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16 Essential Non-Fiction Books To Add to Your Shelves

There’s no one specific way to do nonfiction. Between memoir, history books, science, cultural criticism, even pandemic outbreaks, the list goes on and on, the overhead genre of “nonfiction” is as diverse and deep as fiction. A nonfiction book offers completely different benefits, too. It’s easier to put nonfiction down and return to it later. You can mark pages with information and facts you want to return to. And, maybe best of all, a nonfiction book could be the best gift idea you can have to give someone something specific to their interests.

There are all kinds of nonfiction available, but these 16 are our favorites, and a great jumping off point if you’re looking for more.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A masterpiece of science writing, a classic for a reason. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a seminal work in our collective understanding of the universe. If the universe has a beginning, does time have a beginning as well? How can we as people fit into our time in the universe? Hawking’s writing answers these questions and more in an engaging, accessible, and often thrilling way. 

World Travel by Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain is unrivaled in understanding culture through food and travel. With a deft hand and inimitable ability to put himself at the margins and put new subjects at the center, World Travel collects a lifetime of the writer and chef’s most eye-opening work. 

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

A profound example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Krakauer’s breakthrough book Into Thin Air is astounding, astonishing, genuinely unbelievable. By sheer circumstance, Krakauer finds himself climbing Everest on the mountain’s deadliest day and lives to tell the tale in stunning, crushing detail. 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the most important voices of our time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me asks American society to look itself in the mirror and answer the pressing, tough questions that have faced this nation since its inception. Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” Between the World and Me will be so for generations to come. 

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Curious to understand how and why gentrification happens? The answers are, perhaps expectedly so, very complicated and require a ton of context, but Jane Jacobs is ready and able to make these concepts easier to understand. Informative and devastating, Death and Life is a must-read for those looking to understand cities in the United States. 

An Ugly Truth by Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frankel

A spiritual successor to 2010’s The Social Network, An Ugly Truth exposes the situation behind the scenes as Facebook, the world’s most prevalent social media website continues to fall from grace. Through deep reportage, Kang and Frenkel showcase how the problems at Facebook fall far further than the surface, and just how corrupt and convoluted the platform may be. 

Long Players by Tom Gatti

If you’re like me, you may wonder what your favorite writers listen to when they work. Luckily, Long Players brings you exactly that. Writers like George Saunders, Tracey Thorn, Neil Gaiman and more all write about the music that really gets them going. 

The Most Fun Thing by Kyle Beachy

If you’re looking for something else that’s a little lighter, The Most Fun Thing may be another place to start. Kyle Beachy is a gifted skateboarding writer, able to articulate the beauty in the grizzled madness of the modern American extreme sport. The Most Fun Thing is a beautiful memoir, and a memorable read. 

The Rap Year Book by Shea Serrano

New York Times Best Selling Author and perpetual internet darling Shea Serrano’s first book, The Rap Year Book, discusses every single year of rap music in hilarious, thoughtful detail. Serrano presents the most important — not necessarily the best — rap song from every year since 1984 and presents the case for that song’s place in history. It’s funny, it’s fun, and it’s an incredibly well-put-together work of nonfiction including extremely cool art from Arturo Torres. 

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s essays on life in New York and in the United States during the 1940’s and 1950’s are as relevant today as they were when they were written. Notes of a Native Son brings forward the work that established Baldwin as a major writer, and reveals facts about the American experience that remain true today. 

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A recent favorite, Cathy Park Hong’s collection puts memoir, cultural criticism, and historical context all in the same place seamlessly. Minor Feelings was so beloved for its humor as well as its honesty. A nonfiction book that should be added to your shelf as soon as you binge read it. 

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli has cornered the market on making complicated science easy to understand to the layman (read: “me, the writer of this article”). In his most recent work, The Order of Time, Rovelli asks fascinating questions about how we experience time and why it might be that way. For an extra treat, try out the audiobook read by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

If you’re ready to deal with the questions that come with a DFW book being on your bookshelf, Consider the Lobster is a great place to begin. Essays about the high and low parts of popular culture, all of which captured in the way only Wallace could capture them with an extreme dose of self-consciousness and a healthier, if lighter dose of humor. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Consistent to maybe every list of the best nonfiction to add to your collection is Truman Capote’s masterpiece. Somewhere between reportage and novelization, In Cold Blood masterfully tells the grimacing tale of a murder in middle America. A haunting story, Capote’s seminal work has its place in the canon for a reason. 

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen, through what’s seemingly mountains and mountains of research, dissects and describes the time leading up to and following the horrible incident at Columbine High School in April 1999. Cullen’s reportage deftly shows how Columbine became a model for “spectacle murders” and mass shootings since the turn of the century. Hard to read sometimes, but worth it in the end given that there’s nothing else like it. 

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with DH Lawrence by Geoff Dyer

A completely unique work, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage is a captivating memoir of a writer’s life, process, and study. Dyer travels across the globe researching and trying to understand D.H. Lawrence and his work, and what unfolds is a comprehensive reflection on the writer’s process. 

Editors' Recommendations