Ideally I would have put together this post at the beginning of Nonfiction November, but I did not adequately plan ahead for that. I really want to give my nonfiction reading some much overdue attention, though, so consider this a list of nonfiction books to pick up even once Nonfiction November is over!
If you’re not familiar with the readathon, it’s a monthlong readathon aimed at encouraging readers to read more nonfiction than they normally do. Check out the Goodreads page here and the announcement video for this year here. I’ve participated in the past and made recommendations, which you can see here and here.
A good chunk of my recommendations this time are memoirs, which I’ve really started picking up in the last year or so. As a result, my memoir shelf has grown dramatically. There are so many good ones out there!
Some of my favorites are ones by people from different parts of the world because they’re a great way to learn more about a different culture and history. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai is a recent read and one of my favorites. I really liked learning more about the culture and history of Pakistan and what her experience was like growing up there, as well as learning more about her work supporting girls’ right to an education. She has an incredibly powerful story.
In a similar vein, I loved Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I knew very little about South Africa when I picked it up and next to nothing about Noah himself, so I learned a lot from this book. He has such an incredible story about being literally born a crime, as he’s mixed race and it was illegal for his black mother and white father to be together, and I learned so much about South African history and culture. It was especially interesting to see how South Africa approaches race in comparison to the United States. Plus he’s a comedian, so you know parts of it are going to be funny!
I also have to highly recommend The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s an amazing essay collection by refugees from around the world, and I think it does an amazing job showing some of the different experiences that refugees have to deal with and how incredibly brave they are. Plus I learned a lot about different parts of the world that I don’t know much about. Seriously, if you pick up one book from this list, I think it should be this one.
A cool subset of memoirs that I really enjoy are graphic memoirs. I just think they’re such a neat and different way to tell someone’s story. In the vein of learning about people from different cultures, Persepolis by Marjane Santrapi is a great graphic memoir detailing Santrapi’s experience growing up in Iran and living as an immigrant in France. I also really liked Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, which goes in-depth in her family’s escape from Vietnam and how being refugees has affected her family.
Two other great graphic memoirs I have to recommend are March by John Lewis and They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, which both look at the authors’ experiences during key points in American history. Lewis’ memoir is about his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., and I learned so much history from this amazing three-part story. Takei’s memoir is set further back in history, detailing his experience in the Japanese internment camps of World War II and highlighting the similarity between the mindset that led to the camps and the mindset that led to the Muslim travel ban. I really can’t recommend these two graphic memoirs enough.
Sticking with memoirs, another subset that I tend to enjoy are celebrity memoirs. Obviously one of the best examples of that is Becoming by Michelle Obama, which was an amazing memoir. I knew it’d be interesting, but I wasn’t prepared for how much her experiences resonated with me. Let’s just say that this book is a rockstar for a reason! I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I loved Naturally Tan by Tan France. I don’t really watch Queer Eye, but I was really interested in his experiences growing up as a gay Muslim in the United Kingdom. He has a fascinating and powerful story, plus it was cool learning about his background in fashion, and I really enjoyed his book. And I have to recommend another Queer Eye memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self Love by Jonathan Van Ness. JVN just has such a great personality, but he had to overcome a lot to get to where he is now. He has such an incredible story, plus I thought it was important to learn more about what it’s like to be HIV positive, which I actually knew nothing about before picking up this memoir.
I have two more memoirs I have to recommend! Another reason I really like picking up memoirs is to read about people’s experiences that are different from mine, and two books that really impressed me are All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung and Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock. It was so fascinating to learn more about the adoption process and what it was like to be adopted in Chung’s memoir, plus she has a really interesting perspective on race since she’s of Korean descent but was raised by a white family in a predominantly white community. She also touches a lot on identity, which I really connected with, and she’s an incredible writer, so I highly recommend her memoir. Mock also has an amazing story, detailing what it was like for her to grow up transgender in Hawaii. I loved learning more about her and how she came to be the activist she is today and strongly recommend this memoir as well.
Ok, moving on from memoirs! I’m also a big fan of learning more about history, and while most of my recommendations for history books can be found in my older posts linked above, I have to mention Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King here. It was a difficult book to read, but I think it’s really important for white people to have a thorough understanding of what they did to black people during the Jim Crow era. This book is about the Groveland Boys, four black men who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in Florida in the 1950s. The way they were treated was brutal and infuriatingly unfair. King did a great job showing what happened to these men and tying it in with larger events, specifically focusing on Thurgood Marshall and his involvement in the case before he tried Brown v. The Board of Education. I can definitely see why this book was chosen to win a Pulitzer.
