Welcome to my long list of 40 of the best nonfiction books of all time – in my personal opinion of course! I’ll include both old and new titles.
I’ve read and adored tons of nonfiction books over the years. Thus, I don’t think it’s possible for me to squeeze all my favorites into a single post. So, I’ve decided to make this list the first of a three-part series. This will help me cover as many great books as possible over the next few weeks.
Without further ado, here’s my initial recommendation of nonfiction books to read before you die (*cue melodramatic trumpets*)! This list is in no particular order.
Some great nonfiction books to dive into!
1. National Geographic: The Greeks
I love reading up on Greek history, and National Geographic: The Greeks is by far one of my favorite nonfiction books on the topic. You’ll get to read about the origins of democracy, Alexander the Great, the birth of Hellenic war tactics, and so much more. Above all, the many photos really help to enhance your reading journey.
2. The Girl With Seven Names
The Girl With Seven Names is the harrowing real-life story of Hyeonseo Lee’s escape from North Korea’s oppressive regime. She reveals horrifying details of her time in captivity, and the dangerous risks she took to free her family and herself.
I blazed through this book in two days. It really made me appreciate the freedom many of us take for granted. This is to me one of the best nonfiction books of all time, casting light on the enigma that is North Korea.
3. 12 Rules for Life
I don’t read many self-help nonfiction books. However I’m really glad I read this one.
Released in 2018, Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life combines ancient wisdom with recent scientific discoveries as he presents a dozen useful (and arguably, universal) rules for us to lead more fulfilling lives.
Rather than preach, Peterson uses logic and reason to stimulate us to think deeper about life’s greater meaning. He also throws in some humor, making this book both an intellectual and fun read.
Sidenote: Please be aware that one part of the book veers towards conservative views of what gender entails.
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A long-time nonfiction favorite, I find Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to be just as awe-inspiring today as it ever was. My love for space grew thanks to reading this book.
Cosmos takes you on a grand journey across fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution – and the marvel of life that ensued from it. With his iconic poetic prose, Sagan passionately explores everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the continuous scientific discovery of new galaxies. In addition, he covers how societal attitudes towards space exploration have changed over the decades.
By the end, you’ll likely feel humbled – and blessed – thinking about our improbable human existence within the vastness of space and time.
5. The Innovators
The Internet is among the greatest inventions of human history. The Innovators lifts the hood to reveal the pioneering group of inventors, hackers, and geeks who all played a part in its birth.
The book discusses many big-name geniuses and their contributions. This includes Ada Lovelace, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Doug Engelbart, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others. In my opinion, author Walter Isaacson does a commendable job unpacking the legacies of these people and their shaping of our digital revolution.
Whether you’re a believer or not, Leslie Kean’s deep-dive investigation into the existence of extraterrestrials will have you hooked from the start. With systematic detail, she explores various government cover-ups while collecting many first-hand accounts from high-ranking military personnel, government officials, and more.
I regard UFOs as one the best nonfiction books of all time for this specific topic. Most of all, I love how Kean focuses on hard evidence, rather than myths or hearsay. Considering the facts, I think there’s a very high chance that we’re truly not alone in this universe.
7. The Beatles’ Anthology
I’m a huge music history buff – and The Beatles’ mammoth Anthology is easily my favorite book in the genre. It contains a treasure trove of photos, interesting Beatles facts, and a combined narrative told by Paul, George, Ringo, and – yes! – even Yoko Ono.
I enjoyed reading about the ‘making of’ the Beatles’ most memorable songs, including Strawberry Fields Forever and Hey Jude. The book also takes you on a magical mystery ride from the band’s humble beginnings all the way to their messy end.
If you’re even remotely keen on the Beatles, you really don’t want to miss out on this music history gem!
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8. The Fortunes of Africa
The Fortunes of Africa tells the 5000-year history of a continent persistently ravaged for its rich natural resources. Martin Meredith goes to great lengths to examine how warlords, adventurers, religious zealots, dictators, and other historical figures have had a role to play in shaping Africa today.
My understanding of African history was heavily nurtured by this book. In addition, I really took in Meredith’s thoughts on the future of its people amid the minefield of modern politics.
