Mental Floss's 56 Best Books of 2018

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Book covers: Amazon. Background: Shutterstock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Book covers: Amazon. Background: Shutterstock.

At Mental Floss, we receive so many books that, come year's end, every staffer's desk looks like its own little library (the way we lend, trade, and barter for each others' books gives our office a library atmosphere, too). Of the hundreds of books that crossed our desks in 2018, these were our favorites.

1. Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency // Dan Abrams

An image of the cover of the book Lincoln's Last Trial.

In many history books, the story of Lincoln’s life jumps from Honest Abe splitting rails to growing a beard and guiding the country through the Civil War. But before heading to the White House, Lincoln spent two decades as a popular and respected lawyer. He had gained some national recognition following his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, but just nine months before the political convention that would name him the Republican nominee, Lincoln took on a high-profile case in Springfield, Illinois, that involved the murder of one of his own law clerks by the son of one of his longtime friends. Lincoln was the defense attorney. For this painstakingly researched tome, Dan Abrams and Dan Fisher owe much to Lincoln’s colleague and friend Robert R. Hitt, the court stenographer who recorded such copious notes that they could piece together nearly everything that happened before Lincoln rested his last case.

2. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup // John Carreyrou

The cover of the book Bad Blood.

The Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou strings together dozens of interviews to unveil the story behind one of tech’s biggest public scams: How Theranos, a now-dissolved blood-testing company once valued at more than $9 billion, built an empire on a lie. The book details how the company, guided by a charismatic young founder, convinced seasoned investors to pour millions into the brand on the promise that it could run blood tests with just one prick of the finger. There was, of course, one problem: Theranos didn't have the working technology to make its vision a reality.

3. The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine // Thomas Morris

An image of the cover of the book The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth.
Dutton/Penguin Books

From crank cures to bizarre accidents, old medical journals are a font of true weirdness. No one knows this better than the writer and historian Thomas Morris, who collects and interprets centuries-old tales of medical mayhem in The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth. Whether the patients are glowing in the dark, vomiting fetuses, or sticking silverware in places it definitely doesn't belong, there's something for everyone—so long as you have an appetite for the past and a (very) strong stomach.

4. Becoming // Michelle Obama

An image of the cover of the book Becoming.

In a refreshingly open memoir, the first black woman to serve as first lady, Michelle Obama, gets candid and personal about her childhood, the highs and lows of her relationship with former President Barack, and being criticized during her time in the White House. The 426-page memoir is full of intimate details that will be new to even the biggest Obama fans, which is likely part of what earned it a spot on Oprah’s Book Club and the honor of being the best-selling book of the year.

5. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers // Maxwell King

An image of the cover of the book The Good Neighbor.

The first biography of childhood hero and real-life saint Fred Rogers comes from Maxwell King, who previously helmed the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. This detailed account of the life and work of Mr. Rogers features some familiar, heart-warming stories, as well as original interviews and new insights into what made the television host tick. His nine-step manual on how to talk to young audiences, for instance, demonstrated his uncanny ability to think like a child.

6. Children of Blood and Bone // Tomi Adeyemi

An image of the cover of the book Children of Blood and Bone.

One of the most anticipated young adult books of 2018, Children of Blood landed a film deal and inspired fans to line up at Comic Con before the novel even hit shelves. At more than 500 pages, the first book in Tomi Adeyemi's young adult Afrofuturistic trilogy isn't exactly a quick read, but you'll still find yourself racing through the rich details of the mythological world of Orïsha, where magic disappeared more than a decade before. The plot centers around lead character Zélie as she sets out to take down a power-drunk king, avenging both the magical community he murdered and her late mother.

7. Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey // Mark Dery

An image of the cover of the book Born to Be Posthumous.
Little, Brown

Though he would become well known for his macabre, tiny books like The Gashlycrumb Tinies, writer and illustrator Edward Gorey was a bit of a mystery, even to those who knew him. In Born to be Posthumous, Mark Dery takes the reader through Gorey's midwestern origins, his time in the Army and at Harvard, his career in New York, his enduring love of cats—and, of course, his evolution as an artist and writer—in an attempt to unravel that mystery. Through never-before-published correspondence and interviews with those who knew Gorey, Dery is able to create a fascinating portrait of the reclusive writer/artist in this compelling biography.

