The 50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century

From garbage recycling in a Mumbai settlement to shocking murders in France, these are incredible feats of reporting and storytelling.

Books on books on books

For the past couple decades, we’ve felt that the best books being published—the most riveting, the most richly rendered, the most likely to last—are the works of literary journalism. You know the books we mean: books built on robust reporting and impossible-to-invent characters; books featuring sweeping plots and cinematic scenes (but true); books drawn with the novelist’s eye for detail and incident (but real); books that tell stories that, despite the quickening pace of nearly everything in our lives, manage to fix us in place and to light up our brains. For the best books of this kind, writers slow down, look close and wide, and organize the diffuse and the chaotic into definitive narratives that help us better understand our present times, and those of the recent past. These stories arrange our world, inspire art (film, TV), and endure. Which is why this is the form that so many of our most gifted journalists turn to, to do their finest work.

Some of the best and most notable works of this sort from the previous century—works like John Hersey’s Hiroshima; Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff; Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer; James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, et cetera—are canon at this point. But we wondered which works published since 2000 might serve as a modern update. On our quest to create a list of the great books of literary journalism from the 21st century, we canvassed dozens and dozens of American journalists who do this kind of reporting and writing at the highest level. Among those we asked were winners of Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, and National Magazine Awards, as well as a number of GQ contributors. We wanted to know which books were their favorites, or the most envy-inducing, or the most inspiring, or the most plain enjoyable. As Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower (among other works that firmly fit in this genre), helpfully put it when providing his nominations: “I intend only to recommend books that gave me actual pleasure in reading. There aren’t very many in any case, as most of my reading is always devoted to research. But I had some nice snacks along the way and an occasional full meal.”

We asked writers to steer away from straight biography, memoir, history, and criticism (though some of the best books on this list have a little of E: All of the above). At times, we ended up breaking our own rules to accommodate overwhelming favorites—and weighted things a little heavily in the direction of subjects GQ has always been most interested in. We wound up limiting the list to one book per author, despite the fact that many authors had multiple books nominated. And we ultimately ruled out essay collections; each of the books here unearths and unspools the story of one place, event, subject, or set of people. You may very well take issue with the order (it’s plenty subjective), but no book here doesn’t belong. Consider this a heat map of sorts of the books that were cited most frequently and passionately—a most-enjoyed, most-admired, most-awe-inducing 50. We hope you love it, hate it, or at least find something great to read.


1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Katherine Boo, 2012

Boo immersed herself for years in the lives of those recycling garbage in a vast settlement near the airport in Mumbai.

Frank Bienewald / Getty Images

Boo embedded for more than three years in a makeshift settlement near the Mumbai airport to provide an unprecedented look at some of the hidden lives of the Indian underclass. Boo depicts great poverty and suffering with unsentimental empathy, and finds dramatic narratives in the relationships, corruption, and hope of this unique society of people attempting to eke out a living by collecting trash and selling it for recycling. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is one of the finest examples of slipping into the consciousnesses of strangers, and faithfully transmitting what it’s like to be someone else, somewhere else. George Packer, the author most recently of Last Best Hope, marveled at the daunting journalistic challenges Boo undertook to tell the story. “Katherine Boo assigned herself a very hard subject—to tell the story of desperately poor people in a foreign slum whose language she didn’t speak. With passion, intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage, she achieved perfection.” GQ correspondent Chris Heath added: “The true strength and triumph of Boo’s book is less its depiction of the drama that gradually evolves, compelling as that is, than its unfolding incremental, quotidian portrait of lives lived in a Mumbai slum. And how, while Boo allows you to feel her full immersion and presence, for the most part she manages to do so in such an unshowy and un-self-congratulatory way that her restraint and poise feel like a tacit reproach to generations of other-worlds nonfiction before her.”

