50 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time
Looking to read something enlightening, educational, and utterly compelling? These beloved, best-selling nonfiction books will do the trick.
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Popular nonfiction books that are as fascinating as fiction
It’s easy to get lost in a good book, especially if you’re reading one of the best fiction books of the year, a sizzling romance novel, or some seriously good historical fiction. But the best nonfiction books can equally capture your attention and draw you into their worlds. These works can take many forms and focus on anything and everything—from true crime, science, history, and travel to gender, race, politics, and economics. They may offer a comprehensive view of a topic, provide essential tips and tricks that make your life easier, or even change the way you look at the world. But they all have one thing in common: Their authors bring the subjects to life and make them incredibly compelling.
Here, you’ll find the best nonfiction books of all time—the ones that will really make you think. Many of these titles were culled from the annals of Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle, the National Book Foundation, and influential best-seller lists. Some are classics that have a lasting legacy. Some are important works that help us understand humanity. Some blow us away with their beautiful storytelling. And some are just plain good reads—some of the best books of all time, in fact.
1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012)
What does it mean to strive for a better life when everything is against you? How do we maintain our humanity in the face of poverty and longing? Boo delves into the lives of the families who live in the Annawadi slum, squatting on forgotten land owned by the Sahar International Airport in Mumbai and striving to make their lives better. As India transforms and modernizes, those who’ve resided in the traditionally “lower” castes have a glimpse of upward mobility and what it takes to get there. This beautifully written masterpiece was a national best seller, the winner of the National Book Award, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and one of Time‘s Best Books of the Decade. Boo herself won a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her work. Behind the Beautiful Forevers rightfully earns its spot on this list of the best nonfiction books—it’s one of the books everyone should read in their lifetime.
2. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005)
The concept of Freakonomics looks at a variety of behavioral and social phenomena through an economic lens. This best seller, which sold more than four million copies worldwide, spawned numerous other books and a podcast that changed the way we look at the world. The authors discuss the everyday workings of everyday things, like how to catch a cheater or why your new car is worth so much less the moment you drive it off the lot. With a following of readers from the New York Times, economist Levitt received a wide range of queries from both ordinary people and the likes of a Tour de France champ and the CIA. Here, with the help of Dubner’s humorous writing, he provides the answers to life’s somewhat-pressing questions.
3. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (2012)
The winner of more than a dozen awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and Books for a Better Life Award, Solomon’s work draws on a decade of research interviewing more than 300 families. What he found is that when children are faced with adversity or exceptionality, their experience of being different within their families is universal. And he raises this question: Whether a child is deaf, gay, autistic, or genius, do we strive to raise our kids to be like us, or do we nurture their differences and allow them to find a community of their own?
As Solomon notes, while the apple generally doesn’t fall far from the tree, in these cases, they are “apples that have fallen elsewhere.” In family after family, Solomon found that love triumphs and that happy families who strive to accept these children are happy in many other ways. Ever wonder if you’re a toxic parent? See if you have any of these bad parenting traits.
4. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (2020)
Published mere months after the discovery of the novel coronavirus and just ahead of the resulting surge of anti-Asian violence and othering that Asian Americans experienced in its wake, this is an essential read for the moment we’re in. Korean American essayist Hong vividly portrays the “minor feelings,” like shame and depression, that are often part of the Asian American experience. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, Hong’s book touches on the all-too-common dismissal of these feelings in conversations about race and immigration. Minor Feelings resonated in a major way: It’s a New York Times best seller, National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and soon to be a TV series.
5. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (2006)
Named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, Pollan’s James Beard Award–winning book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was one of the first critically acclaimed books to look at how we eat in terms of our species’ survival—both in terms of the health of our families and of the planet—answering the question, “Where does my food come from?” It’s essential reading for anyone concerned with the choices they make about what goes into their bodies.
6. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser (2001)
Twenty years after its initial publication, Eric Schlosser’s engrossing exposé on the fast-food industry is as relevant as ever. A New York Times best seller and one of Time‘s 100 Best Nonfiction Books, Fast Food Nation reveals more than what’s in that burger you’re eating. Americans spend more money on fast food than they do on new cars and on any given day, one-quarter of American adults visit a fast-food establishment. The industry, writes Schlosser, helped transform the American diet as well as “our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture.” It has, in short, become inescapable. Schlosser, an adept storyteller, believes people should know where their food comes from, how it’s made, and what it’s doing to their community.
