A few years back, I used to be a reader who was almost exclusively drawn to fiction. I had to convince myself to pick up a work of nonfiction every now and then, only because I felt like I had to. Cut to the present, when I actively look forward to new nonfiction releases and find myself taking infinitesimally small, but exhilarating, steps towards my childhood goal of knowing everything about everything. Choosing the right books made all the difference, especially by reading some of the best nonfiction books of all time.
Here I have composed a list of 25 books that I think are readable and among some of the best nonfiction books of all time. This is, of course, not a definitive list, and I am sure to have missed some of your favourites — to compose a definitive list of the best nonfiction books of all time, one would actually have to know everything about everything. These are books that are well written, have had an impact on our understanding of the world, or are books that deal with important, profound themes. I have excluded memoirs, autobiographies, and poetry, for I felt that the scope of this list is too small to do justice to such a wide range of offerings.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
This is one of the first works of feminist literature, and has been a foundational text for women’s fight for equal rights. The feminist movement has obviously come a long way since this book was first written in 1792, but Wollstonecraft’s razor-sharp sentences are still awe-inspiring.
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
With this revolutionary text, Darwin changed the world’s understanding of life, and challenged religious dogma. This book is as historically important as it is readable.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
In this collection of essays, Du Bois identifies racism as the defining evil of the 20th century, and stresses the importance of voting and civil rights — laying the foundation for the civil rights movement.
Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore (1917)
The fact that this brilliant essay features in very few lists of nonfiction classics that I have encountered over the years is telling of how Western-centric these lists (and probably this one, too) still are. Writing at a time when nationalist sentiments were raging in many regions of Asia in order to counter the hegemony of the West, Tagore presciently identifies the perils of rallying behind an idea that is based upon exclusiveness. This essay is a must read — for not only was it ahead of its time, it is ahead of ours as well.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf (1929)
The question that Virginia Wolf sets out to answer in this essay is why there have not been any women Shakespeares. She concludes that it is for the lack of a steady source of income and a room of one’s own.
Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)
In Hiroshima — one of the earliest works of narrative journalism — Hersey interviews six survivors of the nuclear attack, and these accounts opened the eyes of the American public to the enormous scale of the devastation that had been wreaked by the bombing and made them question the morality of nuclear warfare.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
Silent Spring alerted the world to the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and was a timely warning against human arrogance about the ability to exploit the natural world. This book is both beautifully written and ground-breaking, having helped launch the modern environmental movement.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
The powerful, eloquent essays in The Fire Next Time are infused with dread at the havoc that racism can wreak, and with the hope that awareness about the lived realities of the oppressed, acknowledgement of the injustices they face, and action against the deep-rooted social evil will be able to avert the catastrophe.
Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)
In this book, Said formally identifies the derisive, exoticizing lens through which the West looks at the East as orientalism. A foundational text of postcolonial studies, it remains relevant to this date.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984)
In this collection of essays, Audre Lorde draws upon her experience as a Black lesbian woman in America to write beautifully on a range of topics including race, sexuality, class, feminism, and motherhood. A cornerstone of Black feminism, this book calls out the racism of white feminism.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (1985)
This book is an oral history of Soviet women during the Second World War. It includes accounts of women who were at the front lines alongside men, working as pilots, snipers, doctors, scouts, and so on. It is an important document of women’s experience in war, as well as of the very different challenges they had to face as women, despite their immense contributions, when trying to adjust to civilian life after the war.
Decolonising the Mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1987)
This collection of essays is an essential work of postcolonial studies. In it, the celebrated writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o examines the connection between colonialism, language, and culture, and stresses the importance of combating the cultural and psychological effects of colonialism perpetrated through language.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
This immensely readable book about the origins of the universe by the celebrated physicist has remained widely popular since its publication. It continues to inspire and fascinate readers everywhere.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2010)
This book is a piercing critique of how the American criminal justice system targets Black people, despite being formally colorblind. It links this form of racial discrimination to the broader history of racism in America, and is an urgent call for reform.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
Through the stories of three individuals, this book tells the story of the mass migration of Black Americans from the South to northern and western states in the search of dignity and freedom. The writing is beautiful and richly detailed, making the book a riveting read.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011)
This broad ranging and popular history of humanity is well written and exceptionally accessible. This is an excellent book for readers trying to get into nonfiction. One might not agree with everything Harari has to say, but he provides a coherent framework to situate oneself in, and a lot of interesting questions to ponder.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
This book is a poetic meditation on our deep connection with nature. It brings together scientific thought and indigenous knowledge to make an appeal to develop a wider ecological conscience and restore the balance in our relationship with the world around us.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (2014)
The titular essay inspired the term “mansplaining,” and validated the annoyance that women around the world felt at the propensity of (generally less qualified) men to break things down for them that they already know. The collection contains essays on a variety of topics, including marriage, and violence against women.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
Human beings are causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth — and it is going to be the deadliest event since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Travelling to different corners of the world and interacting with scientists who are studying different aspects of this catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert lays bare in precise prose the havoc that we are wreaking on other inhabitants of the planet. A must-read for a chilling and humbling look at what humankind’s legacy on Earth is going to be.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2016)
This book is an exquisitely written history of the evolution of our understanding of the gene. It is a page-turner despite being over 500 pages long, and through his exploration of the science of genetics, Mukherjee makes one of the most compelling cases against bigotry and discrimination.
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (2016)
This is a superbly written book about microbes that will not only arm its reader with an arsenal of cool facts about bacteria, but also deepen their appreciation of the complex interconnectedness between the diverse lifeforms that inhabit the earth.
The Anarchy by William Darlymple (2019)
The Anarchy is the story of how the East India Company, a limited liability corporation, became a colonial power, and how a rich and vast country came to be ruled from a boardroom in faraway London. William Dalrymple is an extraordinary writer, and this book is a timely reminder of the dangers of unquestioning subservience to markets, with little to no accountability for the human costs of the pursuit of profit.
Figuring by Maria Popova (2019)
Figuring is an ode to the never-ending human search for meaning, through a narrative that blends together the lives of several artists, writers, scientists and visionaries, including Johannes Kepler, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson, among others. This is a book to be savored and reread.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (2019)
This book exposes the gender bias that has been carried into the data driven era. As men are the default in much of the interpretation of the numbers that determine crucial aspects of modern life such as healthcare, education, and public policy, women find themselves inherently unaccounted for — an important revelation for the modern world.
Time’s Monster by Priya Satia (2020)
This book deals with a topic that is both fascinating and timely — Satiya examines the way in which the work of historians in imperial Britain helped sell the imperialist project, to demonstrate how our interpretation of history impacts our present and our future.
Want more nonfiction reading recommendations, or delve deeper into a specific topic? Check out our non fiction archives here.