2. The Warmth of Other Suns

by Isabel Wilkerson, 2010

The great book on the Great Migration. In what amounted to 15 years of research, interviews, and writing, Wilkerson, the former Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, re-elevated and reanimated—through the specific stories of three individuals—the underappreciated epic that was the exodus of the nearly six million Black Americans who moved from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970. “Much like its author, The Warmth of Other Suns is both widely praised and yet deeply underrated,” said 60 Minutes correspondent and GQ contributor Wesley Lowery. “Wilkerson was the first Black woman ever awarded a Pulitzer when she won the prize in 1994, for her New York Times feature writing. In this book, she brings lyrical writing and deep reporting to what she accurately describes as ‘perhaps the biggest underreported story of the 20th century,’ the Great Migration. To the extent that any one single book can explain the nation we live in today, it’s this one. Yet even with such historical sweep, Wilkerson finds narrative closeness, bringing us into the lives of the ordinary Black Americans whose stories history so often overlooks.”

3. Killers of the Flower Moon

by David Grann, 2017

Grann investigated a series of murders of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s, after oil was discovered beneath their land. He conjures indelible characters (both innocent and evil), based on vast records and interviews with surviving members of families, and renders vivid tales of the newly formed FBI, which was sent to Osage County to look into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths. Doug Bock Clark, a Pro Publica investigative reporter and the author of The Last Whalers, praised the book’s “exacting detective work, straightforward yet poetic prose, and suspense-novel pacing,” while noting that “the chilling conspiracy implicates not a single murderer but a swath of American society in the 1920s.” Grann, whose The Lost City of Z was nominated nearly as frequently by the writers we asked, seems drawn like a heat-seeking missile to true stories with cinematic shape, a sense that will be made all the more evident when Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of this book arrives next year.

4. Random Family

by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, 2003

LeBlanc spent over a decade with her subjects, two women and their families struggling to survive in the Bronx, to create a novelistically intense, panoramic portrait of life in the city at the turn of the century. The resulting book has the sweep and intimacy of an epic multigenerational novel. “Random Family is a moving and unflinching portrait of the one-sided class war waged by the powerful in this country against its own citizens,” said Anand Gopal, the New Yorker writer and author of No Good Men Among the Living. “As an ethnographic exercise and a work of narrative nonfiction, it set the agenda that influenced a generation of writers. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a work of this scale, ambition, or pathos again anytime soon.”

5. The Passage of Power

by Robert Caro, 2012

Caro’s deep reporting on President Johnson brought new perspective to even the most familiar moments in his life, like the Kennedy assassination.

Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Book number four of Caro’s masterful multivolume epic on the life and times of Lyndon Johnson focuses on the first part of the ’60s, including the assassination of JFK and LBJ’s ascent to the presidency. Caro, who’s spent the past 45 years reporting on Johnson, afforded himself time to track down the details—relocating from his home in New York to Washington and the Texas Hill Country (where LBJ grew up), and seemingly interviewing every living human who knew the man along the way. Consequently, Caro is able to do impossible things with his storytelling, like make the story of the Kennedy assassination feel new. “He is perhaps our greatest living nonfiction writer, given his ceaseless research and authoritative, beguiling style,” said Lawrence Wright. “His books are more than biography—they are portraits of America. I study his work carefully.”

6. Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015

Coates’s deeply personal book was singled out by many of the writers we surveyed as one of the monumental works of the last 20 years that, though arguably a memoir, did as much to shift the national consciousness about the experience of Black Americans as any projects of pure reporting. As a correspondent at The Atlantic at the time, Coates was producing seminal magazine stories on topics ranging from reparations to mass incarceration to the Obama presidency (all work featured in his book We Were Eight Years in Power). But Between the World and Me was something powerfully different—a poignant book-length letter to his son that blended personal history, American history, and reportage to reframe what it means to inhabit a Black body in America. The winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, Between the World and Me was hailed when it was published as a work destined to become a classic. In the years since its arrival, it has only become more essential.

7. Going Clear

by Lawrence Wright, 2013

The Scientology building in East Hollywood.

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Wright produced a definitive exposé of Scientology and its steadfast grip on Hollywood. The mix of reporting on the entertainment world, the capsule portraits of the souls who’ve cycled in and out of the organization, and the history of the don’t-call-it-a-cult is so varied and outrageous at times that it gives the book a lighter touch than some other subjects on this list, despite the harrowing consequences for so many individuals involved.