8. The Philosopher's Flight // Tom Miller

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Simon & Schuster

Who run the magical world? Girls—at least in this World War I-era fantasy universe, where women are better at "empirical philosophy," a form of ancient science that allows people to teleport, fly, and cast spells. But when 18-year-old Robert Weekes attempts to prove he's good enough to enroll among the budding warriors and healers at the prestigious all-girls magic school, readers are introduced to a vivid world where young adults come of age to experience romance, adventure, and college debauchery—all laced with a little wizardry. It's a must-read for fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series or Lev Grossman's The Magicians.

9. Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer // Margalit Fox

An image of the cover of the book Conan Doyle for the Defense.

New York Times senior writer Margalit Fox tells the story of when Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, changed the course of a real-life murder case. Late one December evening in 1908, a wealthy older woman was brutally murdered in Glasgow. Police immediately seized on Oscar Slater, an immigrant Jewish gambler, as the culprit, based largely on the fact that he'd pawned a brooch similar to—but not matching—one taken from the dead woman's house. (Little matter that he'd pawned it before the murder actually happened.) Incensed by the shoddy police work, Conan Doyle stepped in, but it took decades for him to help Slater win his freedom. Fox deftly details how anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment helped foul the case from the beginning. Along the way, readers get insights on Conan Doyle's mind and character, as well as the evolution of our ideas about crime.

10. Barracoon: The STory of the Last "BLack Cargo" // Zora Neale Hurston

An image of the cover of the book Barracoon.

Six years before Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, the famed author and anthropologist documented the true story of Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the last slave ship to come to America. No one wanted to touch her book back in 1931, but HarperCollins finally published it in May. Hurston spent three months interviewing Lewis at his home in Plateau, Alabama, and what followed is a remarkable firsthand account of hardship, injustice, and ultimately freedom.

11. All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire // Jonathan Abrams

An image of the cover of the book All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire.

When David Simon's HBO series The Wire aired its final episode just over 10 years ago, it was one of HBO's most criminally underseen—and undervalued—series. Sure, it has a rabid following today and can usually be found at the top of any Best TV Shows of All-Time lists, but you wouldn't have known that if you were to simply judge it by its ratings (or the lack of awards it garnered) during its five-season run. Fortunately, television audiences looking for smarter, more realistic takes on the modern crime drama have caught on to the series, making Jonathan Abrams's extensive oral history perfectly timed. All of The Wire's main players take part and share behind-the-scenes memories, giving detailed accounts of everything from the death of Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) to the infamous season-one "F*** Scene" (in which Dominic West and Wendell Pierce spend five minutes dissecting a crime scene together while exchanging nothing but the f-word).

12. Severance // Ling Ma

An image of the cover of the book Severance.

Shen Fever is a terrible (and fortunately fictional) disease that traps its victims in their routines, whether it's spreading out a family dinner or making spreadsheets. When it hits New York in 2011, Candace Chen becomes one of the last New Yorkers in the city, after her job producing specialty Bibles offers her a handsome payout to pretend the office is still functioning. She spends her time taking pictures of the abandoned city for her blog, NY Ghost. While the apocalyptic scenario drives the book forward, the novel's true heart lies in Chen's flashbacks about her parents after they immigrated to the U.S. from China. The stories combine to form a haunting tale of survival, memory, and workaday life in late capitalist New York.

13. Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer // Barbara Ehrenreich

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Some of Barbara Ehrenreich's past explorations have included religion, low-wage jobs in America, and the seedy underbelly of the positive-thinking movement. The 77-year-old journalist doesn't shy away from difficult topics, and her newest work of nonfiction, Natural Causes, is no exception. In it, she declares that she is old enough to die and has stopped scheduling annual exams and medical screenings. She goes on to analyze society's obsession with prolonging life at all costs, drawing from her Ph.D. in cellular immunology and experience as a breast cancer survivor to explain the cellular process of aging—and why we have less control over our bodies than we may think.

14. The Ravenmaster: My Life With the Ravens at the Tower of London // Christopher Skaife

An image of the cover of the book The Ravenmaster.

