It’s always hard to narrow down the best books from a given year, but we took a look back at the best nonfiction of 2015 and picked our favorites. This year’s selection includes science, memoirs, fashion, and history. If you love nonfiction as much as we do, you’re sure to find some great picks here to take you into 2016. What are your picks for the best nonfiction of 2015? Tell us in the comments!
Between the World and Me
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown can no longer speak for themselves, but Ta-Nehisi Coates can. Having found himself in situations quite similar to the ones that resulted in these three men’s deaths, this Baltimore native and African-American journalist has often feared for his own life. But now he fears even more for the life of his 14 year-old son. Winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Between the World and Me is an extended essay to this teenager which takes on the “Dreamers” who claim that racism is a thing of the past. It’s a profound and timely exploration of the many ways the American crime of slavery continues to stain the fabric of our culture. Sure to be found on many Top Ten lists this year, it’s a remarkably powerful piece of writing. See our full review.
Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!
Authors: Big Freedia, Nicole Balin
I rarely read celebrity memoirs, because, for the most part, I’m just not that interested in how rich and famous people got to be rich and famous. But I made an exception for Big Freedia, a gay hip-hop artist who brought New Orleans’ underground “bounce” music scene into the mainstream with catchy, highly danceable tunes and funny music videos. The book follows his evolution from a gifted young church singer (and occasional party planner/decorator) to DJ and performer, first in groups and later as a solo artist. It’s a fast, fun rags-to-riches story with family drama, juicy gossip, and mouth-watering descriptions of Southern cooking (is it weird that I wish some recipes were included?). Freedia develops his personal music style, finds joy in self-expression, gets a few lucky breaks, and eventually wins the hard-earned fame he deserves. If you’d like to see Big Freedia in action, you can also watch his Fuse reality show, “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce.”
Chasing the Scream
Author: Johann Hari
What should we do about drugs? While everyone knows that legalization of marijuana is blatantly sensible, what about the more notorious “hard” drugs? If you think there’s a simple answer, you need to read Chasing the Scream by British journalist Johann Hari. Unsure if unrestricted access to heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine really makes sense, the author delves into the convoluted world of addiction. He connects with neuroscientists, drug users, drug suppliers and treatment professionals to present an eye-opening, heavily documented and frequently astonishing argument for the legalization of all drugs. Unfortunately, the well-entrenched opponents to this view – law enforcement, drug lords and the prison industry – continue to profit from the prohibition status quo, making it almost impossible for any sort of sensible reform to be enacted. A convincing argument for change, the book is a great choice for the rabble rouser on your holiday gift list. Check out our full review here.
Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present
Author: Alison Matthews David
Fashion, poison, and murder — three of my favorite subjects combined in one book! If you think tights are a pain to put on, you won’t believe the life-threatening peril that women (and men) have put themselves through over the centuries for the sake of fashion. A woman’s bright green ball gown, or even the festive floral trimmings on her bonnet, could contain enough arsenic to kill a person. The mercury used in making hats was toxic enough to sicken the wearer, but was even more harmful to the workers who felted, shaped, and trimmed the hats, who often developed chronic pain, sores, and nerve damage from prolonged exposure. And, of course, in a time when women were expected to do everything from farming to factory work in hoop skirts and hats, fire was a constant and serious danger. And there’s so much more! The book is lavishly illustrated with fashion plates and photos of museum artifacts that bring the horrifying stories to life. A must-read for lovers of fashion history.
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime
Author: Val McDermid
Enhance. Enhance. If you’ve been mesmerized by the technological wonders worked by the forensic techs on various CSI shows, you’ve probably also wondered how accurately they reflect what modern science can do. This fascinating book by an award-winning crime writer takes you on a whirlwind tour of the various forensic disciplines and how they can help solve cases. Chapters on crime scene and fire scene investigation, entomology (aka determining time of death by insect activity), pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, blood spatter and DNA, anthropology, facial reconstruction, digital forensics, and forensic psychology (Silence of the Lambs-style profiling) break it all down for even the non-scientifically-inclined. A fascinating read for plotting your perfect crime!
Girl in the Dark: A Memoir
Author: Anna Lyndsey
Imagine what your life would be like if you had to live in complete darkness. Anna is a young woman with a fast-paced job at a hectic government office when she encounters an unusual health issue: light makes her skin hurt. As her mysterious condition spreads to her entire body and worsens, Anna slowly realizes she can no longer live normally or take care of herself. She quits her job, sells her London flat, and moves in with her boyfriend, creating a stifling, light-proof box of a room that becomes her only refuge from painful light. After much frustration, she’s eventually diagnosed with a light-sensitivity disorder so rare that she’s essentially one of a kind. Although the life she once took for granted is gone forever, Anna works to create a new life worth living and learns to value what she has: a caring family, a lively mind, a patient and supportive partner, and the occasional stolen moment outside in the darkest night. Anna’s circumstances are so unique that the fact that she wrote a memoir at all is a marvel. See our full review here.
The Invention of Nature
Author: Andrea Wulf
He may be the greatest scientist that you’ve never heard of. But despite his present day obscurity, Alexander von Humboldt was a worldwide superstar in the first half of the 19th century. In The Invention of Nature, biographer Andrea Wulf resurrects this remarkable man, revealing the vast influence his work has had even to the present day. Creating entire new branches of biology and geology, as well as directly inspiring subsequent luminaries like Darwin, Thoreau and Muir, Humboldt’s story is well worth telling. While it entertainingly displays the man’s inexhaustible genius and adventuresome spirit, the book also reveals the great debt that modern nature lovers owe this unique hero. A great choice for the tree hugger on your list. See our full review.
North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors
Authors: Daniel Tudor, James Pearson
Most of us know at least a little about the harsh, repressive living conditions in North Korea — or we think we do. What’s presented in Western media often sounds like something out of a dystopian YA novel, but could any modern society really function that way? This book attempts to describe the everyday lives of ordinary twenty-first-century North Koreans, and what they find out from interviewing North Korean citizens, defectors, and diplomats (and those who trade on the black market with North Koreans) may surprise you. North Koreans run small businesses while local police look the other way, watch foreign movies and TV on flash drives and easily-hidden portable DVD players, own smartphones, and even occasionally stand up to the authorities. If you’re interested in moving beyond the poverty porn and getting a real glimpse of North Korean lives, check out the other side of the story.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
Author: Cynthia Barnett
As a Seattle resident, I’ve developed a healthy respect for rain, and it seems totally natural that someone should dedicate a book to rain’s cultural and geographical history. Cynthia Barnett covers the history of weather forecasting, the “rainmakers” who swindled desperate farmers during the Great Depression, and the evolution of meteorology from a gentleman scholar’s hobby to a legitimate science. From rain dances and witch-burning to irrigation and levees, humanity has always sought to control and redirect rain — too much here and not enough there — while the universal desire for plentiful, life-giving rains has seeped into literature, music, fashion, and even hand-crafted perfumes. A delightful read for fans of Mary Roach, this book will make you think twice before cursing at a rainy day.
The Triumph of Seeds
Author: Thor Hanson
Seemingly as simple as they are ubiquitous, seeds would seem to be a poor choice for riveting science writing. But much as he did in Feathers, Washington state native Thor Hanson can make seeds – even the mundane dandelion achene – into a fascinating topic. The Triumph of Seeds is his endlessly entertaining and enthusiastic exploration of these miniature miracles. From the garbanzo to the coconut, you’ll never look at seeds the same way again. You can read our full review here.