The best non-fiction of recent years?
March 27, 2012 5:55 PM   Subscribe

What is considered to be the best non-fiction of recent years?

I'm always looking to get my hands on new amazing non-fiction but it's a tedious process to look through award winners and so on. So I ask you, what non-fiction, that has come out in the past five years, has been especially well-regarded or critically-acclaimed? Which books have one the most awards or been the most controversial among those in-the-know? I'm looking for a broad assortment of subjects, and anything particularly unusual would be even better.
posted by csjc to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 155 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoy Mary Roach.
posted by Drasher at 5:58 PM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Information, by James Gleick.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:02 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Columbine by Dave Cullen. Award winning, well reviewed, unbelievably engrossing.
posted by telegraph at 6:07 PM on March 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

Mary Roach, Simon Winchester, Ben Macintyre, Pico Iyer, Jon Ronson, Sarah Vowell--I will read anything these folks put out.

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns is one of the best books I've read in years.

I will read anything V.S. Ramachandran publishes, anything Frans de Waal publishes, and anything Sarah Blaffer Hrdy publishes. One of the most fascinating science books I've read in a while was Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy Cheney and Richard Seyfarth.

MeFi's own MaiaS wrote one of the best investigative journalism books I've ever read, among other fine books (she collaborated with one of Warren Jeffs's nephews on a beautifully structured autobiography/insider expose of Jeffs's cult regime).

Allison Weir's biographies are always strong. Liza Pickard's histories of London in different eras are enchanting.

I review a lot of non-fiction (particularly memoir, biography, history, science, and nature writing) on my daily book review Twitter; there's a link to it in my profile if that interests you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:07 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:13 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, "Liza Picard" is the correct spelling of the author I referred to above.

While mentioning London histories, I would be remiss to omit The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:16 PM on March 27, 2012

I have always enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick's writing, he focuses on American History, usually with a nautical bent.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:19 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:21 PM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I loved Stasiland by Anna Funder. It's not a new book exactly, but for some reason escaped my radar when it first came out in 2003 until it was reprinted last year.

Edmund de Waal's The Hare With the Amber Eyes (Economist Book of the Year, Costa Award) is beautiful, but it could be a bit rambly for some.

Other recent non-fiction favourites include David Grann's The Lost City of Z, Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation, Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day. and Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test.

Michael Lewis and Michael Pollan are extremely popular.

You could acquaint yourself with one of the biggest publishing controversies in recent years by first reading Three Cups of Tea, followed by Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit.

This year, I plan to read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee and Just Kids, Patti Smith's autobiography. And maybe, just maybe Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan's Army Conquered the Web.
posted by peripathetic at 6:40 PM on March 27, 2012

2nding Columbine. Methland was also great.
posted by jabes at 6:42 PM on March 27, 2012

Three books in the last year or so which have totally turned my thinking upside down, on the following topics:

On money: David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years
On poverty: Abhijit Banerjee and Esther DuFloe, Poor Economics (disclaimer, I know the authors)
On thinking itself: Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

on the latter, do not be fooled by the Gladwellian cover: it's leaps and bounds better.
posted by idlethink at 6:47 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, Elaine Scarry's Thinking in an Emergency is a short, terrific read in which we learn, among many other things, that the Swiss are the only ones who are going to survive a nuclear fallout.
posted by idlethink at 6:50 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bill Bryson. I like At Home (maybe the only thing from the last 5 years), and A Short History of Nearly Everything, but his travel stuff is great too.