8. The Adversary

by Emmanuel Carrère, 2000

A true-crime account by a contemporary French master that’s been likened to a sleek francophone In Cold Blood. Set in the world of the wealthy Geneva suburbs and the global health organizations based there, the book traces the story of a French man who deceives his wife, parents, children, mistress, and friends for 18 years, before collapsing under the weight of his fabricated double life and killing five of them. It’s hard to believe you’re not reading modern fiction at almost every moment. “I can’t think of a book that somehow simultaneously so adheres to, and subverts, genre conventions,” said GQ correspondent Alice Gregory. “I dare you to even try to put it down to pee.”

9. Say Nothing

by Patrick Radden Keefe, 2018

Demonstrators in the streets in Derry, Northern Ireland in August 1969—the chaotic dawn of what would become The Troubles.

Getty Images

Keefe resurfaced the wider story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the unsolved mystery of the disappearance, and suspected murder by the IRA, of one woman in Belfast. The telling of the complex tale of that time, place, and politics is extraordinarily rich and definitive, without ever being overbearing. Though built around fascinating character portraits of IRA members who, in some cases, still wrestle today with the decisions they made as young people, it’s a murder mystery at its heart—and (spoiler alert) Keefe solves the unsolved mystery.

10. Ghettoside

by Jill Leovy, 2015

Leovy, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, spent years immersed in South Los Angeles, examining the disturbingly disproportionate number of murders of Black men in L.A., and how infrequently the LAPD seemed interested in solving them. “In Ghettoside,” said Emily Bazelon, staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, “Leovy illuminated a crucial aspect of criminal justice that was previously unexamined—the ‘solve rate’ of homicides and shootings for police departments. When the police can’t or don’t solve violent crimes, community trust breaks down and crime increases. Leovy shows exactly how the dynamic works in Los Angeles. She’s got everything—rich narrative, deep reporting, sharp analysis. This is a book that other writers (like me!) pass around with admiration and envy.”

11. Hidden Valley Road

by Robert Kolker, 2020

A young couple in midcentury Colorado have 12 children. Six of them are diagnosed with schizophrenia. How? Here’s GQ contributor and New York Times book critic Molly Young: “The strange and extreme story of the Galvin family is a lens through which we learn about the scientific mystery that is schizophrenia: a disorder that has repelled a thousand theories and confounded seemingly everyone who studies it. (Is it genetic? Neurological? Viral? Environmental? Combination of these things?) Somehow Kolker lays a legible path through the disorder’s history, centering his narrative on a family that was ultimately ravaged by it. The book is as riveting as its cover is graphically terrible—which is saying something!”

12. The Tiger

by John Vaillant, 2010

Vaillant’s investigation of a man-eating Siberian tiger took readers to the Russian far east.

Sylvain Cordier / Getty Images

The tiger is a tiger in eastern Russia who starts hunting men to avenge the death of other tigers. A man comes across the man-eating tiger and, with the help of some trackers, simply tries to survive. It’s a premise and a setting so remote, it can feel like a folktale—and an adventure so heart-thumping, it can feel like a spy thriller. Patrick Radden Keefe added: “Not as well known as some of the books folks will suggest, but an unbelievable tale, expertly told, with a few paragraphs that I would give my eye teeth to have written.”

13. Nothing to Envy

by Barbara Demick, 2009

The incredible, intimate account of the lives of six North Korean citizens over 15 years, a period that spans the death of Kim Il-sung and the rise to power of Kim Jong-il. Lots of books on this list provide a peek behind a proverbial curtain, but no curtain is quite as impenetrable as the one shrouding the world’s most repressive regime. “If its sole aim had been to illuminate the contours of daily life in North Korea, Nothing to Envy would be considered a grand success,” said Brendan I. Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us. “What elevates it into the realm of art is the way in which Barbara Demick builds the book around a central tale of forbidden love—a romance that gradually reveals how even the vilest tyranny can never squelch the emotional appetites that make us human.”

14. Moneyball

by Michael Lewis, 2003

Lewis’s celebrated study of the 2002 underdog Oakland A’s helped popularize a new way of thinking about success in sports.

MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

The story of the budget-strapped Oakland A’s, their general manager, Billy Beane, and the data-based approach to finding undervalued assets (in this case, baseball players) launched an analytics revolution in baseball, sports, and then society at large. Rarely has the lesson of a book—saying nothing of its title, now a verb—had such an enormous impact beyond the bounds of its cover. Which is probably what puts Moneyball on this list ahead of The Big Short, The Fifth Risk, or The Blind Side—all of which showcase Lewis’s great gift of finding the perfect characters and narratives to animate big, complex ideas that have been hiding in plain sight. Many writers look to reverse-engineer books this way, but no one executes the mix of story-finding and storytelling like Lewis.

