Nonfiction books are literature based in fact and hopefully, accuracy. The category contains books on a very broad variety of topics, including subjects like biography, business, cooking, health, memoirs, travel, home improvement, religion, art and music, history, self-help, true crime and science. If you love fictional stories but haven’t ventured into the wide and wild world of the best nonfiction books, let me be your guide.
As someone who only read fiction for the longest time, I understand where you’re coming from. However, I’ve explored a number of sub-genres in nonfiction over the past two years, and some of them have turned out to be my favourite books of all time. Nonfiction books don’t always have to read like textbooks. The well-written ones can be extremely engaging while being profoundly educational. Some writers really take their time to break down complex concepts for anyone to understand, provided they pick up the book! As much as I love escaping in a good story, learning about the real world through some era-changing books has been an absolute pleasure.
Here’s a list of some diverse and fascinating nonfiction books from the decade. It includes titles that started and steered conversations, changed cultural discussions and defined genres.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2011)
This book, written by renowned oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. He has claimed to have written the book to fill a void of knowledge that existed regarding the history of cancer. He wanted to tie its origins to the extent of knowledge we had about it in 2011 and try to offer where to go from there. It was his way of letting his patients understand the disease spreading through their bodies and hopefully expand the world’s understanding of it too. He has done exactly that in his clinical yet personal biography of cancer.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2012)
Jonathan Haidt tries to draw conclusions from human psychology to explain the morals conservatives and liberals value, and why. He talks about how our religious and political views are shaped by intuition. This book can offer a different perspective of looking at the world. It can, in some cases, open the room for a more constructive discourse with people whose views differ from ours.
Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2012)
This New York Times bestseller has been translated into 40 languages, and why shouldn’t it be! It’s so timely, and our loud world needs to find its way to being more in touch with quiet. It talks about the world’s increasing shift towards the extrovert ideal and how this leads to inherently good ideas being overshadowed by a charming personality.
We have started to undervalue qualities of introversion as a culture, and we miss out on so much while doing so. I’m a textbook introvert and this book made me feel so seen. It made me understand and value my rich inner life even more. It also made me realise that labels are for comfort and not conformation. I can break out of my cherished introversion when something I care about needs me to.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
This book brings to light what we have always known but sometimes choose to ignore: we are deeply connected to nature in all ways imaginable. This connection makes itself known when it comes to medicine too. We need nature to heal and the natural world offers wonderful solutions for almost all our needs. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She embraces Indigenous teachings and helps us navigate through the natural world through the lens of science. This book is extremely scientific, yet poetic, making it educational and engaging.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai (2013)
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai fought for her right to an education. When she was 15, she was shot in the head while riding the bus home from school. We have all heard the story. This book helped it reach more people.
Malala miraculously recovered and has started important political discourse throughout the world about women’s education. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for her powerful yet peaceful protest to make this world slightly less cruel and a lot more aware.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (2014)
This is such a fascinating read! Caitlin Doughty talks about her experiences working with corpses in the crematory. Filled with vivid, sometimes gruesome details and a whole lot of wit, this is a book to have on your TBR.
It’s short, interesting and brings to life the very topic we spend so much time avoiding – death. She also talks about how people have cared for the dead over the centuries in different regions of the world. Making the concept of “dust thou art, to dust returnest” very real, this nonfiction book is sure to stay in your head long after you’re done reading it.
Between the World and Me: Notes on the First 150 Years in America by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
Between The World And Me is a letter written by Coates to his 15 year old son Samori. The author shares his own experiences of being black in America with as much honesty as he can muster. He focuses on what it is like to belong in a Black body in America. He addresses racism, police brutality and the racially biased American dream. The book is filled with his fears, frustration and caution for his son. This powerful autobiographical account won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2015)
There have been five mass extinctions on Earth over half a million years. We have been going through the sixth extinction, “The Anthropocene,” for quite some time now. Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her book, “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust.”
