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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