Nonfiction Authors Worth Reading

I have a love/hate relationship with nonfiction. I love reading nonfiction, but I have a serious problem with the values of nonfiction and the way it is written. This may be because of my tastes and interests (I am not a memoir, biography, or history buff- I’m more of a journalistic nonfiction guy), but I find much of the nonfiction genre too inconsistent and too long. And maybe because of that, it makes finding a good nonfiction book feel so, so sweet. 

Out of this relationship, I have learned, that when reading nonfiction, stick to the authors you like. 

Good nonfiction authors tend to fix the problems (as diagnosed by me) of the nonfiction genre. Because even though they are not all perfect, they are consistent in their strengths and their flaws. And even though they don’t all avoid the unnecessary digression into something that they, and only they, find interesting in vague regard to the topic of the book, at least you know how often and how egregiously they do it. And if you like one of an author’s books and merely move on to his/her next, it solves the problem of the book blackhole that I fall into when I get done reading one and begin the arduous search for what I might like next.

So here are the nonfiction authors that I believe have a significant body of work worth diving into to avoid looking for the needle in the nonfiction haystack.

Malcolm Gladwell

The undisputed heavyweight champ of nonfiction. The man has written so much and so well in both his career at the New Yorker and in his books that he has inspired his own adjective for a style of writing- Gladwellian. And I love Gladwellian writing. It is almost always interesting by any hand, but it is never better than with the originator.

Gladwellian writing takes a topic that seems so abstract and unattainable that nobody could possibly write or, at the least, say anything new about it (first impressions, success, underdogs, tipping points), then finds seemingly unrelated studies (to each other and sometimes to the topic) and looks at them in such a unique and refreshing way that our perspective on the entire topic changes.

Gladwell has a unique view on the world, and it fosters a style of writing that is replicable, but never as engaging as when whatever crazy amount of reading and thinking he does turns into a book or essay. I still read those books that imitate him, but Gladwell is the best.

Michael Lewis

In my opinion the only challenger to Gladwell in terms of quantity of great writing, Michael Lewis writes as a journalist who finds specific stories that have grand implications (Blindside and Moneyball) and can also dip into grand stories with a more specific approach (Big Short and The Fifth Risk). Either way his books rarely venture into the unnecessary and always find something interesting to share. He also has an ability to make complicated and inaccessible topics seem friendly and intriguing. 

I am overly fond of this style of writing which shows up in two other authors on this list, so if you find this is your favorite style as well, you will have hours of reading available to you as you make your way through his books. 

Mary Roach

Roach approaches her works as an investigative journalist looking into a topic (as opposed to Lewis who is looking into a story). She was doing ‘deep dives’ before deep dives were a thing, and her attention to minutiae as well as the dry wit in which she makes every kernel and nugget seem as important as the next, feel like a fair reflection and a more professional take on the endless type of searching we do on the internet every day. 

I was introduced to Roach when I read Stiff where I became inexplicably interested in dead bodies and found myself constantly wanting to talk to live bodies about our less socially acceptable counterparts. Once this happened, I knew I found an author who was worth spending time with.

Jeffrey Toobin

Am I allowed to pick Toobin now? Can he be on the list?

Despite some of his more ‘intimate’ actions recently, I want to add Toobin to my list, because he is quite good… at writing. And he can make a reader zoom through any book no matter what length. He also selects mostly modern American stories (OJ, Patty Hearst, Clinton-Lewinsky etc…), which makes each book feel like a history of something we lived through. With a stroke of the keys, Toobin makes his readers recall moments that at the time seemed muddled and confused, and he provides clarity and insight into why that American moment felt like it did and created the reaction it did. 

He may have a tendency to be a bit contrarian in his approach and therefore bate his reader into some argument about minor discrepancies, but the overall narrative he places on important events in America is helpful as we navigate other turbulent waters.

Naomi Klein

Klein shoots nonfiction bullets. And they strike at capitalism and corporate globalization. When attacking opponents of this magnitude, one cannot afford to pull punches, and Klein does not. Her desire to make her point strongly can feel doomsayer-ish, but even if we, in our discomfort, assume her books overstate her point, she still makes a hell of a point. 

Her comprehensivity is her greatest strength, not putting together light and fun reads, but tomes of examples and instances that make the strongest constitutions quiver. 

All things being equal, you gotta be a hell of a writer to get a point-by-point response from Nike.

Jon Ronson

If you haven’t found Jon Ronson yet, you are in for a treat. Ronson uses a gonzo journalism style, narrating his research in the first person, which brings his awkward and dry wit to the forefront of every book. Ronson is not the impartial observer, but the very human reaction to very bizarre corners of our world (psychopaths, extremists, modern public shaming etc…), and as he goes places we never would, to talk about topics we tend to ignore, we learn a lot about ourselves. 

Once I read one Ronson book, I read them all within half a year. If he’s your style he becomes an addiction. I also recommend his audiobooks, his voice can be startling at first, but after a while, there is no other way to read/hear his stories than through his own, soft-spoken British tone.

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