Some people are nonfiction lovers, but for some of us reading nonfiction can be a slog. Here are a few nonfiction books staff recommends for those who aren’t usually fans of reading nonfiction!
I love nonfiction! Life is so messy, beautiful, tragic, and wonderful that sometimes nonfiction can really find meaning that would seem contrived in a novel. For me, nonfiction can be a better place for the unresolved endings of real life. In no particular order, some of my favorite nonfiction books by women include:
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson: Gender, parenthood, language, and love are all themes in Maggie Nelson’s beautiful and thought-provoking book. This book is almost closer to poetry than nonfiction in spirit.
Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me, Patricia Volk: Using her mother and designer Elsa Schiaparelli as guides, how will Patricial Volk become a woman and writer? Well, with humor, a beautiful eye for detail, and New York City like you’ve only dreamed!
Book of Ages, Jill Lepore. Ben Franklin’s sister Jane lived out her years in Boston. What separated her from her brother? You pretty much know how a biography of an 18th century poor woman will end, but I still cried for Jane Franklin, and all of the forgotten women of history.
Random Family :Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s masterpiece of narrative nonfiction is still one of my favorite books of all time. LeBlanc spent 11 years living with the subjects of her book, and her research shows in her care and compassion for her subjects.
One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, wrote a memoir I found completely engrossing. It’s called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and it’s about a period of time in which she and her husband were living in France, and she found out in the ninth month of pregnancy that her baby died. It’s incredibly sad, obviously, but also beautiful.
The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich is part true-crime, part memoir, and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of the best books I read last year.
I also loved Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which is about her experiences as a scientist, but also contains fascinating information about the trees she’s studying.
Speaking of science, I was pleasantly surprised by Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. Science was always my worst subject – it’s like my brain just doesn’t speak that language. This short book actually helped me to learn some of the basics, and the writing is incredibly lovely and a pleasure to read.
I really like reading about history, but not the dry facts and figures we got from our history books. I’m interested in what it was actually like to live in other time periods, and Ruth Goodman’s book How To Be a Victorian is a great example of that type of writing. It was a lot of fun to read!
One of my other favorite books about history is The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming. She brings the story to life so vividly you can easily imagine that you’re right there with this strange and fascinating family. I learned so much about the family, their friendship with Rasputin, and life in Russia in that time period.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is an amazing non-fiction narrative account of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London and the scientific quest to discover the truth about how it spreads. I was absolutely riveted from start to finish. Johnson has a talent for weaving the social and political facts together with the scientific, and the pacing is perfect. I was skeptical about being able to enjoy a book about a horrific disease–but I learned so much, it was completely worth the occasional cringes.
Ooooo…children’s non-fiction is some of our favorite reading in children’s literature. Happily, children’s non-fiction is no longer the simple, boring “just-the-facts” manuals of former years. Non-fiction authors have laced together stories, facts, photographs, oral histories and more to create a magical genre of things that are real. Here are some favorites…
National Geographic has put together an animal series called “Face to Face with…” that features everything you would need to know about certain animals and, because it’s National Geographic, the pages explode with amazing photographs.
More in the animal series is the “Scientist in the Field” series. Again, each book features an individual animal with amazing photos but each story is told through the lens of a scientist/specialist that works with and studies the animals. Look for: Octopus Scientists, Tapir Scientists, Polar Bear Scientists, Spider Scientists and many more.
Russell Freedman was an eminent biographer and the originator of “photo-biography” for children. His stories of prominent figures include letters, charts, and photos – all original documentation. The text is thrilling and interesting as Russell Freedman is an excellent story teller.
For some grisly and gross history, pair Laurie Halse Anderson’s ficitional account of the early American Yellow Fever epidemic (Fever, 1793) with Jim Murphy’s non-fiction account (An American Plague) – actually, read anything by Jim Murphy. (Great Fire, Blizzard, Invincible Microbe)
Ask for more great ideas at the Children’s Desk!
The Night of the Gun by David Carr. Nonlinear, investigative journalism, true crime memoir by the late New York Times journalist David Carr.
Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World by Mackenzi Lee – A series of entertaining vignettes of women throughout history from all over the world, with illustrations for each broad. Lee tells these women’s stories in a conversational & humorous tone.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming – This was the first nonfiction book I read that compelled me to keep reading as much as a novel does. The story of the Romanov family took as many twists and turns as any mystery novel I’ve read and kept me riveted the whole time.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West – Hilarious, poignant, insightful. The audiobook is read by the author and that just enhances the whole experience.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Coates’ letter to his son is a powerful read that breaks down complicated subjects in an easy to understand way.
How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France – Despite the horrific subject matter, France’s writing compellingly humanizes the struggles people with AIDS went through from the very beginnings of the plague through the discovery of the right combination of drugs that produced what was known as the Lazarus Effect, bringing people with AIDS back from the brink of death. I only listened to the audio, so I’m not sure if it would have been as easy to read as it was to listen to. The narrator was fantastic though, so the audio version comes highly recommended!
Queer, There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager – Another series of pop culture ladened & entertaining vignettes of queer folks (& possibly queer folks) throughout history.
What is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko – A manga (graphic novel) detailing the life and imprisonment of an artist in Japan who was locked up for making art based on a part of her anatomy that was deemed obscene by the authorities. A funny & fascinating look into what is considered “appropriate” and the artist’s experience navigating the Japanese legal & prison systems.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele – Khan-Cullors moving account of her life & experiences with police violence from childhood through the founding Black Lives Matter and beyond.
Oh my gosh. Ten years ago I would have struggled to come up with any; now I have too many to list! Sarah Vowell is hilarious and informative (with a definite slant to the left); try The Wordy Shipmates. Steve Almond – a local! – is fantastic; I read Against Football in a day, and my husband loved Candyfreak. I thought Erik Larson’s Dead Wake was his best yet, with almost suspense-like pacing (especially impressive given that you know from the beginning that the Lusitania is going to sink). I also love memoir – Ann Patchett’s essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Maggie O’Farrell’s recent I Am, I Am, I Am, and of course Tina Fey’s Bossypants. There are some really funny parenting books too, like Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt and Emily Flake’s Mama Tried. There is so much great nonfiction out there!
Want even more nonfiction recommendations? Check these out:
Let us know some of your favorites in the comments below!