The older I get, the less I know.
Things I was sure of become clouded in doubt; things that seemed black and white reveal shades of gray; lessons I thought I’d learned pop up in new places, begging to be learned once more.
Books are my savior.
Experts who’ve spent years immersed in a particular subject, writers who see life through a lens I don’t possess, memoirists willing to bare their souls so the rest of us glean wisdom, they are my teachers.
Here are 10 nonfiction books I loved and learned from in 2016:
“When Breath Becomes Air,” by Paul Kalanithi: A gut-wrenching memoir by a young neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and spends his final months searching for meaning in a life that leaves no time for the accomplishments he set out to achieve, from saving lives to raising his child. Kalanithi died in March 2015 while he was writing the book.
A favorite passage: “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything. Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'”
“I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual,” by Luvvie Ajayi: Cultural critic and social media powerhouse Awesomely Luvvie’s debut book made me laugh and wince and cry, often in the same chapter. She tackles cultural appropriation, dumbing down of news, white privilege, intersectional feminism, celebrity sex tapes and everything in between.
A favorite passage: “Every time someone writes an, ‘Is Beyonce Really a Feminist?’ article, an angel gets a papercut.”
“Ten Conversations You Must Have with Your Son,” by Tim Hawkes: Oh, how I love this book. Written by a former headmaster at several all-boys schools, “Ten Conversations” spells out the lessons that Hawkes wishes parents (including himself) would pass on to their sons about love, money, responsibility, community, sex and other vital matters. He offers arguments and research for why each topic is valuable and ideas for tackling them, and he does so with humor and warmth.
A favorite passage: “Imagine you had only one letter to write to your son. What would you say? Why not say it now and give him the assurances of love and the words of wisdom you want to be certain he hears?”
“Love Warrior,” by Glennon Doyle Melton: The highly anticipated follow-up to Momastery blogger Melton’s “Carry On, Warrior” was barely off the presses when it started making news — partly because Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club and partly because Melton announced that she and her husband, Craig, were separating. “Love Warrior” is a brave, searing look at a marriage beset by infidelity, and it reveals the ways in which couples can go through years — decades even — without truly knowing each other.
A favorite passage: “I’m not here to insist I’m fine. I’m here to say uncle.”
“Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” by Lindy West: Seattle-based essayist and blogger West is fearless and funny in her pieces for The New York Times, The Guardian and GQ. “Shrill” is her memoir about existing in a world that wants her to be small and quiet, despite the fact that neither is her nature. She takes on internet trolls, a culture obsessed with thinness and male comedians who cling to their right to make rape jokes, among other pleasantries.
A favorite passage: “Our world isn’t fixed, the way those currently in charge would have you believe. It’s malleable.”
“When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You,” by Kio Stark: Stark makes the case that finding ways to talk to strangers on the street, on the train, in the store, in the park, builds empathy toward others and profoundly shapes our view of the world for the better. Give it a try.
A favorite passage: “Talking to people I’ve never met is my adventure. It’s my joy, my rebellion, my liberation. It is how I live.”
“Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains,” by Sam Weinman: After a career covering professional sports, Weinman was inspired to write about what we gain by losing after watching his 10-year-old son melt down from a loss on the tennis court. He interviewed athletes, entertainers and politicians who are famous for their epic defeats and wove their insights together with those of psychologists versed in a growth mindset — an approach that sees the value in being challenged, even if we don’t always come out on top.
A favorite passage: “We’re better served listening to those who have lost constructively than those who’ve simply won. These are the strongest people we know, and in a society still uneasy with failure, their insights are more valuable than ever.”
“Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” by Devora Heitner: Heitner, the founder of Raising Digital Natives, advocates for parents to mentor, not just monitor, kids online. Teach them to treat others as they want to be treated, and teach them to speak up when they don’t like what they’re seeing, she writes. She encourages parents to ask permission before posting any photos of their kids on social media, and her reasons make so much sense that I adopted her suggestion.
A favorite passage: “It’s important for a child to know that she can say no. The very act of asking for permission creates a moment for her to stop and think. This pause is very helpful: We could all benefit from it.”
“Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy,” by Andrew P. Smiler: The rare sex and relationship guide geared toward boys and, even more rare, penned by a man, “Dating and Sex” immediately struck me as a must-read for anyone raising a son. The book is aimed at 13- to 16-year-old boys, and it addresses consent, body image, sexting, masturbation, condoms, hookups, long-term relationships, trust, love and more.
A favorite passage: “Relationships take time, energy and effort — just like playing an instrument, making an athletic team or pretty much anything you want to be good at. So you’ll need to pay attention, accept feedback and learn from your successes and mistakes.”
“Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (For a Sexist Workplace),” by Jessica Bennett: A manual for pushing back against microagressions and stereotypes in the office that manages to be hilarious and a lot of fun to read.
A favorite passage: “If somebody thinks you don’t look like a (fill in the blank), ignore them and just keep talking. Eventually they’ll have to hear the words coming out of your mouth rather than judging you by your appearance.”