15. The Forever War

by Dexter Filkins, 2008

At the start of the 21st century, America went back to war, and so too did the war journalists. The confounding circumstances for interminable conflict created the conditions for some of the most resonant, if tragic and terrible, stories worth telling over the past 20 years—none more so, arguably, than those witnessed during Filkins’s time on the ground as a New York Times foreign correspondent. Filkins, who reported on the rise of the Taliban in the ’90s, the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, and the American wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq that came as a consequence, transforms the often abstract maelstrom of the “war on terror” into people and scenes—and, consequently, literature. It’s as immediate and sensitive a portrait of what combat was like in these wars as anything written.

16. The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander, 2010

After the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, protestors massed outside Baltimore Police Central Booking and Intake Center.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Getty Images

An immersive exploration—and condemnation—of the U.S. criminal justice system by renowned legal scholar Alexander, who deploys extensive reporting and research to spotlight the experiences of Black men in a society governed by policies that target them (e.g., the war on drugs; efforts to restrict voting) and a criminal justice system that arrests, prosecutes, and incarcerates them disproportionately. The moment into which the book was published, concurrent with the election of Barack Obama, was not one, Alexander argues, of new enlightenment on matters of racial justice—or “color blindness,” as was a popular notion in the first years of America’s first Black president—but, rather, a moment that called for considerably more attention and work to break the racial caste system that continues to make second-class citizens out of so many Black Americans. The book, influential upon first publication, found new and even greater resonance a decade later, when it emerged as a foundational text for readers seeking a deeper understanding of the issues at the center of the Black Lives Matter protests.

17. Amity and Prosperity

by Eliza Griswold, 2018

A pipeline carrying highly volatile fracked gas liquids runs through a residential neighborhood in Pennsylvania, 2019.

Erik McGregor / Getty Images

Griswold found a magnificent heroine in Stacey Haney, a hardworking mother of two from Amity, Pennsylvania, who is first seduced by—and then finds herself desperately fighting—the big bad wolf of the fracking industry, and all that props it up. “You wouldn’t think a thicc tome about fracking in Appalachia would be a page-turner (or maybe you would; who am I to judge?), but I read this in one sitting on a flight,” said Molly Young. “Written like a thriller, it maps out a recent chapter of the boom-and-bust cycle of resource extraction in America. It’s about technology, it’s about law, it’s about kids and animals who mysteriously fall ill, and lakes that turn toxic from runoff, and families who find out that they have zero control over the air they breathe and the land they thought they owned.”

18. The Future Is History

by Masha Gessen, 2018

Gessen’s portrait of a society shaped by Vladimir Putin focuses on the failed promise of life in a post-Soviet Russia.

Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images

Gessen presents the chilling story of the creep of totalitarianism in contemporary Russia not from the bird’s-eye view of the academy or the Kremlin, but through extensive reporting on the lives of four young people, born at the supposed dawn of a democracy, as they attempt to find their way in a society rapidly backsliding to the old order of things. The result is an immersive sense of what it’s like to live in a country where the personal and the political are intertwined at all times, where there’s no break, no hiding, and so many choices feel hugely consequential and vaguely dangerous.

19. Under the Banner of Heaven

by Jon Krakauer, 2003

Krakauer, who gave us Into the Wild and Into Thin Air in a previous century, intertwines the story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah with a double murder perpetrated in the name of God by two fundamentalist Mormons. Riveting, disturbing, and as heart-pounding as anything in the previous adventures.

20. How the Word Is Passed

by Clint Smith, 2021

A journalistic, essayistic tour of sites central to slavery in America. Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic who grew up in New Orleans, became obsessed with the legacy of slavery in his hometown, after realizing how little he had comprehended the many monuments, landmarks, and lingering reminders of the system of enslavement in the city had existed in plain view all his life. In response, Smith began to investigate the ways in which the echoes of slavery are being reckoned with in the present at eight American sites (plus one abroad) vital to the history of slavery. The book is both an eye-opening, go-to-there travelogue and a singular blend of fresh reportage and lyrical meditation on the long shadow of the country’s most enduring evil.

