Truth is stranger than fiction and, for this reason, the best nonfiction books of all time have the power to change your life.
I read a variety of nonfiction: memoirs, biography, true crime, self-help, scientific data, social issues, and more. Given such a broad range, it was difficult to compile a list of the best nonfiction books of all time.
I revised the list several times, and I ended up focusing on a small compilation of only the best of the best -- the handful of books that would first stick out in my mind if anyone specifically asked me: "What are the best nonfiction books of all time?"
These are the books I never forgot. I came out of each one different than I was before reading it. I also specifically decided not to include any true crime or self-help books, as those feel like a specific subset to me. I also tried not to include any books that may feel divisive to some readers.
Below are what I deem to be the best nonfiction books of all time.
Best Nonfiction Books of All Time
- The Diary of Anne Frank
- Know My Name
- The Only Plane on the Sky
- Tiny Beautiful Things
- When Breath Becomes Air
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank is a book that was never meant to be a book. It's the diary of a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland.
What's always struck me about Anne was her "old soul" - for a teenager writing in a diary under horrible circumstances, she professed some of the most complex views of her time:
- "I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."
- "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."
- "Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy."
- "I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains."
- "No one has ever become poor by giving."
- "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same."
The Diary of Anne Frank has inspired generations, and it will continue to do so. If you haven't read it, it's a must-read, which is also on the Rory Gilmore book list. And if you have read it, it's worthy of re-reading.
Educated by Tara Westover
#1 NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, AND BOSTON GLOBE BESTSELLER
Educated was both difficult to read and impossible to put down. It's the memoir of a woman who grew up in the Idaho mountains with her survivalist Mormon family. Her father ran a junkyard, and her mother worked as a midwife and natural healer. More notably, however, her father was fanatical about preparing to survive the apocalypse.
Westover's family didn't believe in doctors or hospitals, and they home-schooled the children. She began educating herself, and she first entered a real classroom as a college student at Brigham Young University. She later went on to study at Harvard. In one of the most memorable scenes in Educated, she asked what the Holocaust was during class.
Educated is filled to the brim with shocking tales like this, from the family members' gruesome accidents and bloody injuries to familial abuse, and I wondered how PTSD may have affected Westover's story.
I still think about it all the time, so much that I wrote a blog post dedicated to Educated. This book is guaranteed to make you think and leave you gasping.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
- Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography
- Instant New York Times bestseller,
Know My Name was my favorite nonfiction book of 2019. It's the exquisitely written, thought-provoking memoir of the Stanford sexual assault victim, whose victim impact statement at her assailant's sentencing went viral.
She tells her story in-depth the likes of which I haven't read before, and it makes you question everything you thought you knew about sexual assault. Without a doubt, Miller has made a tremendous impact in publicizing her story.
Below are some of the notes I took while reading this book. I will let them speak for themselves:
- Confusion and naivete
- Blaming the victim
- Rape is not a consequence for drinking.
- Women are expected to do things to avoid rape but men aren’t.
- How the media frames him as an athlete and shares his narrative that he thought she enjoyed it
- Victims are painted as liars for forgetting any details, whereas perpetrators can change the entire narrative.
- Leniency towards white wealthy athletes
- The default answer is assumed to be yes if you can’t say no.
- We should focus on the losses of the victim not the perpetrator.
- Social change is a marathon not a sprint.
Read Know My Name to hear Chanel Miller's story in her own words, and to actively listen to the meaningful arguments she presents.
For more, read my review of Know My Name.
The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
It's a minute-by-minute account of 9/11, told entirely through the dialogue of five hundred people, from children in various parts of the United States to President George W. Bush. It was very likely the most thoroughly researched and curated book I've ever read.
Despite the fact that I very clearly remember 9/11 and its aftermath, I still learned an incredible about from The Only Plane in the Sky. I found myself telling others about the stories in the book and Googling for more information. Sure enough, at times, it was devastating.
The audiobook was narrated by an entire cast, and it was utterly fantastic. It also included real audio snippets from the day, like a podcast or a documentary. It was, without question, one of the best books on 9/11 and the best audiobooks of all time. It's also great for a road trip, based on the universality of the topic and the discussion it fosters.
It's emotional. It's raw. And it's real. Everyone should read or listen to this book.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
There's something so intimate about seeking and giving advice between strangers, and Strayed handles it with empathy, honesty and a bit of humor.
There's cheating, grief, money problems, reaching goals and so much more. Strayed's carefully chosen words weave a tapestry of real-life -- the highs, the lows, and everything in between. The result is a modern poetic masterpiece.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- #1 New York Times bestseller
- Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
In the book, Kalanithi is a 36-year-old neurosurgeon diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer questioning the meaning of life with exquisite detail and complexity. After all, what makes life worth living, when you unexpectedly come face to face with your own mortality?
As both a patient and a medical provider, Kalanithi has a nuanced view that, like the title suggests, will take your breath away.
More Nonfiction Book Recommendations
Those are the best non fiction books of all time. A few others worth mentioning if you have already read the above are: