My Best Non-Fiction Reads, What Are Yours? {On Reading}

I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’ve heard many people gush about it, namely Nancy right here at 5 Minutes for Books (linked to her review). It’s been on my list to read forever, so when my 15-year-old daughter selected it to read in a nonfiction unit, I decided to read it first. Wow did it live up to the hype. I’m not sure if it earned a place on my “best of the best” but it hit all the marks that have kept the books above in my memory for many many years:

  • Memorable
  • Well-written and paced
  • Educational and interesting
  • Emotional as well as intellectual

When I was a library rat (in those pre-book reviewer days when books weren’t just showing up on my doorstep), I remember wandering around looking for something to catch my eye. In addition to browsing fiction shelves, I also browsed nonfiction and biography looking for something to catch my eye. I read a book about cookoff participants, an odd one about a low-level Soviet spy, and one of the books featured below.

Nonfiction Collage

I enjoy non-fiction books a lot. I’m not really an information junkie in general, so I don’t even really care what the topic is. I’ve read my fair share of parenting, weight-loss/health and marriage books. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m also not including straight memoir here, because I don’t consider that true nonfiction either, though many of those have stuck in my mind. No, I’m talking about books that delve into a certain subject or person or time in history that are so well-written that I read it just as I would a novel, learning along the way.

These are the books that stand out to me as memorable nonfiction that I’ve recommended time and time again:

Drama High by Michael Sokolove — I just read this book last month and published my review last week. Click through the link to read my full review to see exactly how this book fell into my best of the best list. It was the first book of this type that I had read in a long time, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer — Anyone I’ve ever spoken to about this book has agreed — the setting, the suspense, the unusual subject matter makes this an educational page-turning read.

My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese is the book that I stumbled upon at my local library many years ago. His voice as a writer, an immigrant, a doctor treating patients on the forefront of AIDS, was captivating. I was sold on him as a writer, and waited patiently for anything else from him. My incredibly high expectations for his first novel made it hard for me to get into Cutting for Stone, but I ultimately ended up enjoying the saga.

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff — The information about the tragedy of a crystal meth addiction, plus the helplessness of a parent to change his child, enhanced by unconditional love, makes a story that will resonate with any parent.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know what drew you in or even what didn’t. I’d also love your recommendations for your most-loved nonfiction. Please leave a comment and let me know!


  1. says

    I read the Henrietta Lacks book also and was pleasantly surprised by how intrigued I was by it. It was on Auburn University’s recommended reading list for their students when my daughter enrolled last year so *I* read it but she didn’t. ha.

    I’ve got “Into Thin Air” on my to-read list but I’m afraid of heights and I’m thinking the book might make that worse. ha. I currently finished “Moonwalking with Einstein” and while I wouldn’t put it on my top 10 list, it was a great non-fiction read about a reporter training for a memory championship.

    • says

      My daughter is maybe 1/3 of the way in, and she’s enjoying it. I don’t know if Into Thin Air taps into the heights issue. Honestly, the whole time, the idea isn’t “Wow, how beautiful everything is from up there,” but how crazy all those people are for doing what they do!

    • says

      Unbroken is on that same list for me to read sometime! Every person who has read it, says the same thing, so I know I’ll like it. I just looked up Simon Winchester. He was new to me, but his titles look so interesting! I’ll add him to my list as well.

  2. says

    I’ve read Into Thin Air. It was good! But Unbroken was incredible – I read it in two days! There are a number of non-fiction books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but two that jump to mind are The Beautiful Cigar Girl (probably because I’ve read it most recently) and Ghost Map. The first is about how the murder of a shopgirl transformed New York, its police force, and how the media reported crime in the last 19th century. The second is the story of the cholera epidemic in London in 1854, and how mapping the victims led them to understand the nature of how cholera spread in a way they hadn’t know. I know, both a little grim and gruesome but fascinating.

    • says

      Yes, I’m thinking that Unbroken is going to happen soon. The other two both sound interesting as well. That’s the kind of surprising books that I enjoy.

    • says

      I also enjoyed Quiet, and the Fruitful Wife. I should have clarified “narrative non-fiction,” because if I’m just talking about nonfiction that informs on a subject, there are definitely others that would make the list.

  3. says

    Yes, definitely Unbroken is high on my list. I definitely enjoy non-fiction of the narrative type, where a story is woven in among the facts. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was very good too.

    • says

      I’m going to have to get to Unbroken for sure. Someone (maybe you??) said that the audiobook version is good too, so I might do that, or do the whispersync so I can do both.

  4. Leigh says

    I am not a huge fan of non fiction, much prefer the escape of fiction. However, I read Into Thin Air and found it to be one of my favorite books of all time. Intense is the word I would use to describe it.

    I am afraid of heights, too but the book didn’t make that worse. :)

    A good follow up book to Into Thin Air is Left For Dead by Beck Weathers, who was one of the climbers who survived that deadly season on Everest. Reading it helped me understand why some folks risk their lives to climb mountains.

    My most recent non fiction read and my favorite read of last year was Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist.

    • says

      I should have clarified “narrative nonfiction,” which to me reads like fiction in many ways, but the ones that really go over the top also inform in some way.

      It was interesting hearing your thoughts about Beck Weathers.

  5. says

    The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is a must-read. It’s about a Hmong girl in California and her American doctors. It touches on challenges of communication between patients and doctors when there is a language barrier, and the different attitudes towards illness/medicine among people of different cultures. It had a huge impact on me.

    • says

      I too love looks at the interaction of different cultures. You might like My Own Country as well, because one of the things that I remember was the culture differences of the Indian immigrant doctor and the backwoods TN people (I’m not saying all people from TN are backwoods, but these were), with the added complication about the ignorance of AIDS. I’ve been meaning to re-read it, but just haven’t.

  6. says

    Unbroken, In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham, Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Diebler Rose, Changed Into His Image by Jim Berg, By Searching and In the Arena by Isobel Kuhn, Climbing by Rosalind Goforth are just a few of my favorites.

    • says

      I should have clarified “narrative nonfiction,” like Unbroken, but there are many Christian discipleship books or biographies would be on my straight nonfiction list. These are all new to me, though.

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