7. The Sea Around Us (1951) and Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson
The Sea Around Us, an overnight best seller and winner of the National Book Award winner in 1952, combines Carson’s thorough research (much of it from World War II–era submarine warfare) with her poetic prose. In wondrous detail, she describes the ocean floors and how they were mapped, how islands are born, and how tsunamis remind us of their destructive power. A decade later, Silent Spring, a forerunner for environmental activism, revealed the devastating environmental and human toll of excessive pesticide use, how pesticides contaminate and poison our planet, and how those behind the indiscriminate use of pesticides profit from it. Carson’s classic book spurred changes in legislation that affect our air, water, and planet to this day. Both books are as essential in 2022 as when they were first published.
8. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1974)
Dillard’s book tells of a year’s exploration in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, where Tinker Creek runs. In addition to capturing the beauty and horror of nature and the creatures that inhabit it through the seasons, it’s a “chronicle of solitude,” according to the Atlantic (though Dillard continued to live at home with her husband while she walked about the suburban woods). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, this book placed Dillard among the best nature writers, in the vein of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Her lovely writing captures the magic of being alone in nature. FYI, this isn’t a strict, factual account of her time at Tinker Creek but instead, as she once noted, “a novelized book of nonfiction.” Pilgrim should be the first of many Dillard books you read. These beautiful nature quotes will put you in the right mindset before curling up with this excellent book.
9. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (2021)
Smith, a writer for The Atlantic, provides a frank account of just how engrained the legacy of slavery is in the United States in this masterwork. Named one of the New York Times‘s Best Books of 2021 and one of Time‘s Best Nonfiction Books of 2021, How the Word Is Passed examines the many monuments, locations, and even whole neighborhoods that are inexorably tied to American slavery, whether overtly or less so, and how we as a country can and should move forward armed with that knowledge. It’s one of many new books by Black authors you should know about.
10. Grand Canyon by Jason Chin (2017)
Nonfiction books aren’t just for grown-ups. This book, targeted at readers ages 7 and up, is far from a dry national landmark explainer for kids. It boasts all sorts of impressively illustrated materials, like a fold-out panorama and a map. With its thorough rundown of the canyon’s wildlife and geology, it’s an especially great choice for kids interested in science and nature. For more impactful reads for the younger set, check out these children’s books about diversity.
11. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (1997)
This riveting account of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest that left five people dead is Krakauer’s attempt to provide insight into what went wrong and examine his own culpability. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and a number one national best seller that sold more than two million copies, it ranks “among the great adventure books of all time,” according to the Wall Street Journal. If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Reader‘s Digest version: Krakauer was sent on the expedition by Outside magazine to cover a guided ascent with seven other clients. While at the summit, a rogue storm blew in, ultimately killing three climbers from four expeditions and claiming the lives of three more within the month. This is an engrossing read, even 30 years after that fateful climb. Check out the best biographies you should have read by now.
12. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
This seminal text chronicles the treatment of women throughout history, particularly the imbalanced gender roles. And though it was published more than 70 years ago in France, de Beauvoir’s exploration of women’s objectified status, their “otherness,” and their absolute identity only in relation to men resonates with modern Americans. While her meticulous research does point to “essential” differences between men and women, she does not uncover a rationale for female inferiority, something women still grapple with today. Here are more feminist books every woman (and man) should read.
13. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)
Friedan’s book criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through homemaking and child-rearing and that their identities were limited to “happy housewife” or “mother.” More broadly, she explored the idea that these widely held beliefs made women themselves think they had no intellectual value outside the home, which ultimately served to keep them there. Friedan has been credited with sparking second-wave feminism, which focused on issues of equality and discrimination, and this book was named as one of the Library of Congress’s Books That Shaped America and one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Books of All Time. Here are more great books written by female authors that people of all genders can enjoy.
14. Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl (2011)
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, this impeccably researched nonfiction book shows how the epidemic of selecting for boys has skewed the natural sex ratio (of 105 boys to every 100 girls) for the entire world. What started as firsthand observation of China’s “missing” girls led to similar observations in other countries. But the research led beyond one-child policies and orphanages overrun with girls to an even darker secret, including in the West, that involves sorting sperm and selective abortion. Hvistendahl warns that by condemning men to singlehood, we’re creating a world that will be dominated by male violence, prostitution, and sexual predation.
15. Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller (2021)
Combining images and text, Dog Flowers tells Geller’s personal story. She writes of the loss of her mother to alcohol withdrawal and the journey she took to learn more about her mother’s life. The search takes her to a Navajo reservation, her mother’s onetime home, where an uneasy reunion and revelations—equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking—await. A beautiful book by a Native American author, Dog Flowers explores themes of addiction, family, and community.
16. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
Both The Tipping Point and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking are essential Gladwell reads. Twenty years ago, in The Tipping Point, he laid out what would today be called influencing: that singular moment when an idea becomes a trend, both in business and in human behavior. In exploring how something small can blow up, he also delved into how we can use it to affect positive change. In his second international best seller, Blink, he turns the lens inward and looks at how we make decisions and how to block out the noise and focus on the essentials. Why are some decisions good while others not? And why, he asks, are some people generally better at making them than others?
17. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
Mukherjee, an oncologist and researcher, tells the gripping story of cancer and how it has affected human lives for thousands of years. He recounts the discoveries and victories as well as the setbacks and adversities. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, for which the jury called it “an eloquent inquiry, at once clinical and personal.” It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and became the subject of a Ken Burns documentary on PBS. It’s a biography in the true sense of the word—an intimate look inside the “mind” of cancer in order to understand and demystify it—and Mukherjee raises the ultimate question: Is cancer’s demise in our future?
18. How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nuland (1993)
The one thing we all have in common is death. Nuland, who was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, attempts to demystify the process of dying by presenting it in its biological and clinical reality so that we can deal with what frightens us the most. To illustrate, he chose six of our most common disease categories because they represent “certain universal processes that we will all experience.” If we know the truth about death, he writes, we can prepare for it with less fear. Winner of the National Book Award in 1994, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award, it’s a moving account of what it is to die our own unique deaths.
19. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
When Henrietta Lacks was dying of cervical cancer, her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. Those cells, called HeLa, are still alive more than 70 years later and have contributed to remarkable strides in medicine, including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and chemotherapy. But at what cost? This number one New York Times best seller, which appeared on more than 60 best-of-the-year lists in 2010, tells the story of Lacks, the journey of her cells, and what happened when her children learned of the medical theft 20 years after her death—and the millions of dollars they were excluded from. In this important and engaging read, Skloot turns a light on medical ethics and the long history of medical experimentation on Black Americans.
20. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
At its most basic, Between the World and Me is a letter to the author’s adolescent son. But Coates’s profound text goes beyond his own experiences about his place in the world as a Black man by eloquently weaving it with historical and current events as they relate to race. How can we reckon with this history—a history that was built on the suffering of others—and find a way forward? Called “required reading” by Toni Morrison, Between the World and Me was the winner of the National Book Award, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and one of Time‘s Best Nonfiction Books of the Decade. It’s an essential book about race relations in America, and one everyone ought to read.
21. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 by Taylor Branch (1988)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this is the first of three volumes by Branch. It details the early years of Martin Luther King Jr. and his rise to greatness as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s more than a biography of King; it’s a civil rights history of the United States, starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and ending with John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Branch profiles the key players (Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, J. Edgar Hoover) and events (the Freedom Rides, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the bombing of the Birmingham Baptist church) that came together to form the basis of a movement that still carries on today. While everyone knows who Martin Luther King Jr. was, here are some other important Black Americans you probably didn’t learn about in history class.
22. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1946)
During his years imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl developed the field of logotherapy that gave us Man’s Search for Meaning. Part memoir, part psychological treatise, this book and its reflections on humans’ purpose and drive are crucial parts of 20th-century literary thought. Despite its devastating subject matter, Man’s Search for Meaning is hopeful at its core. Here are other valuable Holocaust books you should add to your reading library.
23. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
Like many of the authors on this list, Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, is a talented researcher with a gift for storytelling. Her 2020 book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and a number one New York Times best seller. But her true masterpiece is The Warmth of Other Suns, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named on several best-of-the-year lists. For the book, Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand families to find three that represented the untold story of the decades-long migration of nearly six million Black Americans out of the South in search of a better life. She beautifully captures their cross-country trips and how they set up in their new cities, bringing with them Southern food, faith, music, and culture. Wilkerson asks: Were the people who left the South better off for having left?
