I’ve found the first 10 of the books listed here to be the most memorable nonfiction of the last 10 years, but the 15 others are hard to forget.
To put this list in perspective, these 25 books represent less than 2% of the approximately 1,500 books I’ve read (or at least tried to read) over the past decade. (I’ve finished reading and reviewing about 1,000 here.) However, these are all nonfiction. I’ve read fewer than 400 nonfiction books over the same period. So, my choices may look a little less selective.
The 25 books included here are grouped in two categories and listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each category.
The 10 most memorable nonfiction books
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: reexamining mass incarceration in America
How the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of non-recognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ultimately all of ourselves. Read the review.
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly – By William Easterly: why economic development happens (or doesn’t)
“The technocratic approach [to economic development] ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty—the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.” Read the review.
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg – The Doomsday Machine: Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act
Before Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, he had planned to reveal an even larger store of top secret documents exposing the hidden truths about our nuclear plans. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront. Read the review.
The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings – A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II
Hastings contends that breakthroughs in deciphering codes by the British, Russians, and Americans contributed far more decisively to the successful outcome of the war than any missions undertaken by spies. And, except in Russia from 1943 onward, the efforts of Resistance movements in Europe were even less significant. Read the review.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman – World War II: when America was united in common purpose
Two extraordinary men—William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser—are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war. Read the review.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan – From Robert D. Kaplan, a thought-provoking view of world politics
The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis—about the influence of geography on European history, about the role of megacities in our future, about changing demographic patterns, and about the impact of latitude on the fate of nations. Read the review.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin – The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”
“A jaw-dropping [total of] 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies [are] involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States—all of them working at the top secret classification level.” Read the review.
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld – J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and the violence in 1960s Berkeley
J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan were personally and directly engaged not just in monitoring but in managing the secret government campaigns that helped raise the temperature to the boiling point again and again in Berkeley. Read the review.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – The dark history of mid-century medical research
“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.” Read the review.
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot – When America’s secret government ran amok
“In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, [CIA Director] Allen Dulles and his big brother [Secretary of State John] Foster Dulles would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality.” Read the review.
The 15 runners-up
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel
The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway – Bretton Woods: clashing personalities determined our economic history
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – The stories told in “Nothing to Envy” make clear why politics matters
Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy – The problem-solvers who won World War II
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson – Why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitlers Germany
Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy – Understanding globalization, from the ground up
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics
Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy – Aravind: a social enterprise with impact to match Grameen Bank
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A cancer researcher looks at the disease most of us fear above all
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman – Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America
NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman – The story of autism, brilliantly told
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles – The first robber baron and the emergence of the corporation
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – Scientology revealed in a definitive investigative report
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf – Biography of a genius: the man who invented ecology