35 Best Nonfiction Books of 2022 – Esquire

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Whether you’re looking to learn, laugh, or lose yourself in a great story, there’s something here for every kind of reader.
It seems a cruel paradox that in this age of information overload, the world can feel harder to understand than ever before. Amid a dissonance of news sources, podcasts, commentators, and armchair experts, where should you turn to make sense of the world? More than movies, TV, or just other reading material, we stand behind nonfiction books as some of the best windows on the world, and luckily for you, we’ve curated some of the year’s standout releases.
Our favorite nonfiction books of the year, several of them just the very best books of the year, touch on some of the most pressing topics of our time, from autocracy to conspiracy to healthcare reform. They vary in form, from reported nonfiction to memoir to a comic guidebook to supervillainy. Whether you’re looking to learn, laugh, or lose yourself in a great story, there’s something here for every kind of reader.
After six decades of Hollywood superstardom, it’s difficult to imagine that anything could remain unknown about Paul Newman. But that’s the particular magic trick of this memoir, assembled by way of a literary scavenger hunt. Between 1986 and 1991, Newman sat down with screenwriter Stewart Stern for a series of soul-baring interviews about his life and career. With the actor’s encouragement, Stern also recorded hundreds of hours worth of interviews with his friends, family, and colleagues. The whole enterprise was destined to become Newman’s authorized biography, but his feelings on the project soured; in 1998, he gathered the tapes in a pile and set fire to them. Luckily, Stern kept transcripts—over 14,000 pages worth. Now, those transcripts have been streamlined into this honest and unvarnished memoir, in which the actor speaks openly about his traumatic childhood, his lifelong struggle with alcoholism, and his tormenting self-doubt. But the highs are there too—like his 50-year marriage to actress Joanne Woodward—as well as the mysteries of making art, and the “imponderable of being a human being.” All told, the memoir is an extraordinary act of resurrection and reimagination.
When Teen Vogue’s sex columnist decided to end her marriage at 32 years old, chief among her complaints was “bad sex.” Newly divorced, Aronowitz went in search of good sex, but along the way, she discovered thorny truths about “the problem that has no name”—that despite the advances of feminism and the sexual revolution, true sexual freedom remains out of reach. Cultural criticism, memoir, and social history collide in Aronowitz’s no-nonsense investigation of all that ails young lovers, like questions about desire, consent, and patriarchy. It’s a revealing read bound to expand your thinking.
A titan of science fiction masters a new form in this winsome love letter to California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Constructed from an impassioned blend of memoir, history, and science writing, The High Sierra chronicles Robinson’s 100-plus trips to his beloved mountains, from his LSD-laced first encounter in 1973 to the dozens of ​​“rambling and scrambling” days to follow. From descriptions of the region’s multitudinous flora and fauna to practical advice about when and where to hike, this is as comprehensive a guidebook as any, complete with all the lucid ecstasy of nature writing greats like John Muir and Annie Dillard.
Has any book ever roved so far and wide in just 48 pages as My Pinup? In this slim and brilliant memoir, Als explores race, power, and desire through the lens of Prince. Styling the legendary musician in the image of his lovers and himself, Als explores injustice on multiple levels, from racist record labels to the world’s hostility to gay Black boys. “There was so much love between us,” the author muses. “Why didn’t anyone want us to share it?” These 48 meandering pages are difficult to describe, but trust us: My Pinup is a heady cocktail you won’t soon forget.
In this bleeding heart memoir, Fitzgerald peels back the layers of his extraordinary life. Dirtbag, Massachusetts opens with his hardscrabble childhood in a dysfunctional Catholic family, then spins out into the decades of jobs and identities that followed. From bartending at a biker bar to smuggling medical supplies to starring in porn films, it’s all led him to here and now: he’s still a work in progress, but gradually, he’s arriving at profound realizations about masculinity, family, and selfhood. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is the best of what memoir can accomplish. It’s blisteringly honest and vulnerable, pulling no punches on the path to truth, but it always finds the capacity for grace and joy. “To any young men out there who aren’t too far gone,” Fitzgerald writes, “I say you’re not done becoming yourself.”
