Electric Literature’s 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2017
We polled staff and contributors on their favorite factual writing
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
This history, which The New York Times called “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.
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.
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.
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.