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All Biography & Memoir Coverage

Nonfiction is the broadest publishing category, with books that delve into the past, present and future of every aspect of our world. There are books that rifle through our innermost emotions and books that search the outer universe. Books that strike while the iron is hot and books that are cool and classic. You'll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.

20. Cultish by Amanda Montell

In her incredibly timely book, Amanda Montell's expertise as a linguist melds with her research into the psychological underpinnings of cults.

19. Cuba by Ada Ferrer

With interesting characters, new historical insights and dramatic yet accessible writing, Ada Ferrer's epic history of Cuba will grab and hold your attention.

18. Fuzz by Mary Roach

Mary Roach's enthusiasm and sense of humor are contagious in her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations.

17. Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of being.

16. American Republics by Alan Taylor

Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor's latest American history, covering the United States' expansion from 1783 to 1850, is sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting.

15. My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: All of these words describe Quiara Alegría Hudes' memoir.

14. Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello

Frangello's raw, eloquent memoir is singed with rage and tinged with optimism about the power to recover one's life from the depth of suffering.

13. Unbound by Tarana Burke

Unbound is Tarana Burke's unflinching, beautifully told account of founding the #MeToo movement and becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.

12. The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

For readers seeking to understand the twists, turns and amazing potential of gene-editing CRISPR technology, there's no better place to turn than The Code Breaker.

11. 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei

This heart-rending yet exhilarating memoir by a world-famous artist gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live.

10. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel's unique combination of personal narrative, a search for higher meaning and comic ingenuity will leave you pumped up and smiling.

9. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

This epic, transformative book covers 400 years of Black history with the help of a choir of exceptional poets, critics, essayists, novelists and scholars.

8. A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg

Gorgeously written and sophisticated, Jonathan Meiburg's book about a wickedly clever falcon will move readers to protect this truly remarkable creature.

7. Chasing Me to My Grave by Winfred Rembert

From surviving a lynching to discovering the transformative power of art while imprisoned in a chain gang, Winfred Rembert recounts his life story in his distinct and unforgettable voice.

6. Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

Most of the Japanese American patriots who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment are gone, but their stories live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.

5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Beloved author George Saunders shares invaluable insights into classic Russian short stories, unlocking their magic for bibliophiles everywhere.

4. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make this a richly provocative read about the ways America does (and doesn't) acknowledge its history of slavery.

3. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

In jaw-dropping detail, Patrick Radden Keefe recounts the greed and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family's quest for wealth and social status.

2. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In her debut memoir, Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother, wrapping her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother's presence.

1. A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib's brilliant commentary shuffles forward, steps sideways, leaps diagonally and waltzes gracefully throughout this survey of Black creative performance in America.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

You’ll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.

Gayle Jessup White's multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant's Search for Her Family's Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and '70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience "what racism felt like" until she was 13.

Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White's scrupulous search to prove her family's claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn't begin her genealogical search until much later.

The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.

During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson's home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello's first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution's doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.

As a Black person working to prove her family’s claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White faced plenty of obstacles.

It's hard to believe that author Dawn Turner isn't the narrator of her memoir, Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood (12 hours); the woman reading the audiobook sounds so honest as she recalls growing up in the historic Bronzeville section of Chicago that surely she must be Turner. But award-winning voice actor Janina Edwards' confident storytelling commands attention and enhances the tale. Her wise, knowing tone allows the listener to fall under the spell of the story, envisioning each episode and trusting that the details will weave together meaningfully.

The listener is transported into the past to experience the closeness of Turner's family, the excitement of growing up together and the emotional toll of their disparate fates. With a range of tones and speech patterns, Edwards acts out the truths of Turner's life, from the memorable words of both child and adult personalities to the clear, precise diction of a person raised with strict insistence upon proper speech. This remarkable audio production intrigues and entertains.

Listeners will fall under the spell of Dawn Turner’s memoir through Janina Edwards’ confident storytelling and wise, knowing tone.

As you may already know, it's Banned Books Week, during which the freedom to read is celebrated by those opposed to censorship.

