Electric Lit’s Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2020
Staff and contributors voted for the best memoirs, essays, and reported work
If you can’t go out in the real world, why not at least read about it? These memoirs, essay collections, and deeply-researched reported works kept our panel of Electric Lit staff, former staff, and contributors engaged with the people and places outside our apartments throughout this singularly isolated year. In roughly ascending order (we had a lot of ties), here are the voters’ top 20 picks for the year’s best nonfiction. (You can also read our picks for short story collections and novels.)
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
There are very few non-scholarly resources on asexuality, and though it’s impossible for one book to cover every experience—there are as many kinds of asexuality as there are asexuals—Chen sets a thoughtful, rigorous, personally generous tone for what will hopefully be an expanding area of study. Read an interview with the author or her essay on why we need books without romance.
Born to be Public by Greg Mania
You might intuit from his name that Greg Mania is flamboyant and funny, and he is—but this memoir of gay nightlife, mental and physical illness, sex, relationships, and internet fame also showcases his more thoughtful and tender side. Mania curated a book list for us about coming of age in New York City.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson is known for her in-depth reporting—she has won a Pulitzer Prize, among many other awards. In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Wilkerson compares the caste systems of the United States, India, and Nazi Germany, and formulates eight pillars on which these systems are built. You can find Caste on our list of books that celebrate Black lives.
Fairest by Meredith Talusan
Talusan is an Electric Literature board member, but that’s only the cherry on top of her fascinating life. Her memoir takes readers from her childhood in the Philippines through her experience as a gay man at Harvard and finally her gender transition, analyzing throughout what it means to be seen as male, as female, as Asian, and (because of her albinism) as white. Read an interview with Talusan.
Here For It: Or How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas
You may know R. Eric Thomas for his hysterically funny takes on politics and pop culture in his Elle column, but this memoir in essays proves that he can make you cry too. (Don’t worry, it’s still very funny.) Read an interview with the author.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall centers the conversation on feminism around the often-forgotten/looked over peoples within mainstream feminism. Kendall has a knack for conveying her experience, and the experience of many Women of Color, as they try to make themselves heard within the mainstream feminist movements.
I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux
Student loan debt lurks at the center of many people’s lives, coloring every plan and decision they make, but we don’t talk about it enough. Arceneaux’s book of essays about the burdens of debt is painfully urgent.
Later: My Life At The Edge Of The World by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky writes about moving to gay haven Provincetown, Massachusetts in the early ‘90s, when AIDS was rapidly consuming the community. The contrast between the queer idyll he lives in and the pandemic disease that stalks them makes this memoir tense, poignant, and cathartic. Read our interview with Lisicky here.
Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism by Seyward Darby
Women’s role in white nationalism is complex—it’s not exactly a bastion of female empowerment—but we need to understand how the concept of white womanhood props up the ugliest elements of American society. Darby goes deep on three women connected to hate movements. Read an interview with the author.
The Sprawl by Jason Diamond
During the campaign, Donald Trump insisted that “suburban women” would support him because he was saving “the suburbs”—meaning, of course, that white people would support him because he was keeping their neighborhoods white. But the conflation of suburbs and whiteness goes back way further. Diamond examines the history of suburbia and what it means to us culturally, including as a marker for racial homogeneity.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
You probably could have guessed that Silicon Valley’s startup world was highly toxic. But Uncanny Valley, an insider’s memoir from a woman who stumbled into a tech culture that was more sociopathic than she’d dreamed, makes it clear just how bad it was and how easy it was for certain kinds of people to choose not to notice. Read an essay about how Wiener reveals the corniness of the tech world.
Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum
If you have no idea what comes after “I want to write a book”—or if you just need a little guidance and encouragement—Maum’s comprehensive roadmap is absolutely invaluable. Read an excerpt on killing your inner perfectionist, or check out Maum’s answers to our ten questions about teaching writing.
Riding With the Ghost by Justin Taylor
In this reflective memoir, Taylor reckons with his father’s life and eventual death—and, in between, his attempted suicide. What does it mean to love a father who doesn’t want to live?
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
Pulitzer winner and former poet laureate Trethewey unearths a childhood marred by violence in this wrenching memoir about her mother’s abuse and murder. Simultaneously a memorial to her mother and an indictment of the man and the system that killed her, Trethewey’s book traces trauma through her mother’s life and her own.
The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert
Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument columnist Elisa Gabbert surely never expected to be quite so timely, but sometimes the stars align and you put out an essay collection about doom, anxiety, and disaster in a year like 2020. If we’re going to live through a slow-motion catastrophe, at least we have beautiful writing about it. Read an interview with Gabbert.
Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno
From the title it sounds like this essay collection will be about gender and sports, and it is—including a deeply personal story about Faliveno’s manipulative relationship with her high school softball coach. But it’s also about queerness, class, and what it means to try to find your place. Read our interview with the author.
The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg
Eisenberg’s true crime story circles around a case that is many years cold: the 1980 murder of two women hitchhiking through West Virginia. But as Eisenberg finds when teaching summer camp in the area, the murders reverberated through the whole community—and in some ways, girls are still disappearing.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
Jenn Shapland’s hybrid memoir/biography started with deep immersion into the undiscovered love letters celebrated author Carson McCullers wrote to another woman. Finding those letters also awoke Shapland to her own queerness, and she weaves her own story into her subject’s in a way that is illuminating and boundary-breaking (and earned her a National Book Award nomination). Shapland wrote a list for us of other biographies that are secretly memoirs.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
In her third collection of essays, frank and funny bestselling author Irby, who is also the preeminent Judge Mathis chronicler of our time, takes on topics like bills, sex, periods, and the internet in a way that makes you actually want to think about them. Read our interview with Samantha Irby.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Poet Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings calls itself “a reckoning,” and that’s how it reads: not just a memoir, not quite a manifesto, but a clear-eyed history and articulation of the Asian American experience that precisely diagnoses the cognitive dissonance of being racialized in America. Read our interview with the author.