The 2016 National Book Awards shortlist for nonfiction was just announced this morning (along with the other categories), and this year, it’s dominated by titles that bring the dark underbelly of American history to light. From African and Native American slavery to prison riots and sterilization, these entries are timely and thought-provoking.
The nonfiction judges this year are Cynthia Barnett, Masha Gessen, Greg Grandin and Ronald Rosbottom. Here’s a book-by-book breakdown of the finalists, one of which will win it all on November 16. (See also: our breakdown of the fiction longlist, which has been updated to reflect the finalists.)
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
“Why do the people who would seem to benefit most from ‘liberal’ government intervention abhor the very idea?” This is the question that notable sociologist Arlie Hochschild attempts to answer in her book.
According to Hochschild—who spent the last five years doing field work in the heart of the Great Paradox (Louisana) and intimately getting to know the locals—the reason why one of the poorest states in America is overwhelmingly in support of Trump has much to do with what she calls “emotional self interest.” Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right is a winning combination of the shrewd academic knowledge and emphatic journalism.
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Extensively researched yet accessible, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is a searing investigation of the history of racism in the US. Kendi incisively examines how racist ideas originated, propagated, and assimilated into the American psyche.
He dismantles the American delusion that electing a black president means they are now living in a post-racial society, and presents compelling evidence to depict the prevalence of racial discrimination today. The book tracks the deep-rooted racist ideas in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. This is a riveting history of racism which began in the colonial period and lives on to this day.
Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen
From the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer comes a scholarly exploration of the war which Americans refer to as the Vietnam War and which the Vietnamese call the American War.
While the war directly affected Nguyen’s Vietnamese family, he manages to present an objective, well-researched vision, drawing upon Hollywood movies and novels that attempt to depict the lingering memory of the war. The book dissects the subjective interpretations of the collective memory of both nations and poses grave questions about humanity and wars.
The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez
This is an expansive study of the enslavement of tens of thousands of Indians across America, from the time of the conquistadors up to the early 20th century. The word “slavery” in America is mostly associated with capture and trade of African American slaves but as Andrés Reséndez points out, the “other slavery” has been an open secret in the US for centuries.
While recently there has been an influx of literature dealing with the history and consequences of black slavery, The Other Slavery brings to light the obscure history of the slavery of indigenous people, which was equally barbaric and dreadful, and is a significant contribution to North American history.
Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson
This exhaustively researched book recounts the notorious 1971 Attica prison uprising. Heather Ann Thompson, a historian, draws on a decade of extensive research to create an incisive narrative about the deplorable prison conditions and other events that perpetuated the riot and its bloody aftermath.
Blood in the Water shrewdly traces the legacy of the prison riots and is a searing account of one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century.
A Karachi-based critic, bylines in Book Riot, Vol1Brooklyn, Brooklyn Mag, The Spectator, Irish Times and elsewhere. Can be reached at email@example.com