There are certain books that have been creating a stir since they were first published, generating fusses because of their language, obscenity, age (in)appropriateness or some other aspect deemed "offensive." One such book is Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, still controversial nearly 130 years after its publication.

We asked Benjamin Griffin, one of the editors of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (the second volume of which releases next month) to share his thoughts on the controversy.

United States v. Mark Twain

No such case as my title implies was ever brought, of course. The United States has no banning—that is, no centralized prohibition of books. Here, a ban has come to mean any decision to eliminate a book from a library or a school reading list.

It’s true that, until fairly recently, the Postal Service exercised a censoring function by enforcing laws against sending obscene matter through the mail. But Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s and ’70s have rendered obscenity pretty ungainly to work with as a criminal charge.

Huckleberry_Finn_bookHuckleberry Finn was “banned” several times in Mark Twain’s lifetime—always by librarians. In 1885, when the book was new, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, withdrew it, citing the characters’ “low grade of morality” and “irreverence.” Huck lies, talks dialect, is friends with a black man, steals and fails to return stolen property (the black man).

Mark Twain’s response to the ban was immediate. He told his publisher, “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” The commercial blessings of banning, in this country, are well known. Howard Hughes campaigned to ban his own film, The Outlaw, in order to get it released.

The early 20th century saw some more Huck bans. They were short-lived; but Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary, published in 1906 and banned by the Charlton, Massachusetts, public library, was restored to the shelves just two years ago. It was the illustrations (by Lester Ralph) that offended: They depicted Eve as a naked woman—stylized, but naked.

Today, Huckleberry Finn gets challenged not in the name of public morals but to protect something (the student, or the classroom atmosphere, or the school) against the unpredictable effects of the word nigger, which makes some students—I quote from a report by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom—“uncomfortable.”

Back in 1885, the book’s detractors feared that children would become too comfortable with Huck—with his “low” company and, I suspect, with Jim’s. Mark Twain’s response to this criticism, in his Autobiography, was that children were already routinely damaged by a book the library kept on open shelves—the Bible:

"The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old."

Layout 1It was only right, he said, for librarians to escort Huck and Tom out of that book’s “questionable company.”

In my opinion, at the core of our contemporary debate over Huckleberry Finn in schools is a confusion between, on the school’s side, encountering racism and legitimating racism; and a confusion, on the students’ side, between reading words—even heavily ironized ones—and being attacked by words.

This is certain: Mark Twain wouldn’t understand our solicitousness about “comfort level.” He might have wondered what comfort had to do with school, the discomforts of which had caused him to pack out at age twelve. No “Stay in school, kids” for Mark Twain! 

Benjamin Griffin, one of the editors of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, shares his thoughts on the controversy of banned books.

When the black solider Yasuke arrived in Japan, he became a sensation and later a respected samurai. Thomas Lockley shares how he first encountered the incredible man at the center of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan.

It was sometime in 2009 when, while reading a Wikipedia article about William Adams, the English navigator who became a samurai, I happened to notice a link to a page on Yasuke, an African samurai. My interest piqued, I clicked to find out more, and his story drew me in immediately. Like Adams, Yasuke rose from a humble background abroad to greatness in Japan, but unlike Adams, he actually fought in battles at the side of Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s greatest warriors who helped unify the country in the 16th century.

I started to write a novel about his life in 2010, but other things got in the way, and the project dropped by the wayside. Nevertheless, I kept on researching, and Yasuke’s world and time started to reveal themselves to me. It was an era when humanity was on the move, the first global age of navigation when people from all over the world were traversing the seas. That surprised me, as I didn’t remember learning about the globe-trotting exploits of Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Jewish, African or Japanese people! Most books made it seem as if only Europeans were “discovering” the globe at this time.

I found out that people of African descent around the globe formed royal houses in India, were present at the Chinese court, held noble ranks in Europe and were employed virtually everywhere as skilled professionals such as interpreters, divers, musicians, navigators, merchants and warriors. Yasuke was not unique for being an African success story far from home. Another stereotype, the one that claims all Africans outside their home continent were slaves, flew out the window. 

