Typically, I read fiction. Novels, short story collections, even the occasional novella. I go through periods where I’ll pick up mystery novels, and then stretches where all I read are classics, like Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Then, of course, there are the occasional times when each book has a tie to my home state of Michigan, like with many Jim Harrison books, or Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River. But recently, however, I’ve focused on a new genre. And from that genre, I’ll list the best non-fiction books that I have recently read and that are definitely worth your time as well.
I’ll start with a caveat: These best non-fiction books are not all new or even recent releases. In fact, some are several years old. However, they all appeared on my bookshelf within the last year or so and that is when I read them all. That’s one of the best aspects of books and music and movies: regardless whether they are old or new, the first time you consume them can still be unforgettably impactful. Heck, even the second, third, fourth time you read them, they can still be just as inspiring and influential.
For some reason (maybe it’s that I’m exploring writing some non-fiction of my own), my reading tendencies shifted toward true stories over the last year or so — and I’m grateful they did.
The list below is just that — a list. This is not a ranking, for all of these books are so unique.
The Best Non-Fiction Books for Your Reading List
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
One of the best books of any genre I’ve ever read, this story came at the perfect time. Have you ever gone through a reading slump? It’s kind of like writer’s block. You read a few mediocre books in a row, and then it makes you put books down a little quicker. Books that you thought would be amazing just never quite stole your attention. It’s a miserable time, really. All you want is to read a good book.
And then I stumbled upon this masterpiece. I cannot pretend that it was always a happy read — in fact, there were many emotional moments. But it is told through such precise, interesting prose.
The premise is pretty simple: Kalanithi, a healthy thirty-something medical resident, receives a devastating lung cancer diagnosis. From that moment, we learn all about the man — both past and present — as he battles the disease and contemplates his own mortality.
This is one of those books that lingered. I thought about it constantly for weeks. And the final pages — sometimes I will just reread them, because they are that powerful.
The Man I Never Met by Adam Schefter (2018)
I won’t lie to you: the reason I first gave this one a shot was because Adam Schefter is a University of Michigan alumnus. But I’m darn glad I did.
See, Schefter’s wife, Sharri Maio, was a 9/11 widow. Her husband, Joe, was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centers. A handful of years later, Sharri and Adam were introduced, began dating and eventually married. Over the years, Adam and Sharri continued honoring Joe’s memory as they embarked on their own life together.
This memoir is Adam’s tribute to his wife’s late husband. And it is worth your time.
Grit by Angela Duckworth (2016)
OK, OK, this isn’t exactly what you would call “non-fiction” in the traditional sense of the genre. It’s not a narrative, but rather a psychological study on what drives success in our society — what Angela Duckworth calls “grit,” which she describes as the combination of passion and perseverance.
At times it feels a little academic, but she does a great job of two things. First, she frames her argument continuously under real life scenarios. And secondly, this book is full — and I mean full — of little inspirations. At the end of each section, I felt motivated to go out and live a grittier life.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (2016)
Please, take the politics out of it. For some reason, when I mention this book people either applaud its implied conservatism or condemn it. In that way, it is much like many other issues in this country right now — that is to say, people are constantly looking for a reason to be divisive.
For me, that’s not at all what this book was about. My wife has family that lives in a similar region of Appalachia, in the northern foothills of Tennessee. I’ve gotten peeks into the world that Vance describes in this memoir. And let me tell you: the struggles are real. I think if you truly give this book a fair shot, you can see a distinct, level-headed, critical examination of a very large subset of America. And to me, being open-minded means learning as much as possible about all American subcultures.
At its core, this is a memoir about one family’s experiences in southern, blue collar Ohio, as well as the hills of Kentucky. Vance also takes these observations and stories a bit further at times, interrogating broader issues in the region.
(I would also like to note that, given Vance’s Buckeye roots, it was tough for me to pick up this book, let alone read it, enjoy it and recommend it.)
On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
Stephen King’s On Writing is often hailed as one of the most important books a writer can read, and I completely agree. While King is pretty much a horror author (though he’s dabbled in other genres), the lessons that he outlines in this memoir are universal for any aspiring writer.
The book is broken out into several sections, from his own story of becoming a writer and finding success, to concrete writing advice and lessons.
Since I first bought this book two years ago, I have already read it three times. It’s the kind of memoir that you can read annually and never tire of it.
Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner (2015)
Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner was an impulse purchase, which isn’t common for me when it comes to books, as my to-read list is usually very lengthy. But my wife and I were in one of our favorite bookstores, Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, and I saw this on the shelf. Literati always has such authentic recommendations that I can trust the selection they choose to display on promotional tables.
As you likely know already from the numerous times I’ve written about Hemingway (like his childhood in northern Michigan or his best books or his feud with William Faulkner), I am a huge fan of the legendary author. Hotchner was a close friend of Hemingway’s in the 1940’s and 50’s, and this book was an intimate portrait of Hemingway’s affection for his first wife, Hadley.
Quite honestly, this is a story that could only be told by someone who was there, as Hotchner was. And if you’re even the slightest bit interested in the personal lives of famous authors, this one is genuinely worth your time.
The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan (2016)
I first bought The Immortal Irishman when it was released in 2016, read it and enjoyed it. But this past year as my wife and I planned a trip to Ireland, I picked it back up. In those couple years in between, I had forgotten how good it was.
Timothy Egan is such a talented researcher and storyteller, taking the life of a relatively unknown Irishman from hundreds of years ago and making it not only engaging, but lasting. Packed with interesting historical info, this book not only kept me turning the pages, but also taught me a ton about Irish-American history.
It does what all great historical books do: it fills in the blanks you never realized were missing, and makes you begin to recognize the impact that other cultures have on your life.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)
For anyone who has visited a bookstore over the last two years, you should be well aware of this book — as it debuted as a #1 New York Times Best Seller and now, nearly 90 weeks later, is still on the list.
Simply put, Tara Westover takes a miserable childhood in the mountains of Idaho and brings it to the page for everyone to better understand what some people endure in this world (and it also helps us realize how lucky we are).
The memoir was recommended reading by both Bill Gates and Barrack Obama. Hopefully that’s all the justification I need to include it here.
Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor (2011)
This one is a little personal for me. Without getting into too much detail, the sudden and tragic death of Josh Taylor had a direct impact on my life. I witnessed the horrific pain that it caused firsthand. Josh and his wife Natalie were both from my hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan. In this very honest and personal memoir, Natalie spills her life onto the page — beginning with the heartbreaking event, and onward down her path of self-examination and healing.
For anyone who has experienced an unimaginable loss, this book is an empathetic unifier.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)
I’ll end this list of best non-fiction books with a classic that you’ve either already read but should read again (because you couldn’t read this one too many times) or that you’ve heard of and need that final push to get it onto your nightstand.
Angela’s Ashes fit particularly well into my life over the last year — my wife and I had been longing to take a trip to Ireland (which we finally did back in June), and I’ve been trying to learn more about the Great Depression era for another project. While this book is certainly not about the lush rolling green hills, pub tours and cozy bed & breakfasts that colored our trip to the Emerald Isle, it is a raw, detailed look into the life of a man who endured the worst of times with the sternest perseverance.