributors on their favorite books of the year, and we’re bringing you the winners, starting with nonfiction. Below are the essay collections, memoirs, and histories that made the biggest impressions on us in 2017.

When you’re done, check out Electric Lit’s favorite short story collections and favorite novels of the year.

300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso

Manguso’s latest book is not an essay collection—it’s a series of aphorisms, like a modern Poor Richard’s Almanack or a serious Jack Handey. But the arguments build on each other to offer revelations about love, desire, success, and everything else that matters.

Abandon Me, Melissa Febos

Febos’ second book of memoirs dissects some of her most intimate relationships: with her absent birth father, with the man who raised her, and with the woman she turbulently loved. This is for people who love essays that haul great truths out of deep vulnerability.

Book of Mutter, Kate Zambreno

This volume is not exactly memoir and not exactly criticism; publisher Semiotext(e) calls it “an accumulative archive of myth and memory that seeks its own undoing.” Light beach reading.

Bunk, Kevin Young

In this day and age, how can we know what truth is? Don’t worry, says Kevin Young: we never could. Bunk traces the history of American hoaxes, forgeries, fakes, and frauds—and in the process, shows us that race is the biggest long con of all.

Caca Dolce, Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin’s darkly funny, unsparing memoir deals with class, family, mental illness, sex, and basically every other source of twentysomething neurosis with a sense of humor and a gimlet eye.

Read our interview with Chelsea Martin.

Hunger, Roxane Gay

This memoir, by the author of bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist, takes an unflinching look at food, weight, and body image. It’s about fat bodies, but also black bodies and female bodies, and in general about living as a body in the world.

Read a discussion of Hunger.

Read our interview with Roxane Gay.

Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke

Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir is also an exploration of disaster, death, and decay; it depicts Radtke’s life, but also her fascination with ruined and abandoned buildings and cities. A great choice for people who want to lean really hard into their conviction that there’s nothing funny about comics.

Read our interview with Kristen Radtke.

Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann

This history, which The New York Timescalled “disturbing and riveting,” investigates what happened when the Osage tribe, forced onto a nearly unlivable piece of land, find that the land sits on top of tens of millions of dollars worth of oil. It will not make you feel good about the United States, but we all need to be clear-eyed about our country right now.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul

This is easily the funniest book about online harassment, rape, xenophobia, sexism, body image, and getting the silent treatment from your parents that you’ll ever read. But it’s not just whistling in the dark; Koul also writes lovingly about immigrant families, longstanding friendships, and romantic relationships.

Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood

This is the first work of prose by poet (and prolific, wonderful tweeter) Patricia Lockwood, and it’s a doozy. It’s a memoir about moving back in with her (married) priest father, but it’s also a searing critique of Catholicism and what it can do to its adherents. And it’s wildly funny and in love with the possibilities of the sentence.

Somebody With a Little Hammer, Mary Gaitskill

Fiction writer Mary Gaitskill dives headfirst into cultural criticism in this collection of essays, which cover topics from poetry to politics to porn. Whether she’s writing about Bjork or Hillary Clinton, she takes her subjects apart and puts them back together so deftly that you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, Michael Ausiello

Imagine if your partner of nearly 13 years was diagnosed with cancer on the day of your wedding, and lived for less than a year after that. If you’re not already in tears, you will be after reading TV journalist Michael Ausiello’s memoir about love and death.

Read our interview with Michael Ausiello.

Sunshine State, Sarah Gerard

Sarah Gerard’s book of essays is an encomium to all things Florida, from seabirds to sex to Amway sellers. While plumbing the mysteries of her home state, Gerard also investigates her personal history, including her childhood best friend, her teenage drug habit, and her parents’ involvement in a fringe religion.

Read our review of Sunshine State.

Read our interview with Sarah Gerard.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib

These essays are about music, but they’re also about politics and personal history. Poet and journalist Hanif Abdurraqib juxtaposes Bruce Springsteen with Michael Brown and Harriet Tubman with N.W.A. to draw broad conclusions about society and culture.

Read our interview with Hanif Abdurraqib.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you’re mourning the Obama years and need someone to help you make sense of what happened, you couldn’t have a better tutor than Ta-Nehisi Coates. His incisive analysis helps illuminate what’s gone wrong in this country, not just in the last year but in our history. You probably won’t feel any better after reading this, but you’ll see with clearer eyes.

There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.

Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.

So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.

1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag
2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman
3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown
4. Art and Ardor — Cynthia Ozick
5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate
6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay
7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan
9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon
10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard
11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders
12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy
13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith
14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell
15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf
16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace
17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald
18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid
19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine
20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin
21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson
22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson
23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall
24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko
25. The Essays of Elia— Charles Lamb
26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman
27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit
28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie
29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin
30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits
31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm
32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon
33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron
34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman
35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind
36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki
37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker
38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling
39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley
40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic
41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges
42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt
43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio
44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar
45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle
46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell
47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri
48. Meaty — Samantha Irby
49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus
50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy
51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris
52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters
53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum
54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata
55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein
56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss
57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin
58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham
59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry
60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra
61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl
62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips
63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich
64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan
65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer
66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik
67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt
68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon
69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg
70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison
71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan
72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne
73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison
74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli
75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde
76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker
77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion
78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois
79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman
80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace
81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby
82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates
83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange
84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett
85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed
86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early
87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella
88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum
89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler
90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin
91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think— Shirley Hazzard
92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry
94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson
95. The White Album — Joan Didion
96. White Girls — Hilton Als
97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston
98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard
99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood
100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent

If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!

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