Christopher Skaife has one of the most interesting jobs in the world: He's the yeoman warder (a.k.a Beefeater) in charge of the ravens at the Tower of London. Why do the ravens need their own keeper? According to a legend going back to Charles II, if the ravens ever leave the tower, the kingdom is doomed. Skaife weaves an entertaining look at the lives and loves of the tower's current flock—Munin, Merlina, Erin, Rocky, Jubilee II, Gripp II, and Harris—mixing insights about the surprisingly complex birds with threads of British history and folklore. Perfect for those who love natural history, London, or both.

14. The Library Book // Susan Orlean

An image of the cover of The Library Book.

Part true crime thriller, part love letter to libraries, The Library Book interweaves an investigation of a 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library—which burned for seven hours, destroying 400,000 books and damaging hundreds of thousands more—with the fascinating history of libraries, from their origins up to the current day. Author Susan Orlean not only writes about the importance and influence of libraries in her own life, but also embeds with every department of the LAPL, chatting with the people who make the institution run, showing that, these days, the modern library does much more than lend out books—it plays a vital role in the community. The Library Book is a must-read for book and library lovers everywhere.

15. An American Marriage // Tayari Jones

An image of the cover of the book An American Marriage.

Tayari Jones's debut novel, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and a summer reading recommendation from former President Barack Obama, follows newlyweds Celestial and Roy as their lives—and marriage—are turned upside down after Roy is falsely convicted of rape and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Jones weaves an emotional and powerful story about race and class issues facing a young African-American couple in the New South—and the ripple effects it has on the people around them.

16. Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey // A.J. Jacobs

An image of the cover of the book Thanks A Thousand.

Writer A.J. Jacobs is a self-improvement extremist. He can take a fairly normal resolution (learn more things! Hit the gym more often! Become more spiritual!) and go full tilt (read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica! Be the healthiest person ever! Follow 700 biblical rules to a tee!). For Thanks A Thousand, Jacobs decided to try radical gratitude and thank every person who contributed to his morning cup of coffee—chemists, farmers, health inspectors, truckers, the EPA employee at his local water plant. Everyone. It'll make your cold, caffeinated heart grow three sizes.

17. Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York // Stacy Horn

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Algonquin Books

New York City's Roosevelt Island wasn't always home to sports fields and high-rise apartments. In the 19th century, the 2-mile-long island in the middle of the East River was called Blackwell’s, and it was the site of hospitals, prisons, and an insane asylum. In Damnation Island, author Stacy Horn uses contemporary newspaper articles, city records, and reports to take readers inside these facilities, which became overcrowded, freezing, inescapable spaces where the city’s poor perished in droves. The island's notorious facilities became the subject of many exposés (journalist Nellie Bly got herself committed there for a newspaper story) and rehabilitation efforts, to no avail. Damnation Island is a bleak but fascinating look at a piece of nearly forgotten New York City history—one that will make you thankful for modern conveniences.

18. If You Leave Me // Crystal Hana Kim

An image of the cover of the book If You Leave Me.

Korean-American writer Crystal Hana Kim's debut novel If You Leave Me was named one of the Top 10 First Novels of the year by the American Library Association. This beautifully written work of historical fiction tells the heartbreaking story of two star-crossed lovers in Korea whose relationship was forever altered by civil war. It's a story of family, love, loss, and the difficult decisions that people are forced to make during wartime.

19. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century // Kirk Wallace Johnson

An image of the cover of the book The Feather Thief.

In 2009, student flautist and champion fly-tier Edwin Rist, 20, broke into a British museum and stuffed 299 rare bird skins into a suitcase, slipping out the window he'd entered. The skins, collected more than a century before, had incalculable value to the scientists who studied them. But Rist's fellow fly-tying enthusiasts, who used the feathers in their lures, were willing to put a price on them—and not ask where they came from. After Rist was arrested, some of the specimens were recovered, but a number disappeared without a trace. In The Feather Thief, author Kirk Wallace Johnson examines Rist's life, his crime, and his punishment. And just as Rist became obsessed with fly-tying, Johnson became obsessed with the case—and with tracking down the missing skins. His search for answers took him all over the world, and even put him in a room with Rist himself. Enthralling and infuriating, The Feather Thief is an almost unbelievable story that will captivate natural history lovers and true crime addicts alike.