24. My Broken Language: A Memoir by Quiara Alegría Hudes (2022)
If you like your nonfiction books to be vibrant and filled with poetic language, then look no further than the Pulitzer Prize–winning My Broken Language. Hudes, the screenwriter behind the film In the Heights, works magic with language in this memoir. She describes struggling with her identity while growing up with her Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia. It’s a powerful addition to the catalog of books by Latinx authors.
25. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955)
This compilation of previously published essays from the 1940s and 1950s also landed on The Guardian‘s and Time‘s lists of the best nonfiction books of all time. The essays explore what it means to be Black in America, touching on Baldwin’s life in both Harlem and in Europe. Though written at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, his observations are still pertinent today. Baldwin was “one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the 20th century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic,” according to the publisher of a recent edition. Another book by Baldwin is considered one of the most controversial of all time.
26. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
Du Bois was a civil rights activist, sociologist, historian, and one of the founders of the NAACP. In The Souls of Black Folk, he focused on the experiences of Black Americans under the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow “color line,” which suggested that one’s skin color dictated which part of the train they could sit in or which water fountain they could drink from. Du Bois also explored the concept of “double consciousness,” in which he suggested that Black Americans must be aware of themselves both as to how their families and communities view them but also as how White America sees them, and he touches on how one carries on when the world looks at you with this double standard. This text is as critical today as when Du Bois wrote it at the turn of the 20th century.
27. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (2010)
You’ve heard of it; now it’s time to give it a try. If you ignored the Tidying Up with Marie Kondo craze that swept pop culture in 2019, now might be the time to see what all the fuss is about. The book, which came out before the show, is a powerhouse self-help book about how prioritizing your “stuff” can change your life and your outlook on how you use your space. It fueled a movement across the globe through its groundbreaking simplicity.
28. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)
This New York Times best seller, which spent nearly 250 weeks on the list, was named one of the best books of the 21st century by Slate and the Chronicle of Higher Education and won the NAACP Image Award in 2011. It also helped inspire the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to the U.S. criminal justice system. The book looks at the justice system as a form of racial control that ravages communities of color—and the crises faced by these communities as a result of mass incarceration and institutional racism. As Alexander writes, it’s no longer permissible to use race as a justification for discrimination, but by using the criminal justice system to label people of color as criminals, it’s “perfectly legal” to discriminate against them. The 10th-anniversary edition contains an update by the author that looks at the state of criminal justice reform today.
29. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)
Credited as a founder of New Journalism, Wolfe married traditional journalism—the reporting of facts—with the narrative elements typically found in novels and other fiction writing. In The Right Stuff, he recounts the USA’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, from the seven astronauts’ perspectives. By focusing on the lives of the “Mercury Seven,” we glimpse not only the dangers of their mission but also the tolls that the Space Race took on families. The winner of the National Book Award in 1980 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, this book was made into a motion picture and remains one of the most compelling stories of our attempt to leave Earth. Here are more books that were made into hit movies.
30. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)
Capote’s stark examination of a brutal quadruple murder from the 1950s is a seminal true crime book, an essential read for anyone interested in the genre. This genre-breaking “nonfiction novel” from the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the true tale of the Clutter family murders and the subsequent trial and execution of the two perpetrators. In addition to retelling the facts of the story, Capote brings to life the emotional turmoil of the residents in the small Kansas town where the murders took place and paints empathy for the men who committed them. Capote was one of the pioneers of this form of narrative, or literary, nonfiction—what was called New Journalism. Originally serialized in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and was later made into a film of the same name.
31. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)
This engaging and beautifully written book tells the story of a murder in Savannah, Georgia. Or was it self-defense? Unraveling the mystery involves a rich tapestry, ripe with eccentric characters. There’s the genteel new-money antique dealer and the redneck boy toy at the center of the tale, the potty-mouthed transgender performer, a voodoo priestess, the society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club, and a bulldog named Uga. Steeped in tradition, with gorgeously painted scenic beauty making Savannah its own character, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that was later made into a motion picture.
32. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai (2013)
Even more essential now that the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, Malala’s story is a must-read for book lovers of all ages and is especially empowering for teens. You’ll find a young readers’ version aimed at teens and tweens as a well as a chapter book edition for even younger readers. The Nobel Peace Prize–winning activist tells her own story, from childhood to the book’s publication, in one of the best autobiographies of all time.
33. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)
This often-hilarious tale of what happens in the “life” of a human cadaver is a compelling read. Roach’s storytelling leads us through the centuries and how cadavers have been a part of not only major medical advancements (such as heart transplants) but scientific discoveries as well (via a trip aboard a space shuttle). Cadavers have been used as crash-test dummies, and they’ve helped answer the mysteries of plane crashes. Roach, a science and humor writer, moves beyond the “ew” and makes this curious New York Times best seller well worth the read. If you enjoy humor writing, give some of these funniest books of all time a whirl.
34. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2010)
The Shallows asks the question on everybody’s minds: As we embrace the Internet, what do we sacrifice intellectually? Carr provides compelling research that shows how the Internet is rewiring our brains, affecting how we communicate, socialize, and remember. We think we’re in control … but are we? “We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads,” he writes. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times best seller, this tenth-anniversary updated edition includes a new afterword that examines the effects of social media and smartphones on our cognitive and behavioral health.
35. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (1986)
This sweeping literary account of the atomic bomb—from the discovery of nuclear fission through the conception of the weapon with the Manhattan Project to the devastating horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—won the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Though written like a suspense novel, this mesmerizing history of nuclear weapons still resonates 35 years after it was first published. Next, learn about the man who survived both atomic blasts—and lived to be 93.
36. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
Hawking’s prose is accessible and gripping, and it reads as if you’re talking to your favorite physics professor. He asks (and answers) questions like: Where did the universe come from? Did it have a beginning, and if so, what came before? What is the nature of time, and will it ever come to an end? It was a number one New York Times best seller and a presence on the London Sunday Times best seller list for 237 weeks. In the edition published in 2017 (the year before his death), Hawking updates topics that “underpin some of [his] proudest accomplishments as a physicist.”
37. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)
From America’s beloved astrophysicist comes this number one New York Times best seller, which spent more than a year on the list and sold more than 1 million copies. Science frequently makes the headlines, but do you know what the discoveries actually mean? Can you talk about black holes, quantum mechanics, and whether life exists outside our own planet? With this title, broken down into manageable chapters that you can read and digest just about anywhere, you’ll know what those cosmic headlines mean and “be culturally conversant” in Tyson’s field—so much so that you may even want to read more. Tyson’s engaging tone is what’s made him both a regular presence on late-night television and a friend of Sesame Street‘s lovable characters.
38. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)
For a more humorous answer to how we got here, there’s Bill Bryson. The prolific, best-selling author—who has written about travel and nature (A Walk in the Woods), his own life (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid), and language (The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way)—is known for his entertaining takes on every topic he tackles. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson attempts to understand the universe, starting with the Big Bang and moving through the rise of civilization (and the coinciding extinction of several animal species), by interviewing the world’s top scientists in his characteristically charming way.
39. Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (1998)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this compilation of four previously published works includes 20,000 new words. The conceit is simple: For one year, McPhee, accompanied by geologists, journeyed across the United States at about the 40th parallel. The result is an unparalleled geology primer of North America, plate tectonics (what it is and who figured it out), different geologic eras, the tensions between geological discovery and environmental preservation, and the geologists themselves. Written by one of our most revered and prolific writers, Annals is as sweeping a narrative as the topic it covers.
40. Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick (2015)
You’ve certainly heard of Winnie-the-Pooh, but did you know that this character was based on a real bear? Young fans of the silly old bear (and their parents) will be fascinated by this 2015 nonfiction book for kids written by the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, the man who originally “found Winnie.” Colebourn, a soldier in World War I, bought a bear cub off a hunter and donated her to the London Zoo, where she’d be discovered by a young boy named Christoper and his father, A. A. Milne.
41. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
There have been five mass extinctions on Earth in the past half-billion years, which caused the diversity of life to plummet. (Looking at you, asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.) Scientists are monitoring the next great extinction, and we’re the cataclysm. Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, blends elegant writing with hard research into a compelling and entertaining read; each chapter examines an extinct species and how we learned about it, or a declining ecosystem where die-off is currently happening. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the New York Times Book Review‘s Best Books of the Year, The Sixth Extinction makes us look at the disappearances happening right before us—and consider our lasting legacy.
42. All the President’s Men: The Greatest Reporting Story of All Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974)
The exposé on the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s role in it earned the authors, both Washington Post reporters, a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1973. This book, named one of Time magazine’s 100 best nonfiction books of all time, went beyond the headlines, introducing readers to the “Deep Throat” informant and other behind-the-scenes aspects of their investigative journalism. Engagingly written, the 40th-anniversary edition includes an afterword on the legacy of Watergate, which is as pressing in our current political climate as ever. Part detective story, part political thriller, this book inspired a generation of journalists.
43. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1980)
Zinn undertook the monumental task of rewriting the “official” history that’s been taught in schools: the history of the wars, the presidents, and the victors. Instead, he presents history from the eyes of the underdogs—the Native Americans, enslaved people, laborers, immigrants, and women—starting with the landing of Columbus and ending, in the latest edition, with President Clinton’s first term in office. A finalist for the National Book Award, it has sold nearly five million copies since its publication and has been heralded as essential reading for every American. If you love history, these are the best podcasts to listen to right now.
44. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2006)
It’s been 20 years since the events of 9/11, and questions remain. Many books have been written in the aftermath, but Wright’s Pulitzer-winning account uncovers the five decades preceding the attack. He explains in sweeping detail the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and where our own intelligence failed to prevent the attacks. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and was named one of Time magazine’s best books of all time, and it’s the basis of a Hulu television series of the same name.
45. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016)
Written by a Vietnamese-born, American-raised novelist, this finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award asserts that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” The naming difference alone—the Vietnam War to us in the United States and the American War to those in Vietnam—shows how the war will be known and remembered. It’s a compelling look at how we remember the dead and how we remember the living and what they did during the war.
46. The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 by Saul Friedländer (2007)
As a follow-up to Friedländer’s 1997 volume, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1, this Pulitzer Prize winner follows the trajectory of Jewish persecution and relocation to its terrible conclusion. Together, the two books form “the standard historical work on Nazi Germany’s mass murder of Europe’s Jews,” according to the New York Times. In this second volume, Friedländer weaves historical accounts of the war with hundreds of witness testimonies, diary entries (including those of Anne Frank), letters, and postwar trial transcripts. Friedländer, who was born in Prague but spent his boyhood in Nazi-occupied France, lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Adolf Hitler, but he also touches on those who served him as well as the countries and leaders who resisted (and those who remained fearfully silent). This sweeping account reads like a novel, but it gets at the heart of this dark subject.
47. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (1984)
In 15 essays, Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde powerfully addresses a range of important subjects, from sexuality to class to police violence. Much of its subject matter feels so at home in the conversation around today’s racial reckoning that it can be easy to forget it was first published in 1984. It defies being labeled with a single identity or issue; it’s a crucial LGBTQ+ book about Black womanhood, the call to action, and more.
48. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970)
In this heartbreaking portrayal of how the West was “won,” Brown tells the tale of those who “lost” it. He used council records and first-person accounts of the chiefs and warriors of several Native American tribes to describe the massacres and broken treaties their people endured. Published in 1970, shortly after the horrors of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam shocked the nation, Bury My Heart brought home the “dark roots of American arrogance.” Brown reveals how the U.S. government lied and manipulated to take Native lands and emphasizes that Native Americans are anything but the “savages” depicted in Westerns. Called “impossible to put down” by the New York Times and named one of the 100 best books of all time by Time, it has sold nearly five million copies. After seeing the ongoing struggle for sovereignty play out in the fight against the Line 3 pipeline, which would cut through tribal lands, this book is as important as ever.
49. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts (1987)
An international best seller and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Shilts’ story of the dawn of the AIDS epidemic is a shocking look at how the stigmatized virus was left unchecked to spread, with no safeguard for public health. It details the tragic irony that by the time America paid attention, it was already too late. In a thoroughly researched and compelling narrative, Shilts describes the discovery of the disease, patient zero, and the race to tame this looming threat. In talking about the virus, Shilts could have been speaking about the current pandemic: “There were the first glimmers of awareness that the future would always contain this strange new word. AIDS would become a part of American culture and indelibly change the course of our lives.”
50. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (2003)
This New York Times best seller is more than just a grammar book. It’s a humorous and historical proclamation that proper punctuation matters. The title stems from a joke about a panda, which eats shoots and leaves—except with a misplaced comma, as in the title, the panda’s actions can be misconstrued. And therein lies Truss’s reasoning for standing up for punctuation: Without it, there’s no reliable way of conveying meaning. Though we might not speak in commas, em dashes, and semicolons, proper punctuation tells us how to read the same way sheet music instructs a musician how to properly play a song. Earning a spot among the best nonfiction books, it’s a must-read for grammar nerds as well as those who could use a little help in that area. While you wait for your copy to arrive, check out the most confusing grammar rules in English.