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Summer Reads: 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

All That Moves Us: A Pediatric Neurosurgeon, His Young Patients, and Their Stories of Grace and Resilience

Jay Wellons (Random House)

Pediatric neurosurgeon Wellons shares the lessons he learned from his young patients in this powerful account. It’s heartrending, brilliantly written, and can be emotionally difficult to read, but those who do will undoubtedly be moved.

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American Caliph: The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC

Shahan Mufti (FSG)

The turbulent politics of 1970s America are brought to vivid life in this scintillating history of the Hanafis, a Sunni Black Muslim group led by former jazz drummer Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and future Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry make cameos in a story that virtuosically explores the causes and consequences of political and religious extremism.

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Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation

Nuar Alsadir (Graywolf)

A psychoanalyst goes to clown school in this razor-sharp blend of personal essay and criticism. Alsadir considers how laughter allows one to express their true self, how humor relates to power, and how, as her instructor told the class, “Crying is just laughing larger,” making for a one-of-a-kind outing.

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Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions

Batja Mesquita (Norton)

Weaving together insights from anthropology, sociology, and psychology, social psychologist Mesquita makes the novel case that emotions arise from social context. The astute analysis enthralls and the case studies on cultures from Japan, Madagascar, the U.S., and West Sumatra fascinate as they upend conventional wisdom and cast a new light on a fundamental part of the human condition.

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Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation

Tim Birkhead (Princeton Univ.)

Ornithologist Birkhead’s enthusiasm is infectious in this sweeping history of humans’ relationship with birds, in which he poignantly suggests that better understanding the interspecies interplay can benefit humans, birds, and the natural world they both share. It’s spectacular.

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Butts: A Backstory

Heather Radke (Avid Reader)

An ambitious mash-up of pop culture, science, and history, this breakout debut from Radiolab reporter Radke tracks the evolution of attitudes toward women’s butts from the “Hottentot Venus” to Miley Cyrus. Along the way, Radke delves into eugenics, hip-hop aesthetics, the physiology of posteriors, and more. It adds up to one of the year’s most ingenious and eye-opening cultural studies.

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By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners

Margaret A. Burnham (Norton)

Drawing on a database of more than 1,000 racially motivated homicides, Burnham documents with searing exactitude the role that racialized terror played in enforcing Jim Crow. Harrowing case studies, including an elderly woman who was beaten to death by a white storekeeper in 1944, brush up against astute legal analysis and inspiring profiles of the nascent civil rights movement.

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Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century

Dana Stevens (Atria)

Stevens pulls back the curtain on one of Hollywood’s greats in her spellbinding biography of Buster Keaton, who here emerges as a key player in the 20th century. It’s fast-paced and exceedingly smart, and, with its mini-portraits of his peers, reveals much about the actor’s milieu.

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Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir

Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)

In this moving excavation of Black female identity, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Jefferson examines the Black artists, musicians, and writers who have informed her sense of self and influenced American culture. Through autobiographical fragments and sharp cultural commentary, Jefferson delivers an innovative interrogation of the intersections of race and class.

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Easy Beauty: A Memoir

Chloé Cooper Jones (Avid Reader)

“What was my lineage and where was it celebrated?” wonders Jones, a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing, in this evocative debut. Drawing on the theories of British philosopher Bernard Bosanquet, she considers the role of her physical disability in constructing her identity and society’s perception of beauty. Achingly felt, Jones’s writing is a revelation.

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For Profit: A History of Corporations

William Magnuson (Basic)

From Roman societates publicanorum to the British East India Company and Facebook, this sweeping survey explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of corporations. Magnuson’s nuanced telling sets astonishing achievements, including the building of the transcontinental railroad and the development of the first affordable automobile, alongside infuriating stories of exploitation and corruption.

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Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad

Matthew F. Delmont (Viking)

Black newspapers warned Americans about the dangers of fascism, and Black soldiers were essential to the D-Day invasion and other campaigns, according to this groundbreaking contribution to the history of the Greatest Generation. But the greatest battles were waged at home, as Black veterans returned to confront the legacies of slavery—a fight that continues to this day.

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High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir

Edgar Gomez (Soft Skull)

Gomez debuts with a crackling exploration of what it means to be a queer Latinx man in this collection of transcendent essays. With wit and conviction, he tells his own empowering story of embracing and eventually rejecting a binary existence, which allows him to claim a self-made definition of queerness that’s free from fear.