What do Charles Dickens, nineteenth century chronicler of social issues, and Prince, modern-day music’s master of sensuality, have in common? You’d be forgiven for struggling to come up with an answer, but for Nick Hornby, the ties are obvious—and numerous, too. In Dickens and Prince, the biographical similarities between these two late luminaries come into plain sight. But what really links Dickens and Prince, Hornby argues, is their “particular kind of genius”—as the author reveals, both shared an extraordinary drive to create and generated massive bodies of work, even though they died before reaching sixty. But beneath the surface of this fascinating biography, there lies a warm and wise craft book about what it takes to make great art in any century. Read an interview with Hornby here at Esquire.
How do we reckon with the sins of our parents? That’s the thorny question at the center of this moving and courageous memoir authored by the son of Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy’s architect of the Vietnam War. In this conflicted son’s telling, a complicated man comes into intimate view, as does the “mixture of love and rage” at the heart of their relationship. At once a loving and neglectful parent, the elder McNamara’s controversial lies about the war ultimately estranged him from his son, who hung Viet Cong flags in his childhood bedroom as a protest. The pursuit of a life unlike his father’s saw the younger McNamara drop out of Stanford and travel through South America on a motorcycle, leading him to ultimately become a sustainable walnut farmer. Through his own personal story of disappointment and disillusionment, McNamara captures an intergenerational conflict and a journey of moral identity.
Macy’s gripping follow-up to the mega-bestselling Dopesick finds her in a familiar milieu: back on the frontlines of the opioid crisis, where she embeds with healthcare workers, legislators, and activists seeking to save lives and heal communities. Where Dopesick focused on addiction sufferers and their families, Raising Lazarus turns the lens to the fight for justice, from the prosecution of the Sackler family to the reformers pioneering innovative treatments for the afflicted. Enlightening and exhaustive, it’s at once a damning exposé about greed and a moving paean to the power of community activism.
With a galvanizing groundswell of unionization efforts rocking mega-corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, there’s never been a better time to learn about the history of the American labor movement. Fight Like Hell will be your indispensable guide to the past, present, and future of organized labor. Rather than structure this comprehensive history chronologically, Kelly organizes it into chapter-sized profiles of different labor sectors, from sex workers to incarcerated laborers to domestic workers. Each chapter contains capsule biographies of working-class heroes, along with a painstaking focus on those who were hidden or dismissed from the movement. So too do these chapters illuminate how many civil rights struggles, like women’s liberation and fair wages for disabled workers, are also, at their core, labor struggles. After reading Fight Like Hell, you’ll never look at American history the same way again—and you may just be inspired to organize your own workplace. Read an interview with Kelly here at Esquire.
Whether you’re a tried and true Trekkie or a newbie hooked on Strange New Worlds, there’s something for every science fiction obsessive in this lively cultural history of Star Trek. Through extensive reporting and research, Britt takes us inside the franchise’s nearly sixty-year history, from its influence on diversifying the space program to its history-making strides for LGBTQIA+ representation. Featuring interviews with multiple generations of cast members and creatives, Phasers On Stun! merrily surprises, informs, and entertains. Read an exclusive excerpt about Star Trek‘s efforts to diversify television here at Esquire.
In this mixed media memoir, disability activist Alice Wong outlines her journey as an advocate and educator. Wong was born with a form of progressive muscular dystrophy; as a young woman, she attended her dream college, but had to drop out when changes to Medicaid prevented her from retaining the aides she needed on an inaccessible campus. In one standout essay, Wong recounts her struggle to access Covid-19 vaccines as a high-risk individual. The author’s rage about moving through an ableist world is palpable, but so too is her joy and delight about Lunar New Year, cats, family, and so much more. Innovative and informative, Year of the Tiger is a multidimensional portrait of a powerful thinker.
The legendary author of “Brokeback Mountain” and The Shipping News delivers an enchanting history of our wetlands, a vitally important but criminally misunderstood landscape now imperiled by climate change. As Proulx explains, fens, bogs, swamps, and estuaries preserve our environment by storing carbon emissions. Roving through peatlands around the world, Proulx weaves a riveting history of their role in brewing diseases and fueling industrialization. Imbued with the same reverence for nature as Proulx’s fiction, Fen, Bog, and Swamp is both an enchanting work of nature writing and a rousing call to action. Read an exclusive interview with the author here at Esquire.
