Here are EW's top 10 nonfiction books of the decade

Patti Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates top a list that features rigorously researched biographies, intimate memoirs, and incisive criticism.
November 27, 2019 at 11:00 AM EST

To celebrate the end of the 2010s, Entertainment Weekly’s Must List is looking back at the best pop culture of the decade that changed movies, TV, music, and more (catch up on our list so far, which includes the MCU’s big Snap, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s history-making hit Hamilton, and Beyonce’s iconic Coachella set). Today, we look back on our favorite nonfiction books of the past 10 years.

1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Racism is so often talked about as a matter of the heart. But Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ book, written as an open letter to his son to explain the trauma of watching St. Louis prosecutors refuse to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for killing black teenager Michael Brown, immerses readers in the reality of racial oppression as an experience that affects (and breaks) the physical bodies of black people. As contrast, Coates also writes brilliantly about white Americans as people “lost in the Dream” — the American Dream, that is. The persistent myth that America is the greatest country of Earth, blessed by God and eternally righteous, can blind its adherents to the effects of racial violence. Credit Coates for piercing that illusion. Along with the Black Lives Matter movement and the stark transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump, Between the World and Me played an important role in changing how Americans of all colors thought about race this decade. —Christian Holub 

2. Just Kids by Patti Smith

Poet-rocker Patti Smith’s National Book Award winner soars because it operates on so many levels. Deliciously set mostly in the vanished bohemian demi-monde of pre-digital New York City (The Chelsea Hotel! Max’s Kansas City!), Smith traces her artistic awakening via the intense romance-cum-friendship she had with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Their 21-plus year relationship ends tragically with his death from AIDS in 1989, but Smith never goes dark. Love, light, and understanding shine from every page. —Maria Speidel  

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

India is often described as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but not everyone gets to share in that growth. This masterful feat of reporting takes readers inside a Mumbai slum and the people who live there: their work, their dramas, and their dreams. —CH

4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Any book billed as the posthumous memoir of a 37-year-old husband and father already telegraphs emotional trigger warnings, and Kalanithi’s recounting of his battle with metastatic lung cancer — even as he struggled to maintain his foundering marriage and complete a neurosurgery residency at Stanford — was absolutely as devastating as it promised to be. Less expected, maybe, is how much beauty, hope, and searing honesty are in those pages too. —Leah Greenblatt

5. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Historical nonfiction that reads like a thriller (Martin Scorsese is already slated to direct the film adaptation), Grann’s meticulously researched investigation of a series of murders of indigenous Osage in 1920s Oklahoma indicts the still-nascent FBI, the oil industry, and ultimately America itself in a story rich with cinematic detail and damning truths. —LG

6. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Not every dense work of narrative nonfiction solves a crime. But Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, a riveting foray into a mysterious murder that occurred during Ireland’s Troubles period, develops like an on-the-fly whodunit, the author coming into a community blind, unearthing decades of trauma, only to get closer to a shocking truth by interviewing dozens of reluctant but knowing townspeople. This is an essential text on the aftermath of tragedy, with about as tight and surprising a plot as true stories get. —David Canfield 

7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer in 1952 but cells taken from her body before she passed have helped develop drugs for treating leukemia, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease, among other ailments. Rebecca Skloot’s mesmerizing, meticulously researched book doesn’t sell the tale’s scientific underpinnings short, but it also deeply considers the story’s equally fascinating social and racial implications along the way. —Clark Collis 

8. The Recovering by Leslie Jamison

Near the decade’s beginning, Olivia Laing published The Trip to Echo Spring, a terrific examination of the link between legendary authors and alcoholism. How fitting that, near its end, Leslie Jamison would publish The Recovering, a recovery memoir that summons the legends of literary gods in her investigation of her own toxic relationship to booze, and how it relates to her conceptions of love, art, creation — of life. In this overcrowded genre, Jamison produced a rigorous work of criticism and introspection that affirmed the power of stories in the making of who we become. —DC

9. The Unwinding by George Packer

There are plenty of 2010s books to point to that, in one way or another, helped forecast our current political state of division and animosity. But none did so as lyrically and compellingly as Packer’s immersive examination of a nation in crisis. His book progresses like a Great American Novel, passing the narrative baton to figures as ideologically and spiritually opposed as Newt Gingrich and Jay-Z, allowing their stories to breathe on their own before intertwining them with bracing insight. Published in 2013, it now reads almost unbearably prescient. —DC 

10. How to Survive a Plague by David France

The AIDS epidemic gets the personal, anguished, heartbreaking, and brilliant book it’s long deserved in How to Survive a Plague. Inspired by his documentary of the same name, David France’s epic history offers a rich insider’s view into the efforts of ACT UP members and queer people to halt a fatal disease most in Washington couldn’t even pretend to care about. Plague serves as both a tribute to these activists’ tenacity and a striking condemnation of governmental indifference and institutional failure. —DC

The Next 10

—The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
—Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn
—Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
—H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
—Heavy by Kiese Laymon
—House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard
—How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
—The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
—The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing
—The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

More of EW’s Best Books of the Decade:

Here are EW’s top 10 fiction books of the decade
N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is the best fantasy of the decade
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels are the best book series of the decade

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