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His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa (Viking)

This powerhouse biography, based on hundreds of interviews with those who knew George Floyd, reveals the ambitious, charismatic, and flawed man whose murder by Minneapolis police officers sparked racial justice protests around the world, as well the societal forces—including the war on drugs, redlining, and school segregation—that have shaped Black life in America.

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Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America

Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright)

Indigenous peoples held sway over North America from 10000 BCE until the end of the 19th century, according to this revelatory account. Stuffed with eye-opening evidence of Indigenous adaptability, determination, and resilience, Hämäläinen’s impressive scholarship is matched by his exquisite storytelling. None of this year’s histories did more to upend received wisdom.

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Inciting Joy: Essays

Ross Gay (Algonquin)

In essays that are lyrical, pensive, and surprising, poet Gay sheds light on all the places joy can lurk: it’s there for him in strangers, in skateboarding, and can be found amid sorrow. Gay’s a remarkable writer, and the collection makes for a spellbinding meditation on the ways joy deepens and grows in the company of grief, fear, and loss.

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The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States

Brian Hochman (Harvard Univ.)

Today’s “regime of ubiquitous backdoor surveillance” wasn’t inevitable, contends Hochman in this unsettling look at how wiretapping became a standard investigative tactic. Come for the lucid analysis of legal and political matters, stay for the profiles of LAPD wiretapper-turned-Christian evangelist Jim Vaus and other colorful characters.

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Lost & Found: A Memoir

Kathryn Schulz (Random House)

“Loss is a kind of external conscience,” Schulz writes in this searing meditation about her father’s death, which coincided with a blossoming relationship with her future wife. Interweaving ruminations on philosophy, art, poetry, and literature, Schulz’s sobering narrative illuminates the necessity of transience and the utility and limits of grief and grieving.

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The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy

Moiya McTier (Grand Central)

“I am space; I am made of space; and I am surrounded by space. I am the greatest galaxy who has ever lived.” So says the Milky Way, the narrator of McTier’s sui generis guide to the galaxy, from its beginnings to how it may end. It’s fun, sure, but it’s also deeply insightful.

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Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times

Azar Nafisi (Dey Street)

Nafisi’s personal and profound survey of the power of books comes in the form of letters to her late father in which she reflects on the work of 11 writers. It’s a masterful blend of criticism and memoir, and a rewarding look at why reading matters.

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Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth

Elizabeth Williamson (Dutton)

Through years of extensive research and interviews with survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre, New York Times reporter Williamson shows how the January 6 attack on the Capitol had its roots in conspiracy theories that claimed Sandy Hook was a hoax. This is the definitive account of this dark chapter of American history.

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Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop

Danyel Smith (Roc Lit 101)

In this sweeping blend of memoir, criticism, and biography, Smith celebrates the Black women trailblazers who “connected to everything” in her life and shaped American pop music, from enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley to Whitney Houston. This impassioned tribute to Black women artists is as wise as it is uplifting.

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Stay True: A Memoir

Hua Hsu (Doubleday)

Set against the backdrop of 1990s California, New Yorker writer Hsu’s intimate tribute to a college friend who was murdered captures the fleeting possibilities of youth. The author reconstructs frank discussions about the nuances of Asian American identity and late nights devoted to shared infatuations, delivering a striking narrative that will leave an indelible mark.

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Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation

Linda Villarosa (Doubleday)

In this heart-wrenching inquiry, Villarosa holds herself to task for once believing that if Black Americans took better care of themselves, they could close the racial health gap. The reality, she reveals, is that racism—more than poverty, poor lifestyle choices, or lack of education—cuts African American lives short.

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What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma

Stephanie Foo (Ballantine)

Foo, a radio journalist and former producer of This American Life, recounts how she came to understand and live with a diagnosis of complex PTSD in her early 30s. The astounding narrative, which incorporates expert research and an unflinching investigation into the author’s own trauma, lands as a bracing self-excavation.

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The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves

Alexandra Horowitz (Viking)

Horowitz takes science writing to the next level in this stunning exploration of what the world looks like through the eyes of man’s best friend. It’s a blast to join her as she tracks a puppy’s development week by week for a year. Come for the heartwarming anecdotes about her pandemic pup Quiddity, stay for the constantly surprising takeaways.

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