21. One of Us

by Åsne Seierstad, 2013

Relatives gather in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack at a summer camp on Utoya Island, Norway, July 25, 2011.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, crafted the inside story of 2011’s 22 July massacre, when 77 Norwegians—mostly teens at a summer camp—were killed by the domestic terrorist Anders Breivik. “One of Us isn’t just a deeply reported and impeccably researched anatomy of a mass killing,” said Matthew Shaer, writer-at-large at The New York Times Magazine. “It’s an inherently brave book: It dares to burrow inside Breivik’s head (and his sad, trauma-filled childhood) and attempt to understand why he did what he did. Most astonishing of all: Seierstad accomplishes the task without ever sensationalizing the material. She sees clearly and writes marvelously.”

22. Night Draws Near

by Anthony Shadid, 2005

U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens in November 2004, still early in an occupation mission that was doomed from the start.

Mustafa Tauseef / Getty Images

At the outbreak of the Iraq War, when so many journalists jumped in the pool to embed with the American military, Shadid chose instead to spend his time with ordinary Iraqi people, recording the intimate stories of the impact of the American invasion and occupation on life there.

23. Dark Money

by Jane Mayer, 2016

One of the defining books on modern American politics, Dark Money focuses on the secret machinations of billionaires—specifically, the way unregulated cash drives the political agenda, especially on the radical right. A master class in how to steadily unmask the truth hidden in public records, private papers, and court documents—and how to animate the figures found there through portraits that give a sense of who these people are, why they want what they want, and how they get it.

24. No Good Men Among the Living

by Anand Gopal, 2014

Gopal chose to chronicle a piece of the war in Afghanistan from the vantage of actual Afghans—getting close enough for long enough with a Taliban commander, a U.S.-backed warlord, and a village housewife to bring a wildly complex story down to the level of the human unit, and rendering the lived experience there with vivid freshness. Suzy Hansen, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and the author of Notes on a Foreign Country, said, “Not only is No Good Men Among the Living beautifully written and an amazing feat of reporting, but Gopal did something that very few newspapers, magazines, or books managed to do at the time or have done since: treat the Afghan people as full human beings. It’s only when you read this book that you realize how little most publications or books ever conveyed about the people the U.S. invaded and were at war with for 20 years. Gopal also amply explains why the violent, often criminally incompetent American occupation of their country failed so miserably. Hard to read this book without flinching.”

25. No Turning Back

by Rania Abouzeid, 2018

Syrian children watch traffic as civilians flee a government offensive against the country’s last rebel enclave in Idlib, February 2020.

Getty Images

Several of the writers that we canvassed flagged this work as the first great book of reportage on the civil war in Syria—one of the most horrific and least understood events in recent years. Abouzeid, a Lebanese-Australian journalist based in Beirut, began writing about Syria in 2011, focusing on the lives of protesters. Over the next five years, she reported clandestinely from the front lines, following the story to its deepest, darkest core—delving into Assad’s prisons and the formation of ISIS—and ultimately bringing an intimacy to events most journalists wouldn’t dream of getting near.

26. The Unwinding

by George Packer, 2013

The story of an America teetering on the verge of breakdown pre-Trump sounded a warning bell of where things were headed. Packer—a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of the frequently nominated Our Man—sketched vivid portraits of Americans, both at the center of power and as far away from it as one can be, that provide a picture, in macro and micro, of the shifting plates of the country. The whole thing reads like a giant social novel of everything, where we see the details of individual lives and institutions with equal clarity.

27. The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan, 2006

The book that changed the way people who care about food think about food. Pollan has brought his blend of reporting, history, and memoir to psychedelics (How to Change Your Mind), plants (The Botany of Desire), and now psychedelic plants (This Is Your Mind on Plants). But The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which immersively investigated the biggest questions about what we should eat, where we should get our food from, and how those choices affect the planet, has had an enduring impact. “Find me a more pervasively influential (or better written) polemic,” said GQ correspondent Brett Martin. “Probably there are some, but not in food.”