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
posted by backwards guitar at 7:29 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

This question two years ago from scody asking for nonfiction books has some great suggestions.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:23 PM on March 27, 2012

I got my dad The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for Christmas and he (and now my mom) can't stop raving about it. They've been pressing it on everyone they know. For science writing, it's top knotch.
posted by bonehead at 8:56 PM on March 27, 2012

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas - Roger Crowley
And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris - Alan Riding
Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 - Syed Saleem Shahzad
Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign: Britain's Afghan Envoy 2007-2010 - Sherard Cowper-Coles
posted by adamvasco at 10:15 PM on March 27, 2012

Hands down, the best non-fiction book I read last year was Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy--it's an oral history of everyday life in North Korea as told by people who eventually escaped.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:20 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I loved Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:28 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

2nding Stasiland. An amazing book.
posted by jojobobo at 3:00 AM on March 28, 2012

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt. Strictly speaking, it's just outside your 5 year limit but worth making the exception for.
posted by Jakey at 3:58 AM on March 28, 2012

Anything by Joan Didion.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 4:09 AM on March 28, 2012

The Green Collar Economy
Unbearable Lightness
Into The Wild
The Food Revolution (for SURE)
Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman
posted by jitterbug perfume at 5:11 AM on March 28, 2012

For a few years, Confessions of a Science Librarian has been linking to others' "best of" science books lists. Here's his various blog posts for 2011, 2010 (in which the aforementioned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was very frequently named), and 2009.

In response to a previous question, here's some of my recommended nonfiction, although not all of those fall within your "past five years" restriction.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:27 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I didn't remember the past five years on some of mine either - oops.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 6:48 AM on March 28, 2012

I'm also a huge non-fiction fan; it's practically all I read - I liked Henrietta Lacks, also enjoyed:

The Unconquered

All there Is

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
posted by brynna at 6:49 AM on March 28, 2012

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

Also wanted to add to the recommendations for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
posted by stampsgal at 7:48 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

John McPhee, very high on the list.
posted by Old Timer at 10:35 AM on March 28, 2012

I loved 1493 and look forward to reading the others in the series.

I also enjoyed The Disappearing Spoon
posted by abirdinthehand at 2:05 PM on March 28, 2012

I enjoyed World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a thought experiment about what would happen to the planet if every single human being disappeared overnight.

Also Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson, which is about Isaac Newton's other career, as head of the Royal Mint.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach is hilarious and a bit scatological in places.

Just my Type by Simon Garfield - a whole book about typefaces and fonts (in my copy, each chapter is in a different font... of course.)

I'll also second the recommendations of Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat (and his other book about WW2 spies, Agent Zig Zag) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
posted by meronym at 2:31 PM on March 28, 2012

What type of non-fiction are you looking for?

Popular non-fiction: Seconding Bill Bryson, Tracy Kidder, Jonah Lehrer.

Travelogue: Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Tom Bissell.

Thicker stuff: Tony Judt, William Vollman, Edward Hoagland.

There are also a number of previous questions on this:

Fun non-fiction

Unique approaches to nonfiction storytelling.

Make history interesting

A Year of...

Simple, Powerful, non-fiction
posted by vecchio at 2:32 PM on March 28, 2012

A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon

Woman by Nathalie Angiers
posted by kettleoffish at 4:54 PM on March 29, 2012

Back when it first came out a few years ago, I read Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster. The book is not new, but it is riveting. Really! And, since this is the bicentennial year of the sinking, it seems rather timely. In fact, you've inspired me to go buy it on kindle, because I can't find my original copy.

Am currently reading The Guns of August, because I never fully understood the run-up to WWI. Seems very interesting.

This is not a history book, but The Coming Jobs War is packed with data and will make you fear for your future if you're American. It's by Jim Clifton, the chairman of Gallup. So, if you're looking for something interesting and fact-based, this certainly is that.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is fascinating.

Would be interesting for the rest of us to know what you ended up reading. :o)
posted by laskagirl at 10:35 AM on April 1, 2012

The Devil in the White City is great if you want to learn some history and also be really entertained by an awesome story. It's about the Chicago World's Fair and a serial killer at said fair... kinda morbid at times but really interesting
posted by lachnessmonster at 3:20 PM on April 1, 2012

I always suggest Agent Zigzag and Hunting Eichmann to people who want nonfiction that reads like a thriller novel.
posted by reenum at 3:51 PM on April 1, 2012

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