The Best Nonfiction of the Year So Far

Jon Foro on June 21, 2018
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Here are just a few of our favorite nonfiction books of 2018. Browse all of our picks, and find more editors' picks across a dozen categories in the Best Books of the Year So Far.

NF-Feather.jpgThe title of The Feather Thief smartly echoes Susan Orleans' much-admired The Orchid Thief, and with good reason. Strange niches of history. Obsessives who refuse to adhere to the law. A writer who stumbles upon a story that becomes an obsession in its own right. All these elements combust to create Johnson's investigation into the theft of 299 rare bird skins from a British natural history museum. While bird skins might sound like (ahem) dry reading, Johnson knows just how to fascinate the reader, plunging with vigor into exotic bird exploration, the crackdown on rare bird trafficking, and the insular world of fly-tying enthusiasts, all of which lead, almost inevitably, to the theft from the Tring Museum. The most likely receivers of the stolen goods? Fly-tiers with an unquenchable thirst for feathers from blue chatterers, the resplendent quetzal, and birds of paradise so they can re-create outlandish Victorian-era salmon flies. Although the thief is caught, Johnson decides to investigate himself what happened to the 106 never-recovered bird skins, pulling the reader even deeper into the thief's bizarre world. Clever, informative, and sometimes endearingly bumbling, this mix of natural history and crime opens up new worlds. You'll never look at a stuffed bird the same way again. (Print | Kindle)

BOTYSF-Ill-be-gone.jpgI’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara’s compelling investigation of the “Golden State Killer,” who terrorized northern California from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, is one of the best true crime books to come along in a decade. It’s the story of two obsessions: McNamara’s obsession with the criminal, and whatever abhorrent obsession drove him to commit a series of horrific rapes and murders over ten years. The author, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, describes the crimes and examines clues in an effort to uncover his identity. Occasionally, she challenges convention by inserting herself into the narrative (at one point, she even writes directly to the Golden State Killer), and the book acquires even more personal weight when one takes into account the fact that McNamara, at the age of 46, died while writing it. Knowing all of this, and with each chilling description, McNamara’s obsession begins to become our own. She believed that the Golden State Killer would still be alive today. You will discover yourself hoping she’s right, so that you can see him captured and brought to justice. (Print | Kindle)

BOTYSF-Pollan.jpgMichael Pollan, whose curiosity about our eating habits led to thoughtful, culturally transformative writing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, most recently, Food Rules, here explores the potential psilocybin and other psychedelics hold for transformation of the spiritual and emotional kind. As he tells it in How to Change Your Mind, a fascinating, sometimes moving look at the history and uses of psychoactive compounds, Pollan avoided such drugs in his youth, but later in life became intrigued by the opportunity “to become more ‘open’—especially at this age, when the grooves of mental habit have been etched so deep as to seem inescapable.” And then there was the chance of experiencing a spiritual epiphany—“touching the face of God,” as one ecstatic user put it. Pollan’s natural skepticism and wry humor is a good match for the detailed accounts he includes of mind-blowing, trip-induced revelations. Ultimately, whether such experiences lead to genuine insight into, say, the origins of the universe or what we can expect after death seems less interesting to Pollan than the hope psychedelics offer people suffering from depression, addiction, and acute illness. Can magic mushrooms be used more broadly for “the betterment of well people”? Readers who begin reading Pollan’s book feeling doubtful about the responsible use of psychedelics may find their own minds changed by his engaging, enlightened, and persuasive combination of personal and journalistic research. “I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a wide-open frontier, squinting to make out something wondrous,” he writes, and with him as our guide, so do we. (Print | Kindle)

NF-Bad-Blood.jpgIn Bad Blood, the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou takes us through the step-by-step history of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup that became almost mythical, in no small part due to its young, charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes. In fact, Theranos was mythical for a different reason, because the technological promise it was founded upon—that vital health information could be gleaned from a small drop of blood using handheld devices—was a lie. Carreyrou tracks the experiences of former employees to craft the fascinating story of a company run under a strict code of secrecy, a place where leadership was constantly throwing up smoke screens and making promises that it could not keep. Meanwhile, investors kept pouring in money, turning Elizabeth Holmes into a temporary billionaire. As companies like Walgreens and Safeway strike deals with Theranos, and as even the army tries to get in on the Theranos promise (there’s a brief cameo by James “Mad Dog” Mattis), the plot thickens and the proverbial noose grows tighter. Although I knew how the story ended, I found myself reading this book compulsively. (Print | Kindle)

BOTYSF-Pinker.jpgGiven the 24-hour news cycle to which we have grown accustomed, it’s difficult to navigate life and think that everything is peachy. But Steven Pinker has set out, first in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and now in Enlightenment Now, to illustrate that there has never been a better time to be a human being. In his new book, Pinker points out that the slow creep of progress is not as newsworthy as, say, an earthquake or an explosion. So it’s clear why we don’t always have the sense that things are getting better. But the Enlightenment—with its dedication to science, reason, humanism, and progress—has led people to live longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives. And Pinker uses charts, data, history, and a firm dedication to his cause to empirically prove that we are living in better times. It makes sense to be skeptical of a scientist arguing that that science is the answer. And his optimism won’t always jibe with your personal experience or judgement. But there’s lots to chew on here—and it’s so easy to obsess on the intrusions and negatives of technology and “advancement” that this book can serve as a kind of antidote. (Print | Kindle)

BOTYSF-Hoffman.jpgHoffman's Savage Harvest took readers to New Guinea to investigate the mysterious 1961 disappearance of billionaire scion Michael Rockefeller, last seen making his way from his sinking boat toward the native Asmat waiting on the shore, along with the rumors of cannibalism that followed them. (Read more about that here.)  True to form, The Last Wild Men of Borneo goes in search of the Dayaks—AKA "the Headhunters of Borneo"—and two earlier explorers who found them, and maybe more than they expected: Bruno Manser, who led the tribe in revolt against logging incursions, becoming an environmental hero before his own mysterious disappearance; and Michael Palmieri, a world traveler and tribal art "collector" (again, like Rockefeller) at once hailed and criticized as a preserver and exploiter of Dayak culture. (Print | Kindle)

BOTYSF-Economy.jpgA former finance minister for Greece, Varoufakis spent time in the crucible of international finance (which he recounted in his 2017 memoir, Adults in the Room), clashing with world leaders and witnessing first-hand the good, the bad, and the ugly of fiscal policy and its occasionally dire consequences. Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: Or, How Capitalism Works—And How It Fails (a lot going on in that title) takes a wider view. Written as a series of letters to his young daughter, Talking presents his unvarnished opinions in a clear and entertaining fashion, often using classics of literature to illustrate his points. That his references include Faust (Marlowe’s and Goethe’s), The Grapes of Wrath, and Oedipus Rex might give you a sense of his level of optimism. (Print | Kindle)


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