28. Five Days at Memorial

by Sheri Fink, 2013

Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, where 45 patients died because they could not be evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, September 11, 2005.

Getty Images

Fink placed us in a New Orleans hospital in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when much of the city was without power, and the already urgent life-and-death stakes for doctors, patients, and administrators were dialed up even further. It’s an incredible 360-degree portrait of a single place during a compressed and critical period of time.

29. Heat

by Bill Buford, 2006

A delicious history of Italian cooking, with a twist: Buford, an amateur cook, entered the kitchen of one of New York City’s hottest restaurants as a full-time employee, and gave us a story of Italian cuisine through the many characters (some, like Mario Batali, now disgraced) who prepare it, serve it, and eat it. A high-water mark in the subgenre of narrative nonfiction we might call “amateurs masquerading as professionals.”

30. Barbarian Days

by William Finnegan, 2015

Yes, this is technically a memoir. But the writers we asked couldn’t help surfacing Finnegan’s cultural and personal history of surfing. A pure life-affirming, globe-trotting, era-spanning pleasure from start to finish—and an incredible example of what can happen when reporters re-report their own interesting lives.

31. The Yellow House

by Sarah M. Broom, 2019

A study of New Orleans through personal history. Or, as Brett Martin put it: “Memoir as sweeping urban history.” Broom explores a century in New Orleans East, charting the rising and falling fortunes of the neighborhood and the families, like hers, who’ve built their lives there.

32. Rising Out of Hatred

by Eli Saslow, 2018

The story of Derek Black, who grew up in the cradle of white supremacy (David Duke is his godfather), before experiencing a profound awakening in college and turning his back on the cause he was born to lead. Wesley Lowery called it “the best-written book on white supremacists, possibly ever.”

33. The Beast

by Óscar Martínez, 2010

Migrants in Chiapas board “The Beast” in an attempt to reach the United States border, September 2014.

Yuri Cortez / Getty Images

A young El Salvadoran journalist, Martínez embedded with migrants making their way to the U.S. border along the extremely dangerous route that more than a quarter of a million Central Americans travel each year now—a route that includes the harrowing threat of abduction, harsh conditions, and passage on the freight train known as the Beast. “Óscar Martínez’s debut is an absolutely stunning display of reportage and writing,” said Evan Ratliff, author of The Mastermind and cohost of the Longform podcast. “It’s also underappreciated among English-speaking readers; amidst all the ink that’s been spilled on immigration and the border, to me it’s the piece of narrative nonfiction that should be required reading. I’m haunted by its subjects’ struggle and awed by their bravery, along with that of Martínez himself.”

34. The Sixth Extinction

by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014

The comprehensive book on our likely climate fate as we approach the precipice. This time around, the mass extinction event (which will be the sixth in the past 500 million years) is not something like the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs but, rather, a cataclysm brought on by humans. Kolbert sidled up to leading scientists to translate the trend line of where we’ve been and where we’re headed—and what we’re losing along the way. It’s the highest form of writing about the natural world at the intersection of history, science, and society.

35. Dreamland

by Sam Quinones, 2015

Sap from opium poppies being harvested for the production of heroin.

Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images

Quinones quit his job to produce this penetrating study of the opioid epidemic, from the vantage of both the blue-collar towns it’s presently ravaging and the pharmaceutical companies that have willfully stoked its flames. The result is a book for now and for future historians.

36. She Said

by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, 2019

The unputdownable behind-the-scenes story of the New York Times investigative journalists whose reporting helped take down Harvey Weinstein and catalyze the #MeToo movement. “She Said is great reportage about great reportage,” said Bryan Curtis, cohost of The Press Box podcast and editor-at-large at The Ringer. “For every working journalist who’s forced to fill out an annual review, this is the most convincing ‘state your accomplishments’ section in modern history. The way I get people to read the book is to say, ‘It’s like All the President’s Men. No, really. It is.’”

37. Bad Blood

by John Carreyrou, 2018

Elizabeth Holmes, once considered the wealthiest (and youngest) self-made female billionaire in America, pictured before her stunning fall.

