In 2016, 59% of my reading was non-fiction, so it was quite difficult to narrow down a list of favorites in my 2016 Books & Reading Recap. I also realized that there was often a difference between what I’d typically call my “favorite” non-fiction (books that I adore, and books that I want to re-read) and the most important non-fiction I read (books that educate me, books that helped to make me a kinder, more compassionate human, books I want to shout from the rooftops because if everyone read them the world would be a better place). Some of the books below I wish weren’t necessary – that the circumstances of the world didn’t require them – but, reality being what it is, I’m so very glad they do exist.
So, here are the ten most important non-fiction books I read in 2016:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander: If I could recommend just one book that everyone who cares about America should read, I would choose this one. Even if you’re aware that our country has a serious and debilitating mass incarceration problem, you should read this book and begin to understand how deeply rooted our systemic injustice really is, and the full scope of the work we still have ahead of us.
Dark Money by Jane Mayer: We know that money is tied up in politics to a degree that significantly influences legislation and often corrupts, but this book really opened my eyes to the depths of the damage done by the Citizen’s United ruling. It also made me significantly more aware of just how many “non-profit foundations” are actually only a megaphone for the interests of corporate behemoths. We all need to be extremely diligent about looking into the legitimacy and integrity of the research studies that we use to inform our knowledge of issues.
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister: By the end of this book, Traister had me convinced that the surest sign of a society that values equality for women is a society where single women can thrive. This is an important read for anyone who cares about feminism – and for single ladies & married ladies alike. (Link to full review.)
Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor: This memoir is not only a moving self-portrait of a man who found personal redemption and transformed his life, it’s also an important story within the criminal justice reform movement. The vast majority of the incarcerated population are capable of being valuable members of society – and the vast majority WILL be released at some point back into society, but our system is not set up to help them succeed – or even make it likely that they can do so. (Link to full review)
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy: A feminist must read – women’s rights in the middle east is an important topic, and Mona Eltahawy – an Egyptian-American journalist, tackles it head on with passion, heart, and fire. I learned so much about an important area of feminism that I knew little about.
Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings: You can’t understand the experience of people who are different than you unless you hear their stories. Jazz Jennings, a transgender teen who is wise beyond her years, shares more than just her story in this memoir: she also shares her optimism and endless kindness. You will be a better human if you read this book. (Fellow audiobook lovers: this one’s great on audio.)
Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Probably one of the most suggested items on the “Post-Trump Liberal Reading List,” this book provides insight into what we’d consider the “great paradox” of southerners in red states voting against their interests. Democrats may not put this one down with a much greater ability to relate to the Tea Party’s political agenda, but you will be more informed and more compassionate. I think the greatest strength of this book is the friendships Arlie Russell Hochschild formed with the people she got to know in Louisiana. In a nation that’s more divided than ever before, we need to talk to each other, respect each other, and take the rage out of political discourse. A very tall order – but I truly believe it’s the only way forward.
Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance: Vance grew up in a state that borders my home state (Ohio and Michigan, respectively), but we may as well have grown up on different planets. I grew up in a stable, middle class family, and Vance grew up in poverty surrounded by an unstable family environment. I’m glad I read his story – understanding his world is an important part of understanding America.
Democracy Now! Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America by Amy Goodman: This is a book that anyone feeling discouraged by the state of American politics in 2017 should read – the movements Amy Goodman has covered during her career will inspire you, and give you the courage and motivation to fight for justice and equal rights in the years ahead.
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams: And finally – this book is important too, because we all need to take care of ourselves. “It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering. We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognize that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy. Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy. This, too, is a gift.” (Link to full review)
What are the most important non-fiction books you’ve read lately?