What Are Your Favorite Non-Fiction Books?

A few days ago, The Guardian pub­lished its list of the 100 Great­est Non-Fic­tion Books of all time. The col­lec­tion spans biog­ra­phy, art, phi­los­o­phy, his­to­ry and sev­er­al oth­er hefty cat­e­gories, and, for the most part, there’s not much for any­one seek­ing light sum­mer read­ing, unless you’re the sort who reg­u­lar­ly brings Kant, Hume, Herodotus, and Pepys down to the sea­side. (Note: The Guardian pub­lished Fri­day The Best Hol­i­day Reads, which goes heavy on vaca­tion-wor­thy fic­tion.)

Inspired by the Guardian project, The New York Times turned to its staff and put togeth­er a list of their own favorite non-fic­tion books. Some of their choic­es are what you’d expect (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Joan Did­ion’s The White Album, Michael Lewis’ Mon­ey­ball), and a few oth­ers both sur­prised and delight­ed us (Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Adri­an Nicole LeBlanc’s Ran­dom Fam­i­ly and Please Kill Me: The Uncen­sored Oral His­to­ry of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain). But we still found the list vague­ly incom­plete.

So now, dear read­ers, we turn to you.

Sev­er­al years ago we asked you to tell us about the books that changed your life, and you deliv­ered. (Your first choice by a wide mar­gin was George Orwell’s 1984.) This time around, we want to hear your favorite non-fic­tion books, and we’ll both post your choic­es and — of course — let you know if they’re avail­able for free online.

We’ll kick it off with a few per­son­al favorites:

The Pos­sessed, by Elif Batu­man. A delight­ful rem­i­nis­cence by a recov­er­ing grad­u­ate stu­dent, in which she treats, among oth­er things, Russ­ian nov­el­ists, doomed love affairs, aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ences, Tur­kic poet­ry, and most­ly, the plea­sures and per­ils of lov­ing books just a lit­tle bit too much.

The Best Amer­i­can Sports Writ­ing of the Cen­tu­ry, edit­ed by David Hal­ber­stam and Glenn Stout. You don’t even need to know or care about sports, because like all great lit­er­a­ture, these essays aren’t real­ly just about what they’re about. The sub­ject may be sports, but the sto­ries are Amer­i­ca.

Your turn! Feel free to add your favorites to the com­ments sec­tion below…

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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Comments (68)
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  • JJ says:

    Christi-Anar­chy by Dave Andrews

  • Paulina says:

    The ‘Wis­dom of Whores’ by Elis­a­beth Pisani is def­i­nite­ly one of the best non-fic­tion books I’ve ever read.

  • Benjamin Woods says:

    “The The­atre and It’s Dou­ble” by Antonin Artaud is one I fre­quent­ly return to…

  • David Williams says:

    Head On / Repos­sessed by Julian Cope.

  • Valts says:

    “Out of our Minds” Sir Ken Robin­son. As well as “Blood­lands” by Tim­o­thy Sny­der

  • Mikey says:

    “The Wayfind­ers: Why Ancient Wis­dom Mat­ters in the Mod­ern World” by Wade Davis.

  • Larry Hancock says:

    “Ham­let’s Mill,” by San­til­lana & Dechend.

  • b., from afar, says:

    Like every top ten I try to make, where I end with fifty items, I hard­ly can name juste one. I’ll keep the list to three… but I may change tomor­row !
    «Les mots et les choses» (The order of things), Michel Fou­cault
    «La Société du spec­ta­cle», and «Com­men­taires sur la société du spec­ta­cle» (Soci­ety of the spec­ta­cle, and Com­ments on…), by Guy Debord
    «On war», by Clause­witz

    and… Oh, no, three. Okay.

  • Wade Franklin says:

    “The Immense Jour­ney” by Loren Eise­ley.
    “Up in the Old Hotel” by Joseph Mitchell.

  • hoagy kartoffel says:

    1. Mer­ri­am-Web­ster’s Col­le­giate Dic­tio­nary
    2. The Times Atlas Mid-Cen­tu­ry Edi­tion

  • James Corologos says:

    “Man’s Search for Mean­ing” by V. Frankel changed my phi­los­o­phy of per­cep­tion way back in under­grad­u­ate class­es and con­tin­ued through­out grad­u­ate school and beyond.

  • Rick Subber says:

    “The Big Sort” by Bill Bishop…clustering is a bad thing for Amer­i­ca

  • Jason Blum says:

    Daniel Den­net­t’s Con­scious­ness Explained


    Richard Dawkins’ The Extend­ed Phe­no­type

  • Natalie says:

    Fran­cis Wheen’s biog­ra­phy of Karl Marx is well researched, bril­liant­ly writ­ten and very fun­ny.

