Get to Know the National Book Award Finalists for Nonfiction

The National Book Awards, presented by the National Book Foundation, “celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” There are four categories: fiction, nonfiction, “young people’s literature,” and poetry. Several of this year’s nominees have been featured on Longreads before (see: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Johnson, Noelle Stevenson), and this reading list features the five nonfiction nominees. The winner will be announced on November 18, 2015.

1. The Radical: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” (Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine, July 2015)

“Letter to My Son,” in The Atlantic, adapted from Between the World and Me

You must struggle to truly remember this past. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.

2. The Photographer: Sally Mann, Hold Still

“How Photographer Sally Mann Found the Light.” (Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast, May 2015)

“It sprang from the idea of giving a slide show…I would take that first little pithy, summarizing line and just start writing about it, using it as the first line. Just like Hemingway and A Moveable Feast—just write the one true sentence that you know and leave out all the scrollwork, except I didn’t leave the scrollwork out.

…What a neurotic I am. You shouldn’t have to tell yourself to have fun. You shouldn’t have to tell yourself to be an adventurous, risk-taking artist. What’s wrong with me? But you know this phenomenon that’s oppressing us now: I’m 64. I don’t have time to just fuck around.”

3. The Naturalist: Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus

“Deep Intellect.” (Sy Montgomery, Orion Magazine, October 2011)

Octopi are supposedly colorblind, so how do they know which colors to use for camouflage or mimicry? Their brains are the size of walnuts, or smaller—so how do they recognize their visitors, or have personalities, or play with toys? Revisit Sy Montgomery’s four-year-old essay, “Deep Intellect,” which inspired her award-nominated book.

Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods — octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid — may be able to see with their skin.

4. The Interfaith Advocate: Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

Read an excerpt here and National Geographic’s interview with Carla Power here.

I’m a secular feminist, Jewish on my mother’s side and Quaker on my father’s; Akram is a conservative alim, or Muslim scholar. When we’d met, I’d been a miniskirted twenty-four-year-old, unsure of anything except her own importance…He was soft-spoken and gracious, quoting liberally from his beloved Persian poets, sharing homemade biryanis.

Yet surprisingly often, I’d pad up to a topic I’d assumed would be divisive, and we found ourselves agreeing. Some issue that mullahs or politicians had fulminated about for years would be revealed as utterly trivial. Then, just as suddenly, I’d trip across a phrase that seemed perfectly innocuous, only to discover craggy complexities lurking beneath it. I’d find myself staring across canyons of incomprehension. It could be quite dizzying. But disorientation is a good teacher.

5. The Poet: Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light

“What Memoir Can Do That Poetry Can’t.” (Tracy K. Smith, LitHub, April 2015)

“At first, my instincts were still set to the demands of a poem; instead of narrating stories, I wanted to populate my scenes with concrete images, let them do the work, and then high tail it out of there. But the prose was stubborn. Sit still, it told me. What did you see? What did you say? What did everyone say? And once I had written that, the prose asked me, And what did you fail to say? Why? Why did you think that was true then, and what do you think is true now? … Prose, I realized, is nosey … Eventually, my nosey prose began to deliver to me the very person I sought: my living, breathing, playful, generous, loving mother. My nosey prose delivered her to me so wholly it also alerted me to the things I never knew, and would now never know, about her.”