This crackling cultural history melds scholarship and pop culture to arrive at a comprehensive taxonomy of the female bottom. From 19th-century burlesque to the eighties aerobics craze to Kim Kardashian’s internet-breaking backside, Radke leaves no stone unturned. Her sources range from anthropological scholarship to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” making for a vivacious blend, but Butts isn’t all fun and games. Radke explores how women’s butts have been used “as a means to create and reinforce racial hierarchies,” acting as locuses of racism, control, and desire. Lively and thorough, Butts is the best kind of nonfiction—the kind that forces you to see something ordinary through completely new eyes.
In this winsome volume, one of our greatest novelists invites readers into his creative process. The result is a revealing self-portrait that answers many burning questions about its reclusive subject, like: where do Murakami’s strange and surreal ideas come from? When and how did he start writing? How does he view the role of novels in contemporary society? Novelist as a Vocation is a rare and welcome peek behind the curtain of a singular mind.
Pasulka takes us tumbling down a glittery rabbit hole in this engrossing look at the last decade of Brooklyn ballroom culture. How You Get Famous introduces readers to electric performers like Merrie Cherry, who overcame a stroke to continue her drag career; Aja, a multiple-time contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race; and Sasha Velour, who made waves with her bald head. Through this electric constellation of performers, Pasulka paints a vivid portrait of a singular subculture: joyful and scrappy, it’s gone on to galvanize a community and inspire a wider cultural movement.
Quick—picture your perfect vacation. Does it involve staying at a resort and sipping a Mai Tai on the beach? We’re not out to yuck anyone’s yum, but beachgoers everywhere need to read this gripping account about the dark side of paradise. In The Last Resort, Stodola investigates the origins of beach culture, revealing that our understanding of the beach as paradise is actually a modern concept; it wasn’t until the 18th century that the seaside wellness craze changed our views about the ocean, once seen as a fearsome foe. Today, beach travel has become de rigueur, but it carries heavy costs, as it strangles local economies, threatens natural resources, and widens social inequality. After reading The Last Resort, you’ll never look at an all-inclusive vacation quite the same way.
Twenty years ago, Ken Auletta wrote a definitive New Yorker profile of Harvey Weinsten, which exposed the movie mogul as a violent and volatile person. But one story remained frustratingly ungraspable: though it was rumored that Weinstein was a sexual abuser, none of his victims would go on the record. Award-winning journalists including Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor, and Ronan Farrow would later draw on Auletta’s reporting in their quests to expose the truth about Weinstein. Now, with his erstwhile subject behind bars, Auletta is revisiting him anew—and paying dogged attention to the systems that allowed him to operate unchecked. From the executives who abetted him to the brother who covered his tracks, Weinstein didn’t act in a vacuum, Auletta reveals—rather, he was enabled at nearly every turn. Exhaustively reported and utterly enraging, Hollywood Ending is a damning look at Hollywood’s history of corruption and complicity.
“Life is weather. Life is meals,” the great James Salter once wrote. Life is also endings, according to Dyer, as fine and curious a cultural critic as they come. In this roving volume, Dyer explores ​​“things coming to an end, artists’ last works, time running out,” from Roger Federer’s impending retirement to Nietzsche’s descent into madness. Assessing the long twilight of his many subjects, Dyer leads us through the peripatetic maze of his free-associative thinking. Expect to emerge from the other side feeling grateful for “this magnificent life, whatever ruin comes in its wake.”
For decades, Mafioso John Gotti captivated the American imagination. This notorious mobster, known as “The Dapper Don,” became a sartorial icon and graced the cover of Time (by way of an Andy Warhol portrait)—until it all came crashing down, thanks to federal prosecutor John Gleeson. The Gotti Wars is the riveting story of Gleeson’s fight to bring Gotti to justice, which spanned years, brought him into the crosshairs of organized crime, and ultimately took down five major mob families. It’s an electrifying true crime story of the Mafia-smitten 80s and 90s, to be certain, but also a vivid memoir of Gleeson’s development as a lawyer, and an excavation of the celebrity culture that turned a murderer into a superstar. Suspenseful and multifaceted, The Gotti Wars can’t be missed.
In an age where what we wear is shaped as much by algorithms and influencers as by personal taste, the fashion landscape looks different than ever before. To make sense of it all, turn to this roving, insightful collection of essays from a bona fide fashion expert, who breaks down everything from normcore to politicians’ wardrobes to the ubiquity of leggings. Rich in historical context and cultural criticism, Dress Code unpacks how clothing is both personal and political, and how it deserves serious consideration as a distinctive lens on the world. After all, as Hyland writes, “With fashion, you have no choice but to opt in.”