20. The Sky Is Yours // Chandler Klang Smith

An image of the cover of the book The Sky is Yours.

At the outset of Chandler Klang Smith's darkly funny and gorgeously surreal debut novel, young reality star Duncan Humphrey Ripple V is all set to marry Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg—an arrangement their wealthy parents have been negotiating forever. But then the Dunk (as he prefers to be known) crash-lands his HowFly on a landfill island and falls in lust with the trash princess Abby, whose best friend is a vulture. Soon, the trio is fighting not just with each other but for their lives as they flee through the burned-out ruins of a dystopian metropolis, away from spectacular violence and toward, eventually, some semblance of safety and belonging. Smith's world is pure pleasure to inhabit, despite (or perhaps because of) the genetically-enhanced pets, prison riots, and fire-breathing dragons. Reviewers have called it Terry Gilliam meets William Gibson, and they're not wrong.

21. Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart // Alice Walker

An image of the cover of the book Taking the Arrow.

Although best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s poetry is no less moving. This beautiful, bilingual collection of nearly 70 poems is presented in both English and Spanish. An ode to troubled times, the poems were written in 2015-2016 at "a time of great sadness and feelings of loss and despair," Walker divulges in an introduction. Although her subject matter is at times painful, a sense of unwavering hope courses through the anthology.

22. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger // Rebecca Traister

An image of the title of the book Good and Mad.

"What becomes clear, when we look to the past with an eye to the future," journalist Rebecca Traister posits in the intro of her New York Times bestseller, "is that the discouragement of women's anger—via silencing, erasure, and repression—stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world." As she traces many anger-fueled, women-started movements through time (abolition, labor, suffrage, civil rights, feminism, #metoo), Traister effectively offers up a longform cost-benefit analysis of leaning into your rage. The verdict? Live and let livid.

23. I'll Be There For You: The One About Friends // Kelsey Miller

An image of the cover of the book I'll Be There For You.

Whether you tuned in to NBC on Thursday nights or you currently binge full seasons on Netflix, odds are you've spent time watching Friends. And though there's more than enough rightful criticism regarding the show's very of-the-era landscape (the lack of diversity, the various sexual and sexist tropes) to go around, writer Kelsey Miller takes readers behind the scenes for a more intimate look at the heart of the show. Miller examines the cast's relationships with each other and their insanely famous characters, from the show's biggest moments (like how the famous "we were on a break!" storyline impacted the dynamics for the rest of the series) to how the actors supported each other in their fight for salary parity. And, for fans of footnotes, the book is chock-full of fun facts, like how that ingenious apothecary table product placement is still bringing in money for Pottery Barn, or how Lisa Kudrow's real-life sister would often play her stand-in during Phoebe/Ursula twin scenes. For Friends and a book like this, the nostalgia will never be D.O.A.

24. So You Want to Talk About Race // Ijeoma Oluo

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Seal Press

"Why am I always being told to 'check my privilege'?" "Why can't I say the 'N' word?" "What is the model minority myth?" Even if you think you know the answers, writer Ijeoma Oluo's bestseller is an essential CliffsNotes on how to talk, approach, and consider race and racial dynamics on both the personal and the political levels. For each topic she covers, she takes the time to fully explain the problem, debunk any common misperceptions, back her claims with data, and provide guidance on how to adjust your frame of mind or become a truly informed ally. Oluo is astute and engaging, and her treatise works as a guide for people of any race, whether you need a more nuanced perspective, or perhaps just a concise, constructive argument to have ready for the holidays.

25. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer // Michelle McNamara

An image of the cover of the book I'll Be Gone in the Dark.

Earlier this year, former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested and charged with eight murders based on DNA evidence. If he's convicted, it will close the four-decade-old hunt for the Golden State Killer—the name given to the masked man who terrorized communities in Northern and Southern California. Much of the credit is owed to true crime journalist Michelle McNamara. She scoured thousands of pages of police reports, talked with victims and investigators, obsessively chased obscure leads, and collaborated with members of true crime message boards in search of the killer. McNamara was in the midst of writing an account of her investigation when she suddenly passed away in April 2016. I'll Be Gone in the Dark was finished by an investigative journalist and McNamara's research assistant (editor's notes explain where the material came from and provide additional context). The transition between McNamara's vivid writing and her collaborator's work is somewhat jarring, but I'll Be Gone in the Dark is a compelling read nonetheless—one that ultimately helped shine a light on a notorious killer.

