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I have to confess: I don’t read much nonfiction, but if a nonfiction book reads like fiction, it can draw me in just like the best novels.
My favorites are almost always narrative nonfiction books–books that tell a true story in a compelling way, much like a fictional story would be told.
I often pick up nonfiction books thinking I’d like to learn about the topics they cover. But if they don’t have a good story, I almost never get fully immersed and have to read them in bits and pieces.
The best narrative and literary nonfiction authors know how to do meticulous research AND tell a good story.
I also love great memoirs–stories told in compelling ways by the people who lived them.
When I sit down with a book, I’m ready for an escape. This doesn’t mean I need to escape into another world, or even a fictional one. It’s that total immersion in a story that I’m after.
So, if I’m going to sit down with a nonfiction book, it has to hook me with a good story.
If your nonfiction tastes are similar, check out these nonfiction books that pulled me in just like a novel.
11 Nonfiction Books that Read Like Novels
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
This tale of Louis Zamperini’s trials during World War II is so harrowing, you’ll have to remind yourself that it’s not fiction—because you won’t believe that one person could survive all that he did: a plane crash, months at sea on a raft, shark encounters…and that’s just the start. This book was hard to read, but also hard to put down. It stuck with me long after I finished it and provided perspective when day-to-day concerns threatened to overwhelm. It’s worth the reread for that reason alone.
Author: Katherine Boo
Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo immersed herself in a slum of Mumbai to tell the stories of the people who live there. Annawadi sits ironically in the shadow of a billboard reading “The Beautiful Forevers” and is pressed on all sides by the growth of the city that is leaving it behind.
Boo herself is not part of the story, and she doesn’t need to be. The lives, hopes, and hurts of the families are richly painted and bring home the individual struggles and systemic obstacles that stand in the way of people rising above the inequality into which they are born. For those of us in the U.S., the stories of struggling families in this faraway country feel closer to home than ever in today’s political climate and stratified economy.
Author: Ted Kerasote
This memoir of a man’s relationship with his dog can be slow at times, especially when he delves into scientific explanations of wolves and dogs, but dog lovers will be captivated. The introvert in me experienced some envy at Kerasote’s solitary writing life near a small town in Wyoming, exploring the nearby wilds with his independent dog. Merle may be no more special than any well-loved dog, but perhaps it’s this quiet life that gives Kerasote the space to observe, contemplate, and articulate Merle’s identity and thoughts in a way that makes him seem human. As with most pet memoirs, keep your tissues handy.
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Author: Dave Eggers
The story of Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” who as a child was separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He encounters danger, violence, disappointment, and surprising moments of humor and humanity as he flees to unknown places in search of safety and a life.
This book can’t truly be called non-fiction—Dave Eggers himself describes it as “fictionalized autobiography” because of lapses in Deng’s memory and imagined conversations. Eggers writes in Deng’s voice to tell of the horrors faced by these children in Sudan and the difficulties they face as immigrants in the United States.
Author: Rebecca Skloot
In the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in her thirties who died of cancer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins University, where she was treated, took some of her unique cells without permission and used them for research. Those cells then became the basis for important medical advances, and they are still sold today for medical research—yet Lacks’s family has never received any compensation.
Heavy on science, but interesting to all readers because of the human element, Rebecca Skloot follows the path of the cells, the research, and Lacks’s family, while discussing important questions of ethics and morality in science and medicine.
Author: James Herriot
It’s been a number of years since I read this book (and the other three that come after it), but what I remember most about this memoir is how much fun I had reading it. I recall telling another bookish friend at the time, “These books are just making me happy right now!” There is no large, dramatic story here, but James Herriot’s telling of his life as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire is warm, funny, and touching.
Herriot spares himself no embarrassment but proves to be keenly observant and sensitive as he interacts with the characters—human and animal, by turns eccentric, sad, and inspiring—who pepper his stories.
This was true comfort reading for me, and one I looked forward to sinking into the couch with. I will re-read at some point, ideally during a snowstorm with a hot cup of tea.
Author: Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls memoir of growing up in a family that was both highly dysfunctional and relentlessly free-spirited. Her charismatic father leads them down paths of whimsy, only to dead end in poverty and suffering.
Walls seems to cling to the uplifting moments of her childhood, when her father infused their family with a reckless sense of freedom and privilege in their free-spirited rootlessness. While there are appealing elements of his spirit, ultimately the parents’ selfishness and neglect is breathtaking, but the resourcefulness of the children is inspiring.
Author: Tara Westover
As a young child, Tara Westover’s upbringing seemed almost charming and old fashioned. Living on a mountain in Idaho, the family strived for self-sufficiency based in faith and closeness to one another. As Tara grew up, however, she realized that their lives were driven by paranoid survivalism, religious extremism, abuse, and possibly mental illness.
Tara’s memoir traces the path from her cloistered upbringing–during which she never set foot in school–to her eventual education at BYU, Cambridge, and Harvard.
But more important than her formal educational path is her move toward awareness and a sense of self that wasn’t allowed in her mountaintop life. Educated explores her attempts to reconcile this new sense of self and the boundaries she learns to set with the love and longing she feels for her family.
An incredible read both for the excellent writing and the author’s thoughtful, unblinking, nuanced look at herself and her own life.
Author: Ann Patchett
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship is the story of the two-decade friendship between author Ann Patchett and the late poet and author Lucy Grealy. The two women met in college and cemented their friendship in graduate school and the years that followed, as both pursued writing careers. Grealy, who in childhood battled cancer that left her without part of her lower jaw, endured ongoing health difficulties and reconstructive surgeries.
Grealy was a needy, all-consuming friend–talented, tortured, and plagued by both addiction and her need for love, even as love surrounded her. Patchett, for her part, longed to be a part of Grealy’s inner circle long before she ever was, and she basked in Lucy’s need for her, as well as their shared goals and talent. The two moved toward success together, and the journey must have felt magical and pre-destined, if not always healthy. As always, I love Patchett’s writing, and listening to her narrate was a pleasure.
Author: Kitty Gogins
As the Russians advanced on Hungary during World War II, Olga Wagner and Tibor Zoltai and their families flee the country. Tibor is pressed into service for the Germans and eventually taken prisoner by the Americans. He nearly starves. Olga and her family make their way to Austria and pursue options for emigrating. It’s there that Olga and Tibor’s lives intersect. The two families eventually go to Canada under the country’s friendly system of indentured servitude for refugees. After years on the move, Olga and Tibor finally marry and settle in the United States, building their family and successful lives in academia and immigration aid. This was a fascinating look at how World War II affected the people of Hungary (a perspective I was unfamiliar with) and one couple’s struggle to survive.
The author was a colleague of my dad, and I attended the University of Minnesota (where Tibor spent most of his career) and once lived close to where the Zoltais settled in the Twin Cities, so this felt close to home.
Author: Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about his early years as a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which defends death row inmates, the poor, and others trapped by an unjust criminal justice system, including children. Stevenson recounts numerous cases in which he is stonewalled by a system stacked against his clients, bound by red tape, and filled with corruption.
I was enthralled by Stevenson’s story–his relentless dedication in such frustrating, impossible circumstances, as well as the cases and often horrifying lives that some of his clients were sentenced to, even when they were children or almost certainly innocent.
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