Gilbert Carrasquillo / Getty Images

If you want to read just one book about Elizabeth Holmes, her health-tech company, Theranos, and the many men (and some women) who got swept up in her multibillion-dollar start-up con, make it this one. The story begins with Carreyrou, then a Wall Street Journal reporter, smelling something a little fishy, and follows along as he ultimately winds up exposing a sham on a scale we don’t often encounter. Shoe-leather reporting at its newspaper-iest. An incredible American ambition. And a supporting cast of onetime board members and defenders (Henry Kissinger, William Perry, James Mattis, David Boies) that’s kind of hard to believe. The cameos alone of those who were hoodwinked along the way are worth the price of admission.

38. Deep Down Dark

by Héctor Tobar, 2014

After 69 days trapped underground, 33 Chilean miners were reunited with their families—the culmination of a rescue mission that captivated the world in 2010.

Gabriel Ortega / Governement Of Chile / Shutterstock

The exclusive tale of the 33 men who were trapped underground for 69 days when a copper-and-gold mine in the Atacama Desert in Chile collapsed in 2010. Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist, focuses in equal parts on the drama of the miners beneath the earth and the family members—the children, wives, and girlfriends (many of whom don’t know about each other until their encounters at the site)—above. “With careful pacing, Tobar makes the story so visceral and gripping, it’s almost a fly-on-the-wall account of a natural disaster,” said Rosecrans Baldwin, a GQ contributor and the author of Everything Now. “But it’s the humanity of the men’s relationships that makes the account so extraordinary.”

39. A Moonless, Starless Sky

by Alexis Okeowo, 2017

A mother searching for her missing daughter who was kidnapped in Dapchi by Boko Haram, February 2018.

Audu Ali Marte / Getty Images

Okeowo embedded with victims of violence and terror in vulnerable corners of contemporary Africa to provide a much-needed view from the ground in such underreported circumstances. “A writer who should be better known, and who will, I believe, have a great career, is Alexis Okeowo,” said Lawrence Wright. “Her first book consists of four stories about extremism in Africa, and the devastating but also surprising struggles of ordinary men and women to deal with extremism in their own countries and their own faiths. Unsaid in the book is the courage of the author to engage with victims and perpetrators of terror. There is the story of a woman kidnapped by a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, a relationship that led to romance and transformation; here also are stories of the girls taken by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and of modern-day slavery in Mauritania, and of girls trying to play basketball in Somalia despite threats from Islamic extremists. These are stories that desperately need attention, and Okeowo tells them with compassion and insight.”

40. DisneyWar

by James B. Stewart, 2005

Business! Stewart, who has brought his reporting to bear on several industries, examined Disney at the level of both the minimum-wage laborer and the tip-top executive. “This book is 600 pages long, and I’d read a sequel right now,” said Reeves Wiedeman, New York contributing editor and author of Billion Dollar Loser. “The problem is there may never be a book quite like it again. The heart of this sprawling story is Michael Eisner’s tenure running Disney, but it’s really an intimate look at the egos and power struggles that permeate the upper echelons of American business. Stewart worked as a Goofy impersonator to get an inside look at Disney World, but the remarkable thing is the access he got to the biggest players in this saga: Eisner gave Stewart the notes for an autobiography he never wrote, plus candid memos written in the middle of various crises. (‘Of course, there is always the truck that could hit him,’ he says of a rival.) It’s a delicious look at how our biggest cultural and business institutions are run by a bunch of emotional humans.”

41. Imperial Life in the Emerald City

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, 2006

Chandrasekaran centered his reporting and narrative on the Green Zone—the international zone and governmental center of the Coalition Provisional Authority—beginning from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the official transfer of power to Iraqis in 2005, a focused lens through which to tell the tale of the bungled handling of the American occupation. A classic of narrowed scope, in order to tell one deep and detailed piece of an impossibly large story.

42. Gulag

by Anne Applebaum, 2003

Gulag inmates being forced to build a Russian canal in 1933.

Laski Diffusion / Getty Images

Through vast reporting and meticulous research, Applebaum re-created life in the Soviet concentration camps that held millions of political and criminal prisoners between the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the stories of the individuals subjected to the gulag emerges a vivid portrait of an extraordinary society. Applebaum—a close observer of communism and, more recently, the lurch toward autocracy in Europe—is particularly skillful at linking the 20th century to the 21st.