26. The Proposal // Jasmine Guillory

An image of the cover of the book The Proposal.

The Proposal, the second novel from New York Times-bestselling novelist Jasmine Guillory, follows freelance writer Nik in the aftermath of a public proposal gone wrong. (Her boyfriend even spells her name incorrectly.) As Nik recovers, she leans on her own strength, her diverse cast of friends—and, of course, a new potential love interest. The feminist romance touches on uncomfortable conversations about consent during courtship and works to a satisfying ending. Bonus: Fans of Guillory's first book, The Wedding Date, will get to revisit the story of beloved character Carlos.

27. In the Enemy's House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies // Howard Blum

An image of the cover of the book In the Enemy's House.

In 2010, authorities arrested 10 members of a Russian spy ring operating in the U.S., an event that served as the inspiration for the TV show The Americans. But it wasn't the first time Russian spies were unmasked here: In In the Enemy's House, author Harold Blum chronicles the incredible true story of codebreaker Meredith Gardner and FBI agent Bob Lamphere, who, after World War II, systematically took down the members of a spy ring—including the Rosenbergs, who were later executed—intent on finding out the secrets of the atomic bomb. Only recently declassified, this compelling tale is mandatory reading for history buffs and fans of The Americans alike.

28. Educated: A Memoir // Tara Westover

An image of the cover of the book Educated.

Separated from conventional society by an isolationist family in rural Idaho, Tara Westover didn't begin her formal education until the age of 17, armed only with rudimentary home school knowledge and social awkwardness. Her appetite for knowledge proved boundless, and she eventually wound up earning her Ph.D. from Cambridge. Westover's story is a profound lesson in the merits of education—and evidence that no background is too insurmountable for your goals.

29. Fantastic Four: Behold … Galactus! // Stan Lee, John Byrne, and Jack Kirby

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Giants of their field, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated on some of the most revered comics of the 1960s. This oversized, 13.5-inch by 21.5-inch hardcover collects some of their most popular Fantastic Four stories on a canvas big enough to spotlight the mighty Galactus, their planet-devouring nemesis. The back strain is worth it.

30. Homey Don't Play That!: The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution // David Peisner

An image of the cover of the book Homey Don't Play That!

The 1990 premiere of In Living Color on Fox was a breakthrough for both comedians of color and sketch comedy. With unprecedented access to creator and star Keenen Ivory Wayans, Peisner details the show’s boundary-pushing run, its memorable characters, and the fight to skewer the sacred cows of pop culture.

31. The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South // Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

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In The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, authors Radley Balko (an investigative journalist at The Washington Post) and Tucker Carrington (director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law) examine the cases of two innocent men convicted of horrific crimes as well as the system that put them behind bars. The key players are the titular cadaver king—Dr. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner who at one point performed the majority of Mississippi's autopsies—and country dentist—Dr. Michael West, who asserted, among other scientifically shaky claims, that he could match a killer's teeth to bite marks on the victim. A shocking and gut-wrenching exposé of the systemic racism and junk science rampant in Mississippi's courts, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist will make you reconsider everything you think you know about the legal system.

32. Robin // Dave Itzkoff

An image of the cover of the book Robin.

It would take a hefty volume to detail the long and varied career of comic actor Robin Williams, and author Dave Itzkoff delivers it. Charting Williams's rise from the 1970s stand-up scene to becoming a household name during Mork and Mindy to his dramatic feature film turns, Itzkoff's 529 pages probe deep into the mind of a comedian whose seeming spontaneity was the result of years of hard work. For Williams, comedy was something he took very seriously.

33. We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, The Internet's Culture Laboratory // Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

book cover
Hachette Books

When Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian started Reddit in the tech factory of the Y Combinator group in 2005, they envisioned it as the front page of the entire internet. It was an audacious goal, and one that they eventually met—but not before personality conflicts and questionable business decisions nearly sunk the enterprise. Lagorio-Chafkin's assured narrative makes even crashing servers the stuff suspense thrillers are made of.