  • Andrew says:

    If I can only name on, it would be Greil Mar­cus’s Lip­stick Traces: A Secret His­to­ry of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry.

  • Toyin says:

    “The Inno­cent Man” by John Grisham

  • Diana says:

    “Read­ing Loli­ta In Tehran” ignit­ed my pas­sion for clas­sic lit­er­a­ture.

  • “Cry of the Kala­hari” is one of my all-time favorite non-fic­tion books, writ­ten by wildlife researchers Delia and Mark Owens. The book was sup­posed to be about lions, most­ly, but end­ed up being also about hye­nas and weath­er, and pol­i­tics and human beings. Love­ly, com­pelling read­ing.

  • Ellen says:

    Flow: The Psy­chol­o­gy of Opti­mal Expe­ri­ence by Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi

  • Andres says:

    Linked by Albert-Las­z­lo Barabasi is one of my favourite books.

  • catherine matson says:

    new­jack. by ted conover

  • Dale Mathews says:

    I’ll be sur­prised if you get anoth­er rec­om­men­da­tion for this one — “The Black Jacobins” by the Trinida­di­an intel­lec­tu­al C.L.R. James. How­ev­er, I am cur­rent­ly enthralled by Yaroslav Trofi­mov’s “The Siege of Mec­ca: The 1979 Upris­ing at Islam’s Holi­est Shrine”. Some­times real­i­ty trumps any fic­tion­al thriller.

  • Jan says:

    “Pack­ing for Mars,” by Mary Roach (light)

    “Post­war,” by Tony Judt (heavy)

    Almost any­thing by John McPhee, e.g., “Com­ing into the Coun­try”, “The Con­trol of Nature,” “La Place de la Con­corde Suisse,”

  • Miguel Ferreira says:

    “Oth­er Inqui­si­tions” from Jorge Luis Borges (“Otras Inquisi­ciones” in the orig­i­nal span­ish)

  • “Shake Hands With The Dev­il” by Romeo Dal­laire

  • Robin says:

    “What Is the What: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Valenti­no Achak Deng” by Dave Eggers. It is not whol­ly non-fic­tion­al, but close enough.

  • Mike says:

    Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

    A Move­able Feast by Ernest Hem­ing­way

    Homage to Cat­alo­nia by George Orwell

    And even though Joan Did­ion’s The White Album was men­tioned, it would be a crime not to include Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem.

  • Tim says:

    Kon Tiki by Thor Hyerd­hal, Lost Civ­i­liza­tions of the Pacif­ic by David Hatch­er Chil­dress, and Te Mai­haroa by Bud­dy Mikaere are my 3 favourite

  • Fitch Burger says:

    “The Hero with a Thou­sand Faces”, by Joseph Camp­bell argues and illus­trates how the arche­typ­al hero tale spans all human times and cul­tures. I’ve found rem­nants in most “com­ing of age” books and movies too!

  • Fitch Burger says:

    How could Strunk & White’s “The Ele­ments of Style” not be in the list?

  • Sean says:

    How about “Endurance: Shack­le­ton’s Incred­i­ble Voy­age” by Albert Lans­ing? It’s an incred­i­ble tale told very capa­bly. As for some­thing more recent, I was quite par­tial to “The Dis­ap­pear­ing Spoon” by Sam Kean.

  • Amy Alkon says:

    Dr. Bar­bara Oak­ley’s “Cold-Blood­ed Kind­ness,” which com­bines rig­or­ous report­ing, a true-crime sto­ry, some of the clear­est sci­ence writ­ing I’ve ever read, and the very inter­est­ing idea of “patho­log­i­cal altru­ism” — how nefar­i­ous peo­ple use our best traits (like com­pas­sion) to manip­u­late us to do things we’d oth­er­wise nev­er do.

  • ‘Vil­lains of All Nations’ by Mar­cus Redik­er

  • Lisa G. says:

    Any­thing by Bill Bryson!

  • TeachThought says:

    “The Way of Igno­rance” by Wen­dell Berry. Any non-fic­tion by Berry, for that mat­ter.

  • Michelle Knight says:

    “Tigana” by Guy Graviel Kay. Just an amaz­ing fan­ta­sy nov­el.

  • Spud Darling says:

    ‘Philo­soph­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tions’ by Lud­wig Wittgen­stein

  • Darren says:

    “Take Me With You” by Brad New­sham filled me we with love for human­i­ty.

    And “My Young Years” by Arthur Rubin­stein is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten auto­bi­og­ra­phy about what it was like to be the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry clas­si­cal music ver­sion of a rock star.