43. The Return

by Hisham Matar, 2016

Matar’s father went missing when Matar was 19 years old. Two decades later, the author returned to his native Libya to report out the circumstances of his father’s disappearance—resurfacing the distressing conditions a political dissident faced in the early ’90s in Qaddafi’s Libya, and exploring what has become of Libya and the Middle East in the wake of Qaddafi’s death.

44. The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee, 2021

McGee, a specialist in social and economic policy, took a personal journey across America to vividly animate—through her reporting, interviews, and policy work—ideas often found only in wonkier corners of Washington. Such as the notion that racism has a cost not just for nonwhite people but also for white people themselves, and that society pays a price for the belief, held by so many Americans, that the progress of some inevitably comes at the expense of others. “The Sum of Us is for the moment and for all time,” said Rosecrans Baldwin. “I went from start to finish in a couple days, and left it powerfully persuaded. Harrowing, hopeful. Personal, political. The zero-sum mentality that undergirds so much of American society never looked stupider.”

45. The Cold Heaven

by Gretel Ehrlich, 2001

Ehrlich transports readers to a beautiful and beguiling north .

Getty Images

Greenland in all of its glory. Ehrlich weaves a masterful story of history, cultural anthropology, and a personal journey at the edge of where humans can live. “This is the very best of travel writing,” said Michael Finkel, GQ contributor and author of The Stranger in the Woods. “Poetic and brutal and so immersive and deeply felt.”

46. Notes on a Foreign Country

by Suzy Hansen, 2017

After moving to Istanbul, journalist Suzy Hansen was forced to steadily reckon with the idea of America she’d grown up with at the end of the 20th century, and to see America’s place in the world through the eyes of the many people she met during her years of traveling and reporting in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iran. The result is a story of both extensive reportage and personal reflection on America’s place in the world during the dawning of an era of decline. “It’s rare to read a book as an adult that leads you to question your understanding of the world,” said Sarah A. Topol, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. “Suzy Hansen’s book filled me with the kind of intellectual excitement I most associate with college—where something profoundly altered my thinking or gave words to vague ideas I’d had in my head. Part memoir, part history, part reportage, it is my most recommended book for anyone who wants to understand being American in the world today.”

47. Maximum City

by Suketu Mehta, 2004

A polyphonic study of all the edges and interiors of Mumbai by a native son. Mehta, who was born in Kolkata and raised in Mumbai, returned to the overwhelming megalopolis of his youth after 20 years in the U.S. to render vivid portraits of under-seen individuals, as well as an enormous lively mural of the rollicking collective. The book is further proof that cities—for obvious reasons—are among the most ideal subjects for writers of the sort we’re celebrating here.

48. Three Women

by Lisa Taddeo, 2019

A deep and granular immersion into the sex lives, thoughts, and experiences of, yes, three women. If Taddeo could’ve gotten this close to reporting the vivid-most consciousness of literally anyone (mail carrier; commercial fisherman; IT technician), it probably would’ve been interesting, just to experience what it’s like to spend time in someone else’s brain and body. That the topic was indeed the body—and how desire can overwhelm our lives—makes it tough to not keep reading. The subject matter may not be for everyone, but the reporting feat is undeniably rich.

49. Play Their Hearts Out

by George Dohrmann, 2010

Tyson Chandler, who was drafted into the NBA in 2001, was the most promising young player nurtured by coach Joe Keller in Dohrmann’s sweeping story.

Al Bello / Getty Images

Dohrmann followed an AAU basketball team for eight years, charting the growth of the kids as players and people, from childhood to college—as well as the exploits of the adults who persuaded families to let them lead their children through the maze of grassroots youth basketball to the maybe-just-maybe promised land. The commitment to the sweep of this story is like Boyhood, but for basketball. As New York Times Magazine writer-at-large Jason Zengerle put it: “It’s the best book about basketball—and the hoop dreams of teenage boys and the sinister schemes of grown-ass adults—I’ve ever read.”

50. The Beautiful Fall

by Alicia Drake, 2006

A plunge into the time and place that brought us fashion as we know it today. “The ultimate reported fashion book,” said GQ fashion critic Rachel Tashjian, “detailing the tumultuous rivalry between Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld during the 1970s in Paris… Richly reported, with terrific details about drugs, decadence, and design process.”

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