In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.
In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.
Seven Games is a fascinating look at how humans fare against artificial intelligence and asserts that games are what make us human.
Seven Games is a fascinating look at how humans fare against artificial intelligence and asserts that games are what make us human.
Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.
Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

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Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.” 

As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.

Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”

South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.

Oliver Roeder is very serious about games. With a Ph.D. in economics with a focus on game theory, the author of Seven Games: A Human History argues that games—those activities that force us to suspend the normal rules of life in order to overcome self-imposed obstacles in the name of fun—are what make us human. Rather than homo sapiens, we are, he says, “homo ludens”: the humans who play. To make his case, Roeder takes a fascinating look at seven enduring games: checkers, chess, Go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge.

Roeder chose these games because, despite being easy to learn (with the exception of bridge), they all require strategic skills that can take years to acquire. In fact, they call for many human qualities: forethought, the ability to see both the big picture and small details, and even, in the case of bridge, the ability to communicate efficiently but obliquely with a partner.

For Roeder’s purposes, however, the main thing that unites these games is that they have all been conquered by artificial intelligence. A great deal of each chapter details how computer scientists seeking to make computers more “human” have taught them to play these games. Initially clumsy, the computers became more skilled as their programmers exploited the computers’ ability to make astronomical calculations in a matter of seconds. This advantage eventually crushed human masters of these games, including former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and professional Go player Lee Sedol.

It would seem that AI’s triumphs have made games for humans meaningless, but Roeder argues that they haven’t. Instead, the masters of these games have harnessed the computer’s power, using it to improve their skills and bring their expertise to new levels. However, the progress of human and automated intellect is not where games’ salvation lies. Instead, it’s the strivers—the players among us who love the challenge of overcoming those self-imposed obstacles—who will ensure that games continue to enrich our humanity.

Seven Games is a fascinating look at how humans fare against artificial intelligence and asserts that games are what make us human.

When then-California Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice president of the United States, she spoke of a long history of inspiring women, including the impoverished Mississippi sharecropper-turned-human rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “We’re not often taught their stories, but as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders,” Harris said. Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America ensures that Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

The granddaughter of enslaved people and the youngest of 20 children growing up on a plantation in the Jim Crow South, Hamer’s formal education ended in the sixth grade. Her parents needed her to pick cotton in order to put food on the table. In 1962, at age 44, Hamer attended a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and learned for the first time that she had a constitutional right to vote.

After attempting to exercise that right got her thrown off the plantation, Hamer began organizing voter education workshops and registration drives. Her family became targets of violence, her husband and daughter were arrested and jailed, and their home was invaded. Eventually her work with SNCC activists almost cost Hamer her life: Jailed after a voter workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she took a beating that left her with kidney damage and a blood clot in one eye.

Undeterred, Hamer went on to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, arguing that the delegation couldn’t represent the state when Black Democrats had been excluded from the selection process. President Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference to prevent television coverage of her graphic testimony, in which she detailed her beating, but it aired anyway and sparked outrage. Eventually the credentials committee offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which included white and Black people, two at-large seats with no voting power. Hamer’s response: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” Four years later, she would become a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

With SNCC, Hamer helped organize the legendary Freedom Summer in 1964 and later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative to tackle rural poverty. She fought for inclusion in the women’s movement, and until her death in 1977, she remained strident about the global need to liberate all marginalized groups seeking political and economic justice. As readers take in Hamer’s life story throughout this rallying cry of a book, they will find that her message still resounds today: “You are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.”

Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called Constance Baker Motley “one of my favorite people,” and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Motley with showing her and others of her generation “that law and courts could become positive forces in achieving our nation’s highest aspiration.” However, far too few Americans know Motley’s name or her legacy, and that dearth of recognition struck Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin as “a kind of historical malpractice.” She hopes to right this wrong with her meticulously researched, fascinating biography, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.

The fact that Motley became such a civil rights legend is ironic, given that her father said he “couldn’t stand American blacks.” Her mother, meanwhile, advised Motley to become a hairdresser. Regal, stately and tall, Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921 to parents who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Despite her family’s poverty, she was raised to think of herself as “superior to others—to African Americans in particular.” Nonetheless, living in the shadow of Yale University, she received an excellent education and developed an intense interest in racial inequality. In the end, Motley spent her life trying to improve “the lives of the very people [her father] had spent a lifetime castigating.”

Motley’s trailblazing career included work as a lawyer, politician and federal judge, and at every stage of her incredible journey, readers will feel as though they have a backstage pass. Brown-Nagin excels at packing in intriguing minute details while still making them easily understood, as well as at contextualizing each scene historically. Thurgood Marshall became Motley’s mentor on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and she played a crucial role in litigating Brown v. Board of Education. The sweep of history Motley inhabited is full of many such significant moments: visiting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail in Georgia; serving as James Meredith’s lawyer as he fought for admission to the University of Mississippi; having a heated televised debate with Malcolm X and more. She was the first Black woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing 10 cases and winning nine of them. Later, she was the first Black woman to become a New York state senator, as well as the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.

While Motley’s storied career is precisely explored, readers may still feel at arm’s length from the woman herself. This may be due to the fact that Motley was a notably reserved woman, although by all accounts warm and engaging. As Brown-Nagin explains, Motley cultivated an “unperturbable demeanor out of the often unfriendly, if not downright hostile, environments she encountered as a result of being a first. Through these qualities, she protected herself; only a select few could peek behind her mask.”

Motley spent years paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later as a judge, she helped implement it in a variety of areas. Civil Rights Queen is the unforgettable story of a legal pioneer who changed the course of history, superbly elucidated by Brown-Nagin.

Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin finally gives Constance Baker Motley, a legal pioneer who steered the civil rights movement, the recognition she deserves.

The terms endangered and extinct are most commonly applied to animal species, particularly as human activities encroach on wildlife habitats worldwide. But the global human population explosion over the past few centuries has also wreaked havoc on human nutrition, decreasing food diversity and threatening the global food supply and our environment in general.

Food journalist Dan Saladino spent over 10 years researching at-risk foods and food cultures, and his discoveries about the dangerous consequences of decreased food diversity are outlined in Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them. This decline in diversity isn’t necessarily visible to consumers now that food is shipped all over the world, seemingly providing more variety to many of our diets. However, in order to feed an ever-increasing population, major food crops such as rice, wheat and corn have become more and more homogeneous, making them more susceptible to disease and less nutritious.

Saladino traverses the globe to find out what scientists, conservationists and food experts are doing to dial back the increasing sameness in our diets. His journalistic skills are key as he interviews a wide range of people, from food corporation executives and government officials to botanists and farmers. Divided into 10 parts about topics such as cereals, vegetables, meat and fruit, each section covers food from many locations around the world, such as bere barley from Orkney, Scotland, and the Kayinja banana from Uganda. A map key in the front of the book pinpoints each setting, providing geographical context.

Fascinating and extremely well written, Eating to Extinction combines comprehensive history with science, culture and geography. At 464 pages, it’s a lengthy tome that undoubtedly could have been much longer, as it just scratches the surface regarding the number of foodstuffs affected by diminishing biodiversity. Saladino raises a serious issue that needs to be addressed with global urgency and cooperation.

Dan Saladino spent over 10 years researching foods that are at risk of going extinct, culminating in the fascinating and well-written Eating to Extinction.

Regardless of where you fall on slapstick humor (pun intended), to watch Buster Keaton on film is to witness magic. The genius behind silent-era masterpieces such as The General and Sherlock Jr. is invincible on screen; no matter what life throws at him, he keeps getting up. It’s almost like he’s from another planet—one without gravity, permanent injury or the despair that plagues life on this mortal coil.

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Keaton’s finesse for falling was won through family dysfunction and physical abuse. But in Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, film critic and Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” host Dana Stevens decenters Keaton’s hardship, using his life as a frame to explore the advent of film and its effect on visual culture today.

Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in 1895, the same year film projection technology debuted. He was performing by age 3, honing his comedic genius in a school of literal hard knocks. Buster’s father threw the boy “acrobatically” around the stage, using him as a mop, among other things. The on-stage domestic abuse Keaton endured from his sometimes-sober father was the stuff of legend, drawing both large audiences and investigation from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Though its historical wanderings read as windingly as one of Keaton’s famous chase scenes, Camera Man redeems details from Keaton’s life that previous biographers have misread or glossed over. For example, Buster’s time in the Cirque Medrano has often been cited as a hard-times clown gig rather than what it was: an invitation from European circus royalty to be the honored guest performer at a permanent, well-respected circus frequented by Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso.

Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, Camera Man has wide appeal. General readers, history buffs and deep-cut Keaton historians alike will laugh, cry and marvel at both the world of Buster Keaton and the effect he had on cinema.

Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, this new biography of Buster Keaton has wide appeal.

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