Another excellent history book I have to recommend is Ron Chernow’s biography Grant. I’ve studied the Civil War some and thought I knew a decent amount, but I learned an incredible amount while reading this biography of General Ulysses S. Grant. It’s a massive book, but I think it’s well worth the read. Obviously you learn a lot about the Civil War, but I also learned a lot about the Mexican-American War and Reconstruction. Plus Grant himself is a fascinating person, and I especially liked looking more at his presidency and what he managed to accomplish during Reconstruction.
On a lighter note, I thought Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World by Mackenzie Lee was a really fun look at a bunch of different women throughout history, and I especially loved the illustrations that accompanied the book. It’s a fun, fast, colorful read, and I’m excited to pick up her History of the World in Fifty Dogs.
Last but not least, I like to pick up various books about current affairs. I know I said everyone has to read The Displaced, but I actually would put White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo up there as an absolute must read for white people, especially white Americans. It helps show how we benefit from racism and consciously or unconsciously reinforce the current social structure, and discusses how to help break it down and work towards racial equality. It will probably make you uncomfortable when you read it, but it’s important to work through that discomfort and see the underlying problems. Seriously, this is such an incredibly powerful book, and the world would be a much better place if more people read it.
Another topical book I’d like to recommend is City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence. This is a book about the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and follows several different people as they move in and out of the camp. I know an embarrassingly little amount about what it’s like in a refugee camp and how camps like Dadaab came to be so big and virtually permanent, and this book did a great job looking at those things and introducing you to a lot of the reasons people leave their homes and are willing to go to refugee camps. I learned a lot about a part of the world I know very little about, as well as how difficult it is for the UN to be effective in these camps and how important it is to continue accepting refugees and helping them make new homes.
I’d be surprised if everyone hasn’t read this already, but if you haven’t, I’d like to jump on the bandwagon recommending Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. I didn’t follow the Theranos scandal when it initially broke and didn’t think I’d be interested in this book at all when it first came out, but I finally picked it up because so many people were recommending it. Holy crap was this book wild!! There was just so much crazy stuff going on at this company, and it’s hard to wrap my head around how all of these even happened. Just trust me when I say that anyone who loves a crazy story and a good scandal will enjoy this book, whether or not the topic of Theranos itself sounds interesting!
The last book I’d like to recommend is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I thought this was a really interesting look at how habits are formed and how they work in your brain. It has a good explanation for what exactly is going on in your brain when you do something out of habit without even meaning to and shares some really interesting science about how the brain works when it comes to habits. Plus it takes a look at how businesses take advantage of our habits. Some of it is really cool, but it’s also a little creepy knowing how much information these companies have about us and how they take advantage of habits to sell their products. And potentially most helpful of all, it gives some useful tips and advice on how to break bad habits and create better ones. All in all, this was a fascinating and incredibly readable book that I really enjoyed!
Also, because I can’t help myself, I have to do a quick shoutout to all of the books on my immediate TBR that I’m really excited to read, but can’t technically recommend yet. They include:
- Know My Name by Chanel Miller: Memoir by the woman who was raped by Brock Turner and wrote the incredibly powerful Emily Doe letter
- The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina – Separating the Myth from the Medicine by Jennifer Gunter: Nonfiction manual about the female reproductive system that helps dispel a number of harmful myths
- Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi: Book by two teenage girls collecting stories from people from across the United States
- American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures edited by America Ferrera: Essay collection sharing first-person accounts about what it was like to grow up between two cultures
- The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII by Iris Chang: History book about the brutal events that happened in China in WWII
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson: Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the decades-long migration of black citizens who left the South for northern and western cities
- The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley: A journalist’s account about the wave of refugees trying to reach Europe
- Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez: Nonfiction book examining how the world is structured to favor men
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: History of the United States told from the perspectives of indigenous people
- Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein: Examination of why we favor specialization and the benefits of being a generalist
Is that enough recommendations for you? I might have gone a little overkill, but I just want to make up a bit for not giving my nonfiction recommendations their proper due on my blog!
What are some of your nonfiction reads? Let me know in the comments, along with whether you’ve read any of these books and which one you’d like to pick up first!