When I wanted to contribute a paper to a special issue of my university’s journal, my aborted Yasuke project sprung to mind. I turned the rough beginning of the novel into an academic paper and eventually published it online in 2015. It was an instant hit, and I was contacted by people all around the world for more information.

I asked many of the Yasuke fans why they felt drawn to him. The answers were varied and compelling: his rags-to-riches story, his success in another culture, his physical strength, his potential as a positive role model, his ethnicity. Yasuke gave them hope for a better world. All of the respondents connected Yasuke’s story to modern-day issues such as the refugee crisis, social mobility, immigration, social alienation and racism. The African samurai is a man for today, a fact reflected by his portrayal in Japanese books, manga and computer games over the last two decades.

As the swell of interest increased, I made an interesting discovery about Japan—one that, as an immigrant to that country, came as a surprise. The country of Japan is often thought of as racially homogeneous, but in the decades before and after Yasuke’s time, there were at least 300 to 500 Africans living in western Japan and several thousand more if you include temporary visitors. Of other foreigners, there were tens of thousands. Japan was far more diverse historically than people believe, and as Japanese cities move speedily toward multiculturalism, and as mixed-heritage sports stars such as Naomi Osaka and Asuka Cambridge find global success, Yasuke’s story again bears relevance to the present day. 

I urge readers to look for more Yasukes, for there are millions of them. History is not only about kings and queens. “Normal” people in history can inspire us today. We can connect with them and emulate them to lead our own meaningful lives. In many ways they were just like us. 

But in many ways, of course, they were not like us. Most readers of this book will not face early death from horrible diseases and childbirth, nor will they have the need to bear arms and kill at close quarters. And that aspect of historical change can help us see that our world is not so bad. The barbarians are not at the gateway, and human health is better than it has ever been before. The vast majority of humanity is very lucky, and we owe it to our ancestors to realize that and do positive things with the world they have left us.

Thomas Lockley is an associate professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo, where he teaches courses concerning the international and multicultural history of Japan and East Asia. He authored the first academic paper on the life of Yasuke, which led to the release of a Japanese-language book on the historical figure and now to African Samurai, a narrative history co-written with thriller and speculative fiction author Geoffrey Girard that relays Yasuke’s story in a cinematic, endlessly fascinating fashion.

When the black solider Yasuke arrived in Japan, he became a sensation and later a respected samurai. Thomas Lockley shares how he first encountered the incredible man at the center of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan.

Surfer and environmentalist Liz Clark has been sailing—mostly solo—from Santa Barbara to the South Pacific on her 40-foot sailboat, Swell, since 2006. In her wild, challenging and nomadic life filled with sea and surf, she has traveled 20,000 miles, living in harmony with nature and becoming an outspoken environmental activist. She is perhaps best known for her cat, Amelia the Tropicat, who was her first mate for five years. (Tropicat died in January of this year; in her memory, Clark has raised over $12,000 to bring a team of veterinarians to French Polynesia to do an island-wide spay and neuter program.

Clark shares all the adventures and surprises of her voyage in her new memoir, Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening. Authors often speak of the discipline required to write a book—but Clark takes it to a whole new level, proving that writing can be done anytime, anywhere.

I always hoped to write a book, but I never imagined that I would write that book while on my sailboat anchored at a small island in the South Pacific.

After nearly a decade of nomadic sea life—sailing from place to place in search of waves to surf, new inspiration, new friends and the next paycheck, I was presented with the opportunity to write my story. The timing felt right; it was time to drop anchor for a while.

My life suddenly shifted from an ever-changing canvas full of adventures, freedom, movement and fluidity to one gargantuan task of fitting the prior decade into a meaningful piece of literature. I was stuck searching for words instead of waves, and seeking a mental horizon clear enough to figure out where to begin. Procrastination set in. First I had to catch up on all the other things I had to do when I finally stopped moving—like software updates on my electronic devices, backing up photos, writing blog entries and replying to starred emails, along with scrubbing the hull, hauling water, cooking and surfing. I decided that the two-foot-by-three-foot nav station, which also functioned as my dinner table, counter space and computer desk, wasn’t going to cut it for book writing. So my next task was to create a groovy new place where I could really dig into this project.

