When I was younger, all I wanted to read was fantasy novels. I’m not sure I realized then how truly magical the real world was. Now, I love tucking in to a non-fiction book, especially when it’s an audiobook. It’s like I can learn and discover things about the world, while I wash the dishes or walk the dog!
A good non-fiction book isn’t just a bunch of facts like a textbook, but a carefully curated narrative that leads you on a journey, much like a fictional story. My favorites are the ones that incorporate tons of anecdotes about the topic they’re exploring (Bryson, Gladwell, and Roach are particularly masters of this), so you’re not just hearing about things, but also about the people who discovered, invented, and utilized those things.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – Beginning with the big bang and ending with human evolution, this giant book tackles everything you want to know about Earth’s origins. I’m generally pretty intimidated by hard science, but Bryson strikes the right balance between practical facts and hilarious true stories.
On Writing: a Memior of the Craft by Stephen King – King takes a potentially dry topic, how to write, and turns it into a witty, thoughtful ode to the writer’s craft. The lessons he has learned are told through the tale of his own history, from childhood to the car crash that nearly took his life.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – North Korea is even more tragic and weird than you ever could have imagined. Using interviews of several escapees, Demick paints a picture of North Korean families, jobs, romance, childhood, food, and every day life, illustrating how close the regime is to a twisted 1984.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – All of Gladwell’s books are incredible, but this might be my favorite of the bunch. As with all of his books, Gladwell starts with a thesis, in this case how successful people thrive because of their circumstances (such as family and birthplace), not due to innate superiority. Then he uses specific examples and cases to prove his point, such as the Beatles and Bill Gates.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster – I graduated with a BA in Literature over three years ago, but I still crave the insights and lectures I received from professors. If you love to read literature, but feel like you’re never quite catching all the references, this is the book for you.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger – Why do certain videos go viral, whereas seemingly identical videos never get any views? Berger explains why people love to talk about certain products and stories, including why the McRib is the most beloved McDonald’s menu item and why FourSquare is so addictive.
Stiff by Mary Roach – Roach began with a simple question – what happens to the bodies donated to science? She shares the many answers she finds, including decomposition forensic research and helping automobile makers safe thousands of lives. I’d understand that learning about dead bodies might weird you, but this one is really worth the read, especially if you’re planning to donate yourself.
The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks – One of the most famous neurologists explains some of his most curious patients and their unusual conditions. From “idiots” who have savant abilities to a man who is not able to tell the difference between people and common objects, Sacks shares the strange tales while employing deep empathy and the upmost respect.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – Recounting the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, this book tells the true intertwining tales of the architect who designed it and the serial killer who stalked it. The sheer amount of detail and compelling narrative makes it hard to believe this book is even non-fiction.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan Koerner – Plane hijacking has been going on far longer than 9/11. In the mid-century as air travel was gaining popularity, it was a near daily occurrence with the hijackers demanding everything from flights to Cuba to political change to millions of dollars.
Have you read any of these? What’s your favorite non-fiction book?