The 50 best nonfiction books of the last 25 years

Slate’s books team selects the definitive works of reporting, memoir, and argument of the past quarter-century.

By DAN KOIS and LAURA MILLER

“As a writer, I prefer to get bossed around by my notebook and the facts therein,” David Carr wrote in his reported memoir The Night of the Gun, one of Slate’s 50 best nonfiction books of the past 25 years. Carr was mulling over the difference between fiction and nonfiction, the novelist’s art and the reporter’s craft. “They may not lead to a perfect, seamless arc, but they lead to a story that coheres in another way, because it is mostly true.”

In the work of canon-building, nonfiction tends to get short shrift. While memoir has gained a foothold in the literary conversation, narrative and reported nonfiction tend to be ignored. It can be easy to dismiss these forms as the worthwhile but fundamentally unliterary assemblage of facts into paragraphs. Yet what reader hasn’t had her mind expanded, her heart plucked, her conscience stirred by a nonfiction book? The responsibility the writers of such books take on, to arrange the facts of the world into a form that makes sense of its tumult, can produce in the reader a kind of clarity of thought that no other genre can match.

Slate’s list of the definitive nonfiction books written in English in the past quarter-century includes beautifully written memoirs but also books of reportage, collections of essays, travelogues, works of cultural criticism, passionate arguments, even a compendium of household tips. What they all share is a commitment to “mostly truth” and the belief that digging deep to find a real story—whether it’s located in your memory, on dusty archive shelves, in Russian literature, in a slum in Mumbai—is a task worth undertaking.

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