100 Must-Read Works of Genre-Bending Nonfiction

My favorite kind of book is the kind that is hard to describe. The kind that makes booksellers struggle to decide where it should be shelved. Is it memoir or science? Philosophy or essay? Biography or criticism? Current events or autobiography? I don’t have to make the bookstore shelving decision myself, not being a bookseller, but I do often have a hard time deciding where to browse in stores. My favorite books are those that hide out in Women’s Studies but could also go with Essays, or are in the Nature section but could also fit in Philosophy.

Hence this list. Each of these books combines two or more genres or bends the rules — or better yet the “rules” — of an already-established form. I considered trying to separate the books in this list into loosely-defined categories such as “books with a lot of memoir in them” or “books that contain science and/or math,” but that seemed like an excellent way to give myself a huge headache, and it undermines my whole point: that some books do everything they can to resist classification. So I stuck with alphabetizing them by title.

You will see my biases in this list: it’s very memoir- and essay-heavy, as those are the nonfiction forms I read most often. It’s also heavy on the literary and philosophical and leans toward the experimental. As with all lists of this sort, it’s possible to write an alternate, entirely different list that’s equally interesting if not more so. That said, what genre-bending nonfiction would you add?

100-essays-sarah-ruhl-cover100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl

2500 Random Things About Me Too, Matias Viegener

About a Mountain, John D’Agata

The Address Book, by Sophe Calle

Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag

The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

At the Existentialist Cafe, Sarah Bakewell

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri

A Bestiary, Lily Hoang

Ban en Banlieue, Bhanu Kapil

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Memoir of Early Motherhood, Louise Erdrich

The Body: An Essay, Jenny Boully

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa

The Compleat Purge, Trisha Low

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey

Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine

Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, Diana Eck

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay, Anne Carson

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max

The Face: A Time Code, Ruth Ozeki

The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki

The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura

A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley

The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer: Richard Holmes

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, Kevin Young

The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, Edmund de Waal

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Heroines, Kate Zambreno

A History of Bombing, Sven Lindqvist

Hood, Alison Kinney

Hotel, Joanna Walsh

How to be Black, Baratunde Thurston

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How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah Equiano

Is God a Mathematician?, Mario Livio

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata

Little Labors, Rivka Galchen

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism, Geoff Nicholson

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Lauren Slater

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller

The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden, Katherine Swift

The Motion of Light Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing In the East Village, Samuel R. Delany

My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe

My Paris, Gail Scott

My Poets, Maureen McLane

A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman

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Negroland: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, Colson Whitehead

Now and at the Hour of Our Death, Susana Moreira Marques

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir, Vivian Gornick

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, by Geoff Dyer

The Periodic Table, Primo Levi

The Pharmacist’s Mate, Amy Fusselman

The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman

The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography, A.J.A. Symons

Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment, John Horgan

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields

Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall, Thomas Browne

The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books, Azar Nafisi

The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

The Rodrigo Chronicles: Conversations about America and Race, Richard Delgado

Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje

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Self-Portrait in Green, Marie NDiaye

The Self Unstable, Elisa Gabbert

A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, Alan Lightman

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions, Jenny Diski

Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic’s Search for Health and Healing, Tim Parks

The Temptation to Exist, E.M. Cioran

Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, Deborah Levy

Things Seen, Annie Ernaux

Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, Gish Jen

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Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss

Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell, Katherine Angel

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Michael Sorkin

U and I: A True Story, Nicholson Baker

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, Ander Monson

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson

The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image, Jeffrey C. Robinson

Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit

What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol, and Story, P.L. Travers

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, Terry Tempest Williams

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, Wendy McClure

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston

The Women, Hilton Als

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, John Edgar Wideman

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig

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