9. D-Day Girls
We hear most World War 2 stories from men, less so from women. However, D-Day Girls does a wonderful job at filling in this historical gap by weaving together the oral accounts of three women who worked as spies for the Allies.
You’ll learn how these women were responsible for destroying train lines, ambushing Nazis, and gathering key intelligence that eventually led to the victory of D-Day. In other words, they weren’t just peripherals to the war, but were in fact key to putting an end to it!
- D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II Hardcover
- Hardcover Book
- Rose, Sarah (Author)
I’m not naturally good at economic theory. However, Freakonomics really helped me pick up the basics via its highlighting of odd social patterns. In particular, the authors explore unexpected relationships between human psychology and wealth, drawing convincing conclusions I didn’t expect.
Surprising and creatively educational, Freakonomics is the perfect nonfiction book to open your eyes to the true motives that underlie our economic exchanges.
11. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Regularly listed as one of the best nonfiction books of all time, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the story of Michelle McNamara’s unrelenting hunt for ‘the Golden State Killer’ – a serial rapist and murderer. I found myself enthralled by this true crime book from start to finish!
McNamara tragically passed away before she was able to catch the killer. However, this posthumous publication was actually key to bringing renewed focus on the case, eventually leading to the capture of the prime suspect.
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12. Leonardo da Vinci
I’ve always seen Leonardo da Vinci as a true genius – and this book further affirms my view. This biography sheds light on a man who masterfully merged the arts and sciences together with a seldom matched level of creative virtuosity.
da Vinci’s contributions to humanity go far beyond The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. His many inventions and discoveries have had an enduring impact on the fields of anatomy, machinery, geology, botany, and even weaponry. Most of all, this book reveals how da Vinci never held back in living life to its fullest potential. I think that’s a legacy we can all learn from!
13. The 5 Love Languages
Most of us have fallen in love at least once. However, I think we can all agree that staying in love is much harder.
The 5 Love Languages helps with the latter by showing us how to keep our romantic relationships alive and healthy for the long-haul. Above all, this nonfiction book is full of practical – rather than idealistic – day-to-day tips that really influenced my current thoughts about love.
However, I feel author Gary Chapman is mostly focused on addressing heterosexual couples (at least, based on the way he writes and the language used). Those who don’t identify as such might thus be better off reading alternative titles.
14. How to Win Friends and Influence People
I believe Dale Garnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is highly relevant in our increasingly connected world. It is surely one of the best nonfiction books of all time for teaching us how to better relate with people.
This classic is filled with life-changing advice on being more effective communicators and listeners, thus fostering more productive interactions. Most importantly, the book is a lasting recipe for leading a happier life truly appreciated by others.
Graham Hancock is a widely respected leader in psychedelic science. Backed with well-linked research, Supernatural dramatically opened my mind to the possible existence of other-dimensional beings.
I went in a skeptic but emerged with a broader view on what lies beyond our immediate perceptions. In particular, I found Hancock’s examination of ancient cave-art, as well as his historical account of humans’ sudden burst of cognitive abilities, to be compelling reads.
Above all, this book makes you question the very fabric of our reality and the seldom addressed limitations of Western science. A five-star must-read!
16. The Art of War
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War remains one of the best nonfiction books of all time for military strategists. The ancient wisdom contained within – including quotes like “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” – still has a bearing on today’s modern battles.
Most importantly, The Art of War is easily adapted to fit many non-military contexts. Thus, you’ll no doubt benefit from knowing the book inside out – if only to avoid being outsmarted by rivals.
17. When Breath Becomes Air
What makes our lives worth living? That is the key existential question of this moving memoir.
Once a neurosurgeon in training, author Paul Kalanithi was suddenly struck by his diagnosis of Stage 4 Lung Cancer. With little time left, he was thus forced to focus on the things that truly matter in life. Hint: it isn’t accolades or money.
Sadly, Kalanithi has since passed away. However, I am forever grateful for his parting message to us. When Breath Becomes Air remains one of my favorite nonfiction reads to date.