In the past twenty years, the number of active civil wars around the globe has doubled—and now, a leading political scientist insists that we’re on the verge of one of our own. In this urgent guide to how countries come apart at their seams, Walter reveals the warning signs of civil unrest, arguing that the United States is now an “anocracy,” somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state. If we’re to come back from the brink of collapse, Walter argues, we’ll need to shore up the American experiment by protecting voting rights, reforming campaign finance laws, and curbing extremism on social media, among other changes. Rigorously researched and lucidly argued, How Civil Wars Start is an arresting wake-up call.
Eighteen months before Schultz’s father died after a long battle with cancer, she met the love of her life. It’s this painful dichotomy that sets the foundation for Lost & Found, a poignant memoir about how love and loss often coexist. Braiding her personal experiences together with psychological, philosophical and scientific insight, Schultz weaves a taxonomy of our losses, which can “encompass both the trivial as well as the consequential, the abstract and the concrete, the merely misplaced and the permanently gone.” But so too does she celebrate the act of discovery, from finding what we’ve mislaid to lucking into lasting love. Penetrating and profound, Lost & Found captures the extraordinary joys and sorrows of ordinary life.
If your experience of Hurston begins and ends with Their Eyes Were Watching God, pick up this expansive anthology to discover new shades of the famed Harlem Renaissance writer. Spanning nearly four decades of Hurston’s nonfiction, You Don’t Know Us Negroes runs a wide gamut of subjects, from Black spirituality to desegregation to Hurston’s provocative criticisms of the NAACP. In “Bits of Harlem,” Hurston captures the infectious energy of the Harlem she once knew; in “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience,” she recalls the New York doctor who ejected her from his waiting room and forced her to wait in a linen closet. Presented together in this anthology, these essays showcase the growth of a remarkable writer who captured turbulent times.
Today’s fitness industry is valued at upwards of $100 billion—but just how did we get from ancient Greeks wrestling naked to a multibillion dollar machine? In this cultural and scientific history of exercise, Hayes investigates movement through the ages, from fencing to yoga to Jane Fonda’s home workout tapes (even Fonda herself endorsed the book, saying, “I was riveted by Sweat and its extraordinary tale of the ups and downs of exercise over millennia. Who knew?”). Leavened with Hayes’ own personal experiences of exercise, from jogging naked to visiting gyms with his father, Sweat is a dynamic investigation of bodies in motion.
When James enrolled at Connecticut’s prestigious Taft School at fifteen years old, she had no idea that, as the predominantly white boarding school’s first “Black American legacy student to graduate since 1891,” she would become its involuntary poster child for diversity. James’ hopes for a positive high school experience were dashed by “a swamp of microaggressions,” ranging from a student who accused her of stealing $20 to an article in the student newspaper blaming students of color for the segregation of campus. Determined that students after her wouldn’t suffer the same fate, she became an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment, but soon felt that she was “selling a lie for a living.” Frank and devastating in its candor, as well as incisive in its critique of elite academia, Admissions is a poignant coming-of-age memoir.
The American South is often cast as a backwater cousin out of step with American ideals. In this vital cultural history, Perry argues otherwise, insisting the South is, in fact, the foundational heartland of America, an undeniable fulcrum around which our wealth and politics have always turned. Fusing memoir, reportage, and travelogue, Perry imparts Southern history alongside high-spirited interviews with modern-day Southerners from all walks of life. At once a love letter to “a land of big dreams and bigger lies” and a clarion call for change, South to America will change how you understand America’s past, present, and future.
From one of our great chroniclers of pop culture comes this entertaining romp through the twilight years of the twentieth century, “the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional.” Roving across flashpoints in movies, music, and politics, Klosterman captures a world where apathy was the defining tone, art was experiencing a seismic shift, and celebrity culture was on the eve of a digital explosion. But don’t mistake The Nineties for hagiography; as Klosterman writes, “There is always a disconnect between the world we seem to remember and the world that actually was.”
Read an exclusive interview with Klosterman here at Esquire.
No one writes about the agony and ecstasy of relationships with as much gutsy grace as Havrilesky, who has long counseled troubled lovers under the guise of Ask Polly. In Foreverland, Havrilesky turns the microscope on her own relationship, illuminating the joys and exasperations of her fifteen-year marriage. From parenting to quarantining together to bristling at her husband’s every loud sneeze, Havrilesky proves that forever is hard, wonderful work.
