Electric Lit’s Best Nonfiction of 2023

Literature


When it comes to nonfiction, this year featured some truly stellar writing. This was a year in which we’ve seen the expansion of what this genre is, and who writes it. Our truest stories, sometimes molded in the form of poetic lyricism or sensational public spectacle, yielded a larger than life impact. Questions of displacement and longing, and the desire to root oneself in a chosen community, were widespread themes, alongside love, loss, and the practice of creating art—much of it told with humor and acerbic wit. There’s no doubt that some of our most crucial, vital storytellers are not only writing the stories of their lives, but of our lives, too. 

Here are Electric Lit’s top five nonfiction books of the year, followed by additional favorites below.  


The Top 5 Nonfiction Books of The Year

A Living Remedy: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

A searing memoir examining the intricacies of familial bonds, grief and class, A Living Remedy chronicles Nicole Chung’s journey out of her largely white Oregon hometown to middle class stability. However, she is unexpectedly drawn back to her roots by her father’s death from diabetes and kidney disease at the age of sixty-seven and her mother’s cancer diagnosis a year later. Exposing the deep inequalities at the heart of the American healthcare system, A Living Remedy is also a moving meditation on overcoming hardship and the strength of familial love. Read an interview with Chung here.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer

Claire Dederer tackles the moral complexities of separating the art from the artist, questioning if we can knowingly enjoy the work of problematic or harmful male artists and if female artists can be considered monstrous too. Interrogating her own responses to creators whose difficult behavior disrupts our enjoyment of their work, she prompts her readers to consider these questions for themselves. Ambitious, nuanced and morally considered, Monsters interrogates the ethical implications of loving problematic artists. Read an interview with Dederer here.

Hijab Butch Blues: A Memoir by Lamya H

Hijab Butch Blues narrates the story of Lamya, a queer South Asian teenager growing up in a Muslim family who feels displaced in a Middle Eastern country. Following Lamya’s journey as she immigrates to the United States and explores queer dating, the memoir interweaves stories from the Quran with her deeply personal experiences. This is a bold, humorous and unflinching look at one woman’s navigation of her sexuality, faith and relationships while forging a path of her own. Read a conversation with her here.

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith

Poet and author of “Good Bones” Maggie Smith examines a heartbreak that led to the disintegration of her marriage. Expanding outwards, this memoir confronts labor under the patriarchy and the gendered dynamics of heterosexual marriage that exist even within progressive families head-on. An emotionally honest and searing memoir about one woman’s enduring love for her children and struggle to regain her own voice and identity, You Could Make This Place Beautiful reveals how we move forward in the aftermath of loss. Read an interview with her here.

Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby

Samatha Irby’s hilarious new essay collection takes us on a behind the scenes tour of her dynamic career as a comedian, essayist, blogger, and television writer. Navigating the ins and outs of both Hollywood fame and everyday life, she narrates amusing anecdotes about subjects as wide-ranging as dress codes, dog adoption and emails. Quietly Hostile is an uproarious account of the relatable gory details underlying Irby’s entertaining online presence.

Electric Lit’s Other Favorite Nonfiction Books 

Sink: A Memoir by Joseph Earl Thomas

Growing up in a tumultuous home where his family struggled with hunger and the consequences of crack addiction, Joseph Earl Jones found solace in geek culture. Faced with hostility and indifference at home and at school, he began to escape into the respite of virtual and fantasy worlds. Sink is a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story about Jones’s quest to find salvation on his own terms that is also a celebration of all things nerdy.

The Book of (More) Delights by Ross Gay

This charming follow-up to The Book of Delights is an exquisite, genre-defying catalog of small daily wonders. Gay investigates wide-ranging sources of delight, from hearing his favorite song on the radio to baking cookies to the enduring beauty of the natural world. Searching for connection and meaning yields in this moving and cheerful collection on the power of looking for wonder in everyday life.

The Heartbreak Years: A Memoir by Minda Honey

In 2008, Minda Honey made a cross-country trip from her hometown in Kentucky to begin a new life in California. Navigating the treacherous waters of early adulthood, she confronted breakups, hookups, complicated relationships and a new wave of political change. This unflinching memoir focusing on a Black woman coming of age and falling in and out of relationships in her twenties examines the complex dynamics of gender, sexuality, race and class. Learn about the book’s cover design here.

Pageboy: A Memoir by Elliot Page

This much-anticipated memoir from the acclaimed actor and activist traces the arc of his journey as a queer and transgender person grappling with the perils of fame. The success of his movie Juno launched Elliot to worldwide stardom, but he struggled with the pressure to perform the part of a movie star and endured a barrage of criticism from both Hollywood and wider society. An intimate behind the scenes exploration of love, sex, trauma and fame, Pageboy is the moving story of what it means to overcome societal expectations to embrace who we really are.

Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe

Ordinary Notes is an inventive collection of 248 brief notes exploring profound questions about loss, beauty, memory, art, and everyday Black existence. Artifacts from the past are interwoven with contemporary realities and distant futures to evoke the presence of the author’s mother Ida Wright Sharpe and explore a new way of seeing. Sharpe’s practice of “beauty as a method” and examination of memorial sites forges a bold and sparkling new literary form underlying her multifaceted constructions of Blackness.

Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation by Camonghne Felix

After the author undergoes a traumatic breakup resulting in a hospital stay, she attempts to grapple with her early childhood trauma and mental health during her healing process. Framing her childhood mathematical learning difficulties, dyscalculia, as a metaphor for her miscalculations in romantic relationships. Dyscalculia explores the consequences of heartbreak and realities of misaligned expectations in an achingly familiar way.

bell hooks: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations by bell hooks

bell hooks was a trailblazing feminist and anti-racist author whose work as an activist, cultural critic and professor laid the foundations for contemporary conversations surrounding race and gender. In this collection of interviews spanning from her early career to just before her death, hooks discusses her views on feminism, masculinity, religion, politics, love, sexuality and cross-cultural communication. This new collection is essential reading for both longtime readers of hooks and new fans seeking to learn more about her groundbreaking contributions to cultural and intellectual movements.

A Man of Two Faces: A Memorial, A History, A Memorial by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In A Man of Two Faces, Viet Thanh Nguyen brilliantly expands the genre of memoir by intertwining his own life story with a critical exploration of colonization, family history and fatherhood. After Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam as refugees and settled in California, he continued to contend with his legacy of family trauma, Vietnamese identity, political convictions and heartbreaking tragedy. A Man of Two Faces mines the power of cultural memory to narrate the exceptional life story of a brilliant and original writer. Read an interview with Nguyen here.

Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice by Cristina Rivera Garza

A finalist for the National Book Award, Cristina Rivera Garza takes a painful journey back in time to seek justice for her sister, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend thirty years ago. Both a celebration of life and an interrogation of domestic abuse, this memoir honors a woman whose story ended tragically and seeks accountability from perpetrators of violence.

The Loneliness Files by Athena Dixon

Can you build human connection behind a computer screen? In this memoir-in-essays, Athena Dixon examines loneliness under a microscope, revisiting the isolation at the height of the pandemic and exploring the impact of the Internet on our relationship with solitude. Read an EL interview with Dixon on the epidemic of loneliness. 

Black Women Writers at Work by Claudia Tate

This thirty-year-old collection by Claudia Tate encompasses interviews of celebrated Black women writers, including Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and more. Previously out of print, this new edition of Black Women Writers at Work brings the crucial words of icons across Black literature to a new audience. 

Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein

Upon indirectly meeting her “doppelganger,” who is an anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist, Naomi Klein reckons with a loss of identity as she faces notoriety after being mistaken for someone else. A personal and meticulous examination of the Internet post-pandemic, Klein’s memoir tackles AI-generated content, the spread of misinformation, and the permeation of conspiracy theories.

Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris

By now, Palo Alto seems synonymous with Silicon Valley and the “next big idea” from its eager entrepreneurs. But this dive into the history of Palo Alto from Malcolm Harris leaps 150 years into the past, mapping the city’s colonialist origins and examining how it became an epicenter for technology and capitalism. 

The In-Betweens: A Lyrical Memoir by Davon Loeb

A poetic memoir-in-essays, The In-Betweens traces Davon Loeb’s adolescence between two identities: Southern Black, like his mother, and Jewish and white, like his father. Often one’s family and culture is not so easily defined, and this introspective coming-of-age memoir offers a voice to everyone interpreting life in the in-between. Read an EL interview with Loeb on navigating identity and masculinity as a biracial boy in America. 

When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era by Donovan X. Ramsey

Longlisted for the National Book Award, this meticulous analysis of the crack cocaine epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s lends a voice to survivors of addiction and brings unflinching insight into the destructive impact of the “War on Drugs.” When Crack Was King, a debut from Donovan X. Ramsey, ignites a conversation about decriminalization, mass incarceration, and the trauma of the crack epidemic on Black and brown communities. Read Fred McKindra’s essay about the book.

All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive by Rainesford Stauffer

Suffering from burnout, Americans struggle to keep up with ever-looming expectations to succeed, thrive, and endlessly grind. In All the Gold Stars, Rainesford Stauffer offers an alternative: reconnect with yourself and your community and navigate ambition on your own terms (outside of a capitalistic lens designed to overwork and individualize). 

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell

Is it healthy to monetize every minute of every day? (Short answer: no). Rather than living by the whims of a clock, Jenny Odell encourages us to slow down, embrace the natural cycles of the Earth, match the rhythm of our own bodies, and see time as something to be shared with one another. Read an EL essay on Odell’s books Saving Time and How to Do Nothing and viewing time and attention as “collective goods.” 

Tabula Rasa: Volume 1 by John McPhee

Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Tabula Rasa: Volume 1 engages with fraught ideas and unpublished drafts that span his decades-long career. A prolific icon of literary nonfiction, McPhee provides an honest and clever retrospection on his own work while revisiting projects initially left behind. 

A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs

Joanna Biggs struggles to start over after the unraveling of her marriage and finds solace in the words and unconventional lives of women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. A Life of One’s Own is both an interrogation of stifling societal expectations of women and rich biographical accounts of history’s beloved women writers. 

Eyeliner: A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir

The pen rolling around the bottom of a makeup bag is so much more than just eyeliner. Zahra Hankir, editor of Our Women on the Ground, explores the lasting impact of eyeliner across history. From being a cultural and religious custom, to a political statement, to a modern eye-catching look, Eyeliner: A Cultural History reveals the power of this versatile cosmetic.

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