- Hardcover Book
- Kalanithi, Paul (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
18. Goodbye to All That
Robert Graves’ evocative memoir about the First World War is a steadfast classic in the genre. He recounts the many atrocities of the period, painting a vivid portrait of the trauma he endured as a young officer.
I also enjoyed reading about Graves’ pre- and post-war life. These sections drew me deeper into the world he lived, thanks largely to his beautiful prose. Overall, I regard Goodbye to All That as being among the best nonfiction books of all time to read before you die.
19. Philosophy 101
As a PhD graduate, I’ve grappled with many overly dense (i.e. tedious) books on philosophy. A few original texts were nightmares to get through!
However, when it comes to introductory texts, I think Philosophy 101 is one of the most enjoyable and accessible. The book covers most of the big names, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Descartes, and many more. In addition, I loved the chapters devoted to the specific spheres of religion, language, and culture, among others.
Overall, Philosophy 101 is a concise yet illuminating overview of the complex evolution of Western thought. You’ll definitely love it if you’re just getting into the heavy subject!
20. Brief Answers to the Big Questions
Stephen Hawking never shied away from tackling some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. Brief Answers to the Big Questions was his final gift to the world before his passing.
The book does what the title says. He raises the big questions. What can we do about climate change? What does artificial intelligence mean for humanity? Should we colonize space? Does God exist? Of course, not everyone will agree with his conclusions. However, I definitely appreciate Hawking’s intellectual flair in giving his unique answers to these profound existential queries.
Above all, I found this book extremely stimulating in furthering my own thoughts on the subjects he raised.
21. The Hundred-Year Marathon
China is now a truly global superpower. And, for the most part, this has not been an accident.
The Hundred Year Marathon reveals many secret documents, interviews, and insights that outline how the Chinese aim to overtake the U.S. as the world’s most powerful nation. The book is written by Michael Pillsbury, a leading American government expert on Chinese relations.
As usual with politics, I think we need to approach this book in a fair and balanced manner. After all, nearly everyone has an agenda. However, I loved how Pillsbury supports his arguments with very strong and consistent evidence. Ultimately, I find the book to be a great primer for anyone keen to understand the deep rift between democracy and communism.
22. The Intelligent Investor
The Intelligent Investor was originally published in 1949 – and remains a bestseller on Amazon up till today! I think that’s testament to the timeless stock market advice contained within.
The book focuses on ‘value investing’. It nudges you to focus on the right metrics for long-term gains. In addition, everything is broken down into easy-to-follow principles, which is great for all novice stock investors. Above all, I think The Intelligent Investor will help you cut through all the the Wall Street fluff, thus letting you gain a stronger grip on smart investing.
23. The Paradox of Choice
We tend to see freedom of choice as a great thing. But what happens when we’re pressured with too many choices to make? Well, according to Barry Schwartz, having more decisions actually causes more stress that, in turn, makes us unhappier. Schwartz supports his conclusion with plenty of socio-scientific evidence.
I feel The Paradox of Choice is one of the best nonfiction books of all time, insofar as it reshaped the way I saw consumerism. Above all, I’m much happier now from trying to minimize the amount of less important daily decisions I have to make. A great read you don’t want to miss!
24. A Long Way Gone
Ishmael Beah was once a child soldier in Sierre Leone – brainwashed, recruited, and ordered to kill his ‘enemies’. Now a freed adult, he shares his riveting real-life tale filled with terrifying rebel warfare, conflicts, and human rights atrocities.
I think this is by far one of the best nonfiction books of all time for its immense power in exposing the horrors lived by child soldiers the world over. Sometimes, it’s hard for me not to lose faith in humanity.
25. The Glass Castle
I read The Glass Castle a few years back – and it’s stuck with me ever since.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir centers on her life growing up with her non-conformist parents and three siblings. She focuses a lot on her father – a brilliant man who was also a lying alcoholic – and her free-spirited mother who often refused to take care of her children.
The book is equal parts heartbreaking and warming. Ultimately, I think the real beauty of Walls’ memoir lies with her love for – and acceptance of – her unconventional family, warts and all.