34. Beastie Boys Book // MIchael Diamond and Adam Horovitz

An image of the cover of the book Beastie Boys Book.

When parents got an earful of "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" back in the mid-1980s, many assumed (read: hoped) that the Beastie Boys would be just another passing fad. Wow, were they wrong. In fact, in the more than 30 years since their License to Ill album hit record stores, the band has expanded its grasp on popular culture well beyond the music scene. This book—a wild autobiography that is full of conversations between the band's two surviving members, Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock)—embraces the many art forms the Beastie Boys and their music have infiltrated over the years, and even includes a series of recipes inspired by their Paul’s Boutique album. It also, of course, pays tribute to Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, the band's third member who tragically passed away from cancer in 2012 at the age of 47. Much like the band itself, the hefty book is irreverent, full of surprises, and unexpectedly deep.

35. Churchill: Walking With Destiny // Andrew Roberts

An image of the cover of the book Churchill: Walking With Destiny.

If you want to read any old biography of Winston Churchill, there are literally hundreds from which to choose. But if you’re looking for a deeper exploration of the complicated man behind the myth, Andrew Roberts’s latest tome—which clocks in at more than 1000 pages—does just that, but with an affection for his subject that not every Churchill biographer has offered. While it doesn't shy away from criticism, the book also paints a vivid picture of Churchill's legendary wit, loyalty, and devotion to his wife. It's an exhaustively researched study in the contradictions of a man who basked in his ability to be contradictory.

36. Sick: A Memoir // Porochista Khakpour

An image of the cover of the book Sick: A Memoir.

Since she was barely old enough to write, author Porochista Khakpour has always felt that there was something "off" with her body. Growing up, she battled an onslaught of random symptoms—insomnia, high fevers, tremors, fainting spells—that were initially attributed to PTSD. It was something that her parents believed would resolve itself with time, but the pain Khakpour felt on a daily basis—and the symptoms—only intensified. Then came the pain medications and an addiction to benzodiazepines. Eventually, Khakpour was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. While Khakpour's book isn't necessarily a story of triumph (there is no cure for Khakpour), it is a story of survival. Anyone who has ever dealt with the debilitating one-two punch of both physical and psychological pain will find some solace, and recognition, in Khakpour's lifelong struggle with chronic illness. And for those who know or love someone who deals with such issues, it's a brilliantly honest account of the strength it takes just to get out of bed each morning.

37. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden // Denis Johnson

An image of the cover of the book The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.

On May 24, 2017, Denis Johnson—a Pulitzer Prize finalist—passed away at the age of 67 after a battle with liver cancer. Fortunately, he left us with The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a collection of short stories (his first in 25 years). While his themes have always leaned toward the darker side of life, there’s something slightly different about these tales—call it a kind of finality. Though concise wording and mortality have always been a part of Johnson’s oeuvre, with stories like "Triumph over the Grave”—about a professor attending to his dying friend—it seems clear that Johnson had come to terms with his fate, but wasn't about to go quietly. He saved the best for last; there's not an ounce of fat on these stories. Each word is exactly where it should be, and each description is only as long as it needs to be. This collection is a reminder that there won't be another writer like him.

38. She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity // Carl Zimmer

An image of the cover of the book She Has Her Mother's Laugh.

Carl Zimmer, a science columnist for The New York Times, investigates the meanings of genetic inheritance in this weighty book that reads like a journey into the nature of humankind. Using historical examples, Zimmer shows how heredity was misinterpreted and manipulated by eugenicists; by sequencing his own genome, he explores the complexity of epigenetics and the social implications of DNA in the 21st century. Your 23andMe profile is more complicated than you think.

39. The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the 20th Century // Deborah Blum

An image of the cover of the book The Poison Squad.

Before the push for food safety in the late 19th century, milk was often adulterated with formaldehyde and foods were preserved with salicylic acid, the active ingredient in acne medication. Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Deborah Blum uncovers the movement’s unsung hero, a chemist named Harvey Washington Wiley, who worked for decades to enact and enforce food safety laws that we now take for granted. This entertaining (and horrifying) account will make you think twice about your next meal.

40. Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story // Chris Nashawaty

An image of the cover of the book Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story.

Chris Nashawaty interviewed nearly everybody involved in making the classic 1980 snob-versus-slob golf film, giving us a book that, in the words of The Washington Post, is "much more fun to read than the movie was to watch." Tracing film production from the first tee to the last hole, Nashawaty not only reveals real tensions between the straight-laced Ted Knight and the pot-smoking Rodney Dangerfield, but also details a slew of bacchanalian hijinks that occurred off-camera.

41. To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, The Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration // Edward J. Larson

Book cover of
William Morrow

With the first summit of Everest and traverse of Antarctica still decades away, historian Edward J. Larson homes in on the year 1909 as a watershed moment in exploration. He follows legendary quests to reach the farthest points of terra firma: Robert Peary's attempt at the North Pole, Ernest Shackleton's stab at the South Pole, and Luigi Amadeo, Duke of the Abruzzi's ascent of K2, the world’s second-highest peak. Characterized by insane cold, extreme danger, and the hefty egos of their leaders, the three expeditions redefined the limits of human endurance.

42. Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island // Earl Swift

An image of the cover of the book Chesapeake Requiem.

Smack in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia's Tangier Island—and the 200-year-old crabbing community that calls the island home—is quickly disappearing. With its shoreline retreating 15 feet every year because of climate change, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its land since 1850 and is predicted to become unlivable by 2040. For nearly two years, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Earl Swift lived among Tangier's hardy villagers and came home with this poignant tale depicting a unique culture destined to fade away.

43. The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Process // Martha Nussbaum

An image of the cover of the book The Monarchy of Fear.

No matter what your political stripe, chances are the state of American politics makes you feel … something. So who better to explain the current cultural moment than the world’s foremost philosopher on emotions? Nussbaum, a professor at the University of Chicago, writes elegantly about the root source of your gut feelings, pinning down abstract emotions such as anger, disgust, envy, and jealousy. Along the way, she discusses everything from ancient history to modern literature.

44. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineering Created the Modern World // Simon Winchester

An image of the cover of the book The Perfectionists.

In this homage to precision engineering, bestselling author Simon Winchester gives life to the unknown historical characters who helped make the world what it is today (such as the English ironmaster John Wilkinson, who helped design the machinery that made James Watts’s famous steam engine work). Investigating phenomena from the dawn of interchangeable parts to the digital age, this book is perfect for people who need everything to be, well, perfect.

45. Unclaimed Baggage // Jen Doll

An image of the cover of the book Unclaimed Baggage.

A handful of fantastic young adult novelists have graced the print and digital pages of Mental Floss—John Green and Ransom Riggs to name a couple. Now we're proud to add former magazine editor Jen Doll to that list. In this fresh and enchanting YA debut, a group of Alabama misfits find friendship while working in a store selling lost luggage. In the end, they unpack baggage of a different kind.

46. Florida // Lauren GroFF

An image of the cover of the book Florida.

The characters in Lauren Groff's book face a variety of challenges—from panthers to snakes to hurricanes—but they're all connected by the Sunshine State. Each short story in the collection stands on its own, but together they create a sense of place that will haunt you like the hum of an air conditioner in the Florida heat.

47. The Incendiaries // R.O. Kwon

An image of the cover of the book The Incendiaries.

R.O. Kwon explores the dark side of faith in her debut novel. The relationship between Will and Phoebe, two college students, is tested when a charismatic cult leader infiltrates their lives. Kwon's prose makes even the most disturbing twists in the story an irresistible read.

48. The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror // DANIEL Mallory Ortberg

An image of the cover of the book The Merry Spinster.

Most classic fairy tales have dark undertones, and Daniel Mallory Ortberg embraces that in The Merry Spinster. The compilation takes familiar children's stories, like "The Velveteen Rabbit" and "The Frog Prince," and gives them a disturbing spin for modern, grown-up readers. The sense of humor Ortberg brought to The Toast, the website he cofounded, is strong in each piece.

49. The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing // Merve Emre

An image of the cover of the book The Personality Brokers.