I removed the wooden door to the head (ship-speak for bathroom) and cut it to fit perpendicularly across the bunk in the forward cabin. I found a three-legged chair at the dump and lashed on a fourth leg. The orange-backed, metal-legged, fourth-grade classroom chair fit into the tiny space, but with only about an inch clearance in any direction. I’d make it work. I stacked my journals and logbook and a few of my favorite reads next to a heart-shaped rock paperweight and a penholder, ran an extension cord and voila—I had a writing space.

But approach-avoidance continued, and a week went by before I actually tried to sit in the chair. In the meantime, I noticed that if I forgot to shut the hatch above when it rained, the desk got drenched. When I actually squeezed my sixth grader-sized body behind the desk into the fourth grader-sized chair, my legs jammed into the bulkhead of the bunk and my elbow hit my underwear drawer. The desk was wretchedly uncomfortable. As I tried various ways to make it work, the hatch above started leaking again when it rained. When it was nice out, the tropical mid-day sun came blazing down on my head. I soon retreated to the nav station.

On a good day, I spent three hours at the computer, answering emails and posting on Instagram before writing. Around 3 p.m. the local kids came by to jump off Swell, and then by 4:30 my cat master started stirring. If Tropicat wasn’t brought ashore daily, I was ambushed and shredded by dinnertime. So afternoons were for cat adventures. We hiked and went to parties, visited friends and did yoga on the beach. On one of our hikes we found an overgrown plateau in the forest with low sturdy branches, so I started bringing my hammock and computer to work in the shade of the forest. Depending on the life cycle of the mosquitoes and the chance of rain, it extended my workday, and Tropicat was pleased.

One morning, I accepted an invitation for a morning surf session on the other side of the island, which turned into Tropicat going AWOL on the small islet. It had been raining constantly and we hadn’t been able to get out much. So I spent the next 42 days not writing, but trying to find my beloved first mate.

Tropicat finally reappeared, and a new friend I’d made while searching for her offered to help build a table in the forest where I could write and Tropicat could run around and climb trees. We lashed together a wide, tall desk made from purou branches and stripped bark. He made a bench seat high enough for my legs to dangle so the ants wouldn’t crawl up my feet. It was shaded by an old mango tree and broad-leafed purou bush. This was a serious upgrade, and I finally got some momentum going on the book in my forest office.

Both Tropicat and I loved spending time in the forest, but some days were steamy hot, made worse because I wore full-length clothing to protect myself from the mosquitoes. When it rained, we ended up under the desk. One day, after a highly productive streak, it started pouring, and even with my yoga mat wrapped around my semi-waterproof bag, the computer’s hard drive got wet. I wasn’t doing regular backups and lost everything I’d written in the past month. Lucky for me, my boss at Patagonia chalked it up to “product testing” and paid to recover the lost work.

Seasons came and went; occasionally the table needed to be lashed together again. Although I was mostly just hurling events and feelings onto the screen, I made progress. The sweet guy who had helped find Tropicat had become my sweet companion, and by the time the original desk finally collapsed into a wad of rotting sticks, I’d made it through a first draft of what would soon be Swell.

Clark desk

Clark in her forest office, with Tropicat.

Surfer and environmentalist Liz Clark has been sailing—mostly solo—from Santa Barbara to the South Pacific on her 40-foot sailboat, Swell, since 2006. In her wild, challenging and nomadic life filled with sea and surf, she has traveled 20,000 miles, living in harmony with nature and becoming an outspoken environmental activist. Clark shares all the adventures and surprises of her voyage in her new memoir, Swell: A Sailing Surfer’s Voyage of Awakening. Authors often speak of the discipline required to write a book—but Clark takes it to a whole new level, proving that writing can be done anytime, anywhere.

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In Rivals, Tommy Greenwald’s second novel set in the fictional town of Walthorne (after 2018’s Game Changer), having fun is immaterial when it comes to a high-pressure middle school basketball season between the Walthorne North Cougars and the Walthorne South Panthers. Everyone wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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