  • Patricia says:

    “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tra­cy Kid­der

  • Sam says:

    “Satch­mo Blows Up The World …
    Jazz Ambas­sadors Play the Cold War”
    by Pen­ny M. von Eschen
    Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004,
    ISBN: 0–674-01501–0
    Vivid doc­u­men­ta­tion of the ways jazz musi­cians proofed to be good ambas­sadors — just not the way they were intend­ed to be…

  • Christo­pher Buck­ley’s “Los­ing Mum and Pop”

  • “Social Ori­gins of Dic­ta­tor­ship and Democ­ra­cy”, Bar­ring­ton Moore Jr.
    “A The­o­ry of Jus­tice”, John Rawls
    “A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Speak­ing Peo­ples”, Win­ston Churchill
    “The Fatal Shore”, Robert Hugh­es

  • Bill Bryson “Into the Woods”
    Jon Krakauer Any­thing
    Thomas Mer­ton “The Sev­en Storey Moun­tain”
    ??? “Lon­gi­tude”
    ??? “Nothing,..and So Be It”

  • DF says:

    Sec­ond Elif Batu­man’s The Pos­sessed! And Philip Goure­vitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomor­row We Will Be Killed With Our Fam­i­lies. Pow­er­ful and mov­ing stuff.

  • Devika says:

    Heroes of His­to­ry — Will Durant
    Bound Togeth­er — Nayan Chan­da

  • Lulu says:

    -Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell
    ‑The Tao of the Tao Te Ching by Michael Lafar­gue.

  • john says:

    The Rebel, by Camus.
    Fear and Loathing… in Las Vegas
    … on the Cam­paign Trail,
    by Hunter S. Thomp­son

  • Suzanna Hicks says:

    I Will Bear Wit­ness — 2‑volume diary set of Vic­tor Klem­per­er

  • Lipo says:

    I hav­ing two famil­iar fic­tion books which are mine favorite all the time. They are “The 4‑hour work­week by Tim­o­thy Fer­riss , Don’t sweat the small stuff by Richard Carl­son. I have read cou­ple of times. Now i am think­ing to bring new unique and insu­per­a­ble fic­tion books as soon.

  • Pete says:

    “The Self­ish Gene” — Richard Dawkins

  • NonZe­ro by Robert Wright
    Med­i­ta­tions by Mar­cus Aure­lius

  • Stacey says:

    “Up from Slav­ery” by Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton.

  • Martin Newhouse says:

    “The Unre­deemed Cap­tive,” by John Demos.

  • Sheerly Avni says:

    Great respons­es! Thanks every­one, we’ll put this all togeth­er and post it soon.


  • Sam says:

    Anoth­er for “Into the Woods” by Bill Bryson.

    Also, “Unbro­ken” by Lau­ra Hil­len­brand.

  • Joshua says:

    One mod­ern one I enjoyed was The Ele­gant Uni­verse by Bri­an Greene.

  • leith says:

    Naples ’44 or Voic­es of the Old Sea — Nor­man Lewis

  • tyler fenn says:


  • Jim says:

    Walden, Hen­ry David Thore­au
    Fooled by Ran­dom­ness, Nas­sim Taleb

  • Jim says:

    One more…The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Franklin

  • R. Jeffrey Krause says:

    “The Sec­ond Law” by P. W. Atkins is the best book I have read so far explain­ing why things hap­pen.

  • R. Jeffrey Krause says:

    “Lan­guage in Thought and Action” by S. I. Hayakawa con­vinc­ing­ly explores how lan­guage mod­els real­i­ty.

  • Jan Hunter says:

    Care Of The Soul by Thomas Moore
    The Wed­ding Bas­ket by Lynn Andrews

  • Iggy Iggins says:

    Extra­or­di­nary Pop­u­lar Delu­sions & The Mad­ness of Crowds — Charles Mack­ay

    The Faber Book of Reportage — (ed) John Carey

    Uncom­mon Ther­a­py — Jay Haley

    The Myth of the Chem­i­cal Cure — Joan­na Mon­crieff

    Pow­er — Bertrand Rus­sell

  • Jim Byrd says:

    I would rec­om­mend Niet­zsche’s “The Gay Sci­ence” to make a top 100 best non-fic­tion list. After all the mis­in­for­ma­tion sur­round­ing this author, and now, much hav­ing been put to rest, his Gay Sci­ence is a great work, being philo­soph­i­cal as well as poet­ic and address­es near­ly every one of his major ideas in this one vol­ume.

  • Caitlin says:

    “The Tree” by Col­in Tudge.

  • Eddie says:

    Leo Tol­stoy’s “The King­dom of God is With­in You” I read it when I was a young man try­ing to nav­i­gate the con­flict­ing demands of spir­i­tu­al life and ser­vice to soci­ety (I.e.: mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion Viet­nam War). Tol­stoy illu­mi­nat­ed for me the uncom­pro­mis­ing mes­sage of the teach­ings of Jesus.

  • Kat says:

    Betcha ya cant put this book down!

    A new non­fic­tion book “Greasy Vil­lage” @ Amazon.com

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