Whether or not you believe the Myers-Briggs personality test, The Personality Brokers is an entertaining read. Merve Emre's book won't tell you if you're an INFP or an ESTJ, but it will take you through the compelling history of the personality test, from its conception by a mother-daughter team of fiction writers to its impact on pop psychology today.

50. War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence // Ronan Farrow

An image of the cover of the book War On Peace.

When he wasn't breaking sexual misconduct stories for The New Yorker this year, Ronan Farrow released a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the decline of U.S. foreign policy. War on Peace provides broad context for the state of diplomacy today, featuring interviews with influential political figures, including every living former secretary of state from Henry Kissinger to Rex Tillerson.

51. My Year of Rest and Relaxation // OtTessa Moshfegh

cover of
Penguin Press

Ottessa Moshfegh's latest novel is a bleak portrait of a privileged, narcissistic, and painfully isolated young woman who decides to literally sleep away her life. With the help of a psychiatrist whose inattention and enthusiasm for doling out prescriptions borders on criminal, she locks herself in her apartment and whiles away the months in a pharmaceutical-induced blackout. Sharply observed with a wickedly dark sense of humor, the book is far from a snore.

52. See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary // Lorrie Moore

An image of the cover of the book See What Can Be Done.

Lorrie Moore has long been known as one of America's foremost fiction writers, but her latest release represents her first book of nonfiction. Comprising essays, book reviews, cultural criticism, and other writings from throughout her career, some of the pieces date back to her days writing about Nora Ephron and Margaret Atwood for Cornell's literary magazine in the early 1980s. As she puts it in the introduction, the book is "34 years of, well, stuff." With meditations on everything from John Cheever to Lena Dunham and True Detective, it's an exhaustive survey of American culture through the work of one of our sharpest modern writers.

53. The Dog in Photography: 1839-Today // Raymond Merritt

An image of the cover of the book The Dog in Photography.

In The Dog in Photography: 1839-Today, they're all good boys. The book features delightful dog pics from the earliest days of photography up to the present-day, reminding us that for as long as we've had cameras, we've wanted to immortalize our favorite pooches on film. It has something for every type of dog lover, from vintage photos of dogs in top hats to photos of celebrities like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe with their pups.

54. The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath // Leslie Jamison

An image of the cover of the book The Recovering.

"I was trying to write a book about the ways addiction is a hard story to tell," Leslie Jamison writes in the first few pages of The Recovering, "because addiction is always a story that has already been told, because it grinds down—ultimately, for everyone—to the same demolished and reductive and recycled core: Desire. Use. Repeat." Her solution is a hefty, deeply researched book that's unlike any other addiction memoir, tracing not just the journey of her own addiction and recovery, but of the everyday Alcoholics Anonymous attendees she meets along the way. In the process, she explores the history of A.A. and U.S. drug policy, the varied societal responses to alcoholism and drug addiction, and more.

55. The World's Most Beautiful Libraries // Massimo Listri

An image of the cover of the book The World's Most Beautiful Libraries.

This elegant coffee table book is a bibliophile's dream. Filled with large-format photographs by noted Italian photographer Massimo Listri, it’s a visual tour of some of the world’s most storied archival spaces, from monastic libraries that date to the 17th century to palatial royal archives and historic public libraries you can still visit today. Get a sneak peek of some of the incredible spaces featured here.

56. True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods // Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

cover of
Hachette Books

This breezy read will give you numerous unexpected insights into the animal kingdom, debunking ubiquitous myths—like the idea that if you touch a baby bird its parents will abandon it—and providing even more unreal-sounding true facts like "some fish have parasites for tongues." With whimsical illustrations and an entire section on animal digestion and excretion, it's an educational book for the whole family.

Written by Erika Berlin, April Daley, Michelle Debczak, Shaunacy Ferro, Kat Long, Bess Lovejoy, Erin McCarthy, Emily Petsko, Lucas Reilly, Jake Rossen, and Jennifer Wood.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's mother changed the spelling of their last name.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage. 

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.

Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MassachusettsDaderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. Moby-Dick was a flop.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. Herman Melville's last major work was discovered by accident.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. You can see Herman Melville's personal collection of knick-knacks.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.