Read Havrilesky’s column about her husband here at Esquire.
Have you ever been bashed for watching Survivor or The Bachelor? Pick up this definitive sociological guide to reality television, and next time someone mocks your “guilty pleasure,” you’ll know exactly what to say. In compulsively readable chapters on everything from COPS to Honey Boo Boo, Lindemann illuminates how reality television both reflects and creates us, while also codifying our deep conservatism and fragile hierarchies of power. “Reality television teaches us how the categories and meanings we use to organize our worlds are built on unsteady ground,” Lindemann argues. Reading True Story is like seeing the matrix—you’ll never watch Bravo the same way again.
One of our finest true crime writers returns with the chilling story of Edgar Smith, a convicted murderer freed from Death Row by virtue of his connections with various powerful people, including National Review founder William F. Buckley. Smith’s deceptions set him free and catapulted him to literary fame, but ultimately, he nearly took another innocent woman’s life, leaving blood on the hands of Buckley and his other champions. Exhaustively reported and compassionately told, Scoundrel shows how the justice system is easily manipulated, and how it often fails vulnerable women. Like The Real Lolita before it, Scoundrel proves once again that Weinman is a modern master of the genre.
“I got sick the way Hemingway says you go broke: ‘gradually and then suddenly,’” O’Rourke writes in The Invisible Kingdom, describing the beginning of her decades-long struggle with chronic autoimmune disease. In the late nineties, O’Rourke began suffering symptoms ranging from rashes to crushing fatigue; when she sought treatment, she became an unwilling citizen of a shadow world, where chronic illness sufferers are dismissed by doctors and alienated from their lives. In this elegant fusion of memoir, reporting, and cultural history, O’Rourke traces the development of modern Western medicine and takes aim at its limitations, advocating for a community-centric healthcare model that treats patients as people, not parts. At once a rigorous work of scholarship and a radical act of empathy, The Invisible Kingdom has the power to move mountains.
Want to learn more about QAnon, but don’t know where to start? In Trust the Plan, a journalist who’s reported on the group for years (and come into its crosshairs) explains all you could ever want to know about this radical far-right movement, from its origins as a fringe online conspiracy to the fateful day its supporters ransacked the Capitol. Through sobering and studied reportage, Sommer unpacks the past and looks ahead to the threatening future, arguing that the growing danger of Q must be stopped, before it’s too late.
Library-goers have long labored under a romanticized portrait of libraries as sacred spaces. In Overdue, a former librarian explores the importance of demanding better from what we love. Through the lens of her time as a librarian in one of Washington D.C.’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Oliver illuminates how libraries have long been vectors for some of our biggest social ills, from segregation to racism to inequality. Now, as unhoused patrons take refuge in libraries and librarians are trained to administer Narcan, our overlapping mental healthcare and opioid crises come to a head in these spaces. At once a love letter and a call to action, Overdue dispels mythology and demands a better future. You’ll never see libraries the same way again.
Comic book fans will fall hard for this delightfully daffy guidebook to supervillainy from an award-winning Marvel Comics writer. After a career spent dreaming up “increasingly credible world-domination schemes,” no one is better prepared than North to write this practical guide to designing death rays, constructing a secret underground base, and hiring dependable henchmen, among other musts. North takes the outlandish seriously, laying out the science behind even the most farcical maneuvers. But this gimlet-eyed Trojan horse of a book has a trick up its sleeve: what if some schemes from the playbook, like extending our life spans and controlling the climate, could actually save the world? Exuberant, optimistic, and just plain fun, How to Take Over the World will both surprise and delight.
Who are our ancestors to us, and what can they tell us about ourselves? In this riveting memoir, Newton goes in search of the answers to these questions, spelunking exhaustively through her frustrating and fascinating family tree. From an accused witch to a thirteen times-married man, her family tree abounds with stories that absorb and appall, but taxonomizing her family history doesn’t satisfy Newton’s hunger for meaning. Just what do the facts of a life tell us about who we are or where we come from, and what can our personal histories tell us about our national past? Carefully blending memoir and cultural criticism, Newton explores the cultural, scientific, and spiritual dimensions of ancestry, arguing for the transformational power of grappling with our inheritances.


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