Humans have and are continuing to change the world in ways they don’t always comprehend. This 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning book tries to help us understand our undeniable, irreversible impact on everything around us.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016)
The author is a Princeton sociologist who follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to meet the very basic need for housing. It talks about poverty and shows how eviction worsens things for people who are already on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It started a necessary conversation about the housing crisis in America. It won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2017 for pursuing a pressing issue that often goes unaddressed.
Secondhand Time: The Last Of The Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (2016)
Secondhand Time chronicles the decline and fall of Soviet communism and the rise of oligarchic capitalism. The author uses her distinctive documentary style to give voice to the stories of individuals that get lost in the narratives of powerful states.
It was first published in Russia in 2013 and translated to English in 2016 by Bela Shayevich. Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Adults In The Room: My Battle With The European and American Deep Establishment by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
In this book, economist Yanis Varoufakis documents his battle with European Union officials over the Greek debt crisis. In 2015, as the finance minister of Greece, he attempted to renegotiate his country’s relationship with the EU. Read all about his fascinating battle in this tale of modern power.
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2018)
Ijeoma Oluo explores a very wide range of subjects that are impacted by race and racial bias in America. She talks about intersectionality, police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, microaggressions, and affirmative action. She breaks down for the readers the things that are effected by race and how. She talks about how racism does not come down to individual racist or ignorant people but how institutionalized racism and its biases affect the well being and opportunities of an entire race. This book is extremely insightful and lends clarity to vague concepts. It helps us have more informed conversations about race and brings to light some of the most pressing issues surrounding it.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (2018)
John Carreyrou takes investigative reporting to its peak in this fascinating inside story of the rise and fall of Theranos. Theranos is a multibillion-dollar biotech startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes. In 2015, Forbes named Holmes America’s Richest Self-Made Woman. In the same year, Carreyou published an article to question the validity of her apparently game-changing blood-testing technology. The author walks us through Theranos’s giant scam through his persistent and compelling journalism.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon (2018)
In this powerful memoir, Kiese Laymon recounts his experience as a Black boy who struggles with weight. He writes in second person, addressing himself to his mother. He reflects on the racial American state and his experiences with abuse. Owing to Laymon’s honesty, tenderness and bravery, Heavy won the Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction in 2019.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018)
The Library Book explores the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library. By the time the disastrous fire was extinguished, it had consumed about 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. The investigation is woven with Susan Orlean’s love for books and libraries. This nonfiction book helps you appreciate what goes into running a library and how they’re essential to our welfare.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (2019)
Jenney Odell urges us to live our physical lives in a physical place. She holds the opinion that doing “nothing” and not contributing to capitalistic drive to monetize is an act of political resistance. Doing nothing can create space for the kind of reflection that is essential to sustaining and savouring life. Pick up this book to learn to resist the virtual attention economy and lend it to the real world.
Figuring by Maria Popova (2019)
Maria Popova writes in her book, “Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love?”
These are the questions she tries to ponder and answer throughout. She does so by exploring the lives of historical figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson. Picking up this book will lead to fascination, contemplation and comfort.
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century by Alice Wong (2020)
Alice Wong is a disability rights activist who has compiled the stories and essays of disabled people belonging to diverse communities. Disability Visibility does what the title claims to do. It brings out the complexity, hardship and hope surrounding disability in a fierce, insightful, and heartfelt way.
Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World by Laurence C. Smith (2020)
Laurence C. Smith is the Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. In this nonfiction book, he talks about how fundamentally and drastically rivers have shaped human civilization. Rivers have effected everything from the very shape of the world to agriculture, transport and wars. Check out this fascinating read to understand why rivers are indispensable for our wellbeing.
Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine And Myth in a Man-Made World by Elinor Cleghorn (2021)
Unwell Women is a deeply stirring book about women’s illnesses. Elinor Cleghorn addresses her autoimmune disease, which was misdiagnosed and untreated for over ten years. She talks about the ignorance and carelessness that surrounds women’s health and how this adversely effects marginalized women. With a few case studies, she brings to light the horrifying history of medical experimentation on enslaved women and sex workers. This book is personal and impactful and brings to light the compelling need to do right by all the unwell women.