Collecting my top 50 favorite nonfiction books took a long time. I only add books to the list when I give them a 5-star rating. And I had to read a lot of nonfiction before I found 50 that felt worthy of a 5-star ranking.
I thought a lot about why this might be. One conclusion I came to, is that writing a nonfiction piece is much more difficult than fiction, it is limiting in the point you are able to convey when working in the confines of truth, and it’s a much more difficult task to create a form that reflects the research rather than to blend form and story as needed.
This seems connected to the second conclusion I came to. Less people are writing nonfiction because of the amount of work it takes to write a good one. So goes the old joke about every Joe and Schmo writing their ‘memoirs’, a much more accessible version of nonfiction that takes less time, money, and journalistic know-how than the more advanced nonfiction.
As a result, finding a vein of intriguing nonfiction took me some time. A lot of nonfiction is written with a pre-requisite amount of knowledge that I did not have, so I needed to grow and learn before approaching some of the more complex works. And others were just plain boring, more a testament to what the author found interesting, than any important information to convey.
This made me adopt a standard in nonfiction. Most of it can be reduced by 25%. Most nonfiction authors include 25% of writing that is something they found interesting but is unrelated to their point, or they add something they spent a lot of time and money finding and couldn’t bear to cut it out or was just filler to get them to some pre-determined length that made their book feel significant.
Eventually, I got used to these norms of nonfiction and shifted my expectations in a healthier direction.
Out of this journey came the list I might be most excited to share- My 50 favorite nonfiction books ranked.
A note about my ranking process:
- This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, only the books I found interesting and picked up and read. There was not a serious effort to be inclusive of gender and race when compiling this list, only reflecting on which books I enjoyed, all biases of my own included. This would not be the same list I recommend to someone if I am trying to make them well rounded.
- I judge my books on a few abstract standards- Enjoyment, Quality, and Significance
- Enjoyment– I have to like the book I read. If it feels like work to read it, that’s a problem. And I might not always be able to name the problem, but I don’t need to. Because the choices an author makes are as good as their ability to communicate and engage with the reader.
- Quality– The book should be well structured and written. Nonfiction offers a challenge in finding a way to organize and write information that already exists and has meaning. This can go really well or really terribly. I want to see an author structuring and writing their ideas well.
- Significance– There are a lot of fun nonfiction books, written well, but nonfiction demands to be significant. To write about something that actually happened is to declare it has significance, and if I cannot apply the book to the world around me or understand that world better after reading the book, it lacks significance and therefore is degraded in its evaluation.
So without further ado… My top 50 nonfiction books in reverse order.
50. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
49. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean
48. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
47. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
46. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat
45. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
44. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It by Al Gore
43. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
42. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
41. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert
40. Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by Adm. William H. McRaven
39. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
38. Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
37. League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
36. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
35. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
34. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
33. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
32. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
31. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre
30. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier
29. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
28. The Revenant by Michael Punke
27. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
26. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
25. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman
24. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
23. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
22. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
21. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
20. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
19. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
17. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger
16. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
15. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
14. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
13. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
12. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
11. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
10. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
9. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
8. A Promised Land by Barack Obama
7. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
6. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
5. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
4. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
3. American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche
2. All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
1. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
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If you liked this, you may also like:
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
My List Of Most Read Authors By Book Count
Nonfiction Authors Worth Reading
Books About Writing
Admiral William McRaven [Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations; 10 Life Lessons]