More great nonfiction books to read!
Here’s a few shorter summaries of other great nonfiction books I’ve read.
26. The Sixth Extinction
Are we spiraling towards mass extinction? This incredible nonfiction book says ‘yes’! The Sixth Extinction brims with tons of scientific research, facts, opinions, and even a touch of humor.
If you’re interested, I’ve also put together a list of more books about climate change you may want to read.
27. Animal Liberation
I believe in animal rights and see Animal Liberation as one of the greatest books on the topic. Originally published in 1975, Peter Singer’s classic has collectively aided people in becoming more aware of our collective ‘speciesism’ – as well as our systemic disregard of other sentient animals.
28. The Elements of Style
Recommended by Stephen King and other talented authors, The Elements of Style is a classic guide that teaches you how to write better. It contains succinct writing tips that’ll be useful for both fiction and nonfiction writing.
29. The Compound Effect
The Compound Effect shows us how our little daily decisions have a great effect on the way our broader lives unfold. This is one of the best nonfiction books of all time that gives pragmatic tips for getting rid of bad life habits as we propel ourselves to success.
30. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
I think this is among the greatest nonfiction memoirs ever written. Maya Angelou’s debut I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the authentic voice of an African-American child who grew up to become one of the world’s strongest advocates for racial equality.
31. A People’s History of the United States
I loved how A People’s History of the United States rejects institutional rhetoric in favor of everyday people’s actual voices. The book explores United States’ history from the viewpoint of blue-collar workers, marginalized groups, and more.
- Harper Perennial Modern Classics
- Zinn, Howard (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
32. In Cold Blood
A true crime classic, In Cold Blood shares the real-life story of the Clutter family murders. You’ll go behind-the-scenes as Truman Capote reconstructs the police investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the infamous killers.
33. Sword and Scimitar
An outstanding nonfiction read that’ll enrich your understanding of the four centuries war between Islam and the West. I think this book is especially useful in giving context to the tense conflict that persists today.
Are you a comic fan? Then you’ll love Slugfest. It traces the epic 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Above all, you’ll be treated to tons of details on exactly how Stan Lee and his band of artists first took on the then-undisputed champs of comic books. Excellent read!
35. The Ultimate History of Video Games
I’m a huge video game geek. However, reading this history book really enhanced my appreciation of how the gaming industry has evolved over decades. In addition, I was fascinated with the way art imitates life, seeing as video games often mirror the social norms of the times they are made in.
A mainstream release, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers aims to identify the common trait that underlies the world’s most successful people. Most importantly, he stresses how success is an outcome of our cultural upbringing, not from our inherent intellects. There’s hope for us all!
- Audible Audiobook
- Malcolm Gladwell (Author) - Malcolm Gladwell (Narrator)
- English (Publication Language)
37. The Shallows
The Internet has drastically reshaped our world. It has impacted how news spreads and, most of all, intensified our yearnings for social validation.
In this respect, Nicholas Carr’s thesis is a fascinating one. He argues that the Internet actually shallows our critical thinking, along with creating new existential anxieties. A very engaging read for our online generation!
38. Being Mortal
Being Mortal is Atul Gawande’s brilliant look at the uncomfortable intersections of ageing and medicine. He explains how doctors and nurses can inadvertently limit the joys – and exacerbate the anxieties – of the elderly. This is a great counter to our taken-for-granted ideas on modern health, death, and mental well-being.
39. Tuesdays with Morrie
The inspirational true story of Mitch Albom and his reunion with Morrie Schwartz, his college professor whom he hasn’t met for almost twenty years.
Tuesdays with Morrie teaches us some of life’s most important lessons. The book is easy to read, yet beautifully profound. Definitely one of the best nonfiction books of all time to read before you die, morbid as that sounds.
40. Year of Yes
Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, spills the beans on her year-long experience of saying ‘yes’ to nearly everything in her life. By this, she doesn’t mean being a ‘yes-woman’, but rather, agreeing to do things that push her beyond her comfort zone.
This memoir inspires us to be brave, telling us to let go of the fear that keeps us back from new opportunities. An insightful and fun read!