The 25 Best Non-Fiction Books Ever: Readers’ Picks

Last week, we asked Open Culture readers to write in with your favorite non-fiction titles of all time, and you didn’t disappoint. We had a hard time culling from the more than 100 suggestions, but we did have a few criteria to guide us:

1. Priority went to repeat nominees (Bill Bryson, Hunter S. Thompson, and Richard Dawkins, to name a few).

2. We leaned toward books that are available for free online.

3. When all else failed, we relied on our own preferences — or prejudices.

Thanks again for all of your recommendations, and may we congratulate you on your excellent taste in non-fiction, equalled by only your excellent taste in websites.

The List

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Friedrich Nietzsche – The Gay Science

Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene

Wendell Berry – The Way of Ignorance

Joseph Mitchell – Up in the Old Hotel

Brian Greene – The Elegant Universe

Norman Lewis - Voices of the Old Sea

Joan Didion – The White Album

Benjamin Franklin - The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Tony Judt – Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations

Bill Bryson – A Walk in the Woods

George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia

Hannah Arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem

Booker T. Washington – Up From Slavery

Jorge Luis Borges - Other Inquisitions (1937-1952)

Marcus Rediker – Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell, trans. Tao Te Ching

Victor Klemperer – I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years (1933-1941)

Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century

Philip Gourevitch – We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families

Winston Churchill – A History of the English Speaking Peoples

Lastly, and only in part because we’ve been warned that we would be roundly scolded for the omission: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

Thanks again, and happy reading!

Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.


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  1. Ben says . . . | June 27, 2011 / 5:42 am

    Since I fully agree with the 6-7 books here I have already read, I look forward to using this to populate my kindle!

  2. mordicai says . . . | June 27, 2011 / 7:37 am

    My favorite non-fiction work is “Mother Nature” by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

  3. Erik Douglas says . . . | June 27, 2011 / 12:20 pm

    Tao Te Ching tops all other religious works? Stunning! Oh, sorry, I didn’t see Dawkins up there… Still, number 2 is a real surprise!

  4. anon says . . . | June 27, 2011 / 1:13 pm

    “Lastly, and only in part because we’ve been warned that we would be roundly scolded for the omission: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White”

    Then again, you might just be roundly scolded for its inclus by the people from the Language Log.

  5. anon says . . . | June 27, 2011 / 1:13 pm

    Sorry, make that “inclusion”

  6. David Nemeth says . . . | June 28, 2011 / 2:14 pm

    More than very surprising that this list only has 2 female authors. It’s a shame, really.

  7. MDL says . . . | June 28, 2011 / 2:55 pm

    Two great ones missing by women are;
    WEST WITH THE NIGHT by Beryl Markham
    PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

  8. Henry says . . . | January 21, 2012 / 9:01 pm

    I’ve been looking for a list like this. Good job.

  9. Roger says . . . | August 2, 2012 / 2:08 pm

    The list of (supposed) NON-fiction includes; “Up In The Old Hotel” by Joseph Mitchell………one little problem. This book is FICTION!!

  10. Bernard says . . . | December 15, 2012 / 1:11 pm

    Homage To Catalonia is freaking awesome, although I slightly prefer Down & Out In Paris & London.

  11. Susan Westling says . . . | December 15, 2012 / 1:52 pm

    Can’t believe this list does not include In Cold Blood

  12. aaron says . . . | December 15, 2012 / 3:12 pm

    No best nonfiction list is complete without a title by Jean Baudrillard; Fatal Strategies is my favourite. Also, A Fair Country by JR Saul & something by Chris Hedges would be on a list I wrote.

  13. Larry Peterson says . . . | December 15, 2012 / 5:56 pm

    How can such a list have Booker T. Washington rather than Frederick Douglass? And what about Marx, Freud, and Plato?

  14. Theo Collins says . . . | December 16, 2012 / 1:58 am

    The Origin of Species is not on the list? Nothing by Rousseau, Marx, Engels, Adam Smith, Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire, St. Augustine, Plato, Sacks, Luria, de Beauvoir or Boswell? As a lifelong reader with a collection that is (now) mostly nonfiction, I find this list merely….odd.

  15. Alison M. Gunn, Ph.D. says . . . | December 17, 2012 / 3:51 am

    I’d like to add anything by Plato; St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” and “The Octopus,” by Frank Norris. Anything by Steven Pinker, but particularly “The Language Instinct.”

  16. WB says . . . | December 20, 2012 / 7:32 pm

    Don’t people ever tire of the canon?

  17. Kenneth Bergo says . . . | December 24, 2012 / 12:38 am

    not much here i’ve read nor would add to my list, i guess i have some things to look at but really? these are the top 25?

  18. Dellu says . . . | October 10, 2013 / 10:33 pm

    Jes, “The language instinct” is a joke, a mere hyperbole of unwarranted speculations. I am a linguist; trust me, the book is fraud. Read Jerry Fodor’s “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”.

  19. Hiptobesquare says . . . | September 23, 2014 / 12:54 pm

    Laurie Garrett’s “The Coming Plague” should be on this list, as should MFK Fisher’s “The Art of Eating.”

  20. Hiptobesquare says . . . | September 23, 2014 / 1:31 pm

    And “The Octopus” is a novel.

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