Skip the dry textbooks and read some nonfiction books that read like novels instead with these top narrative nonfiction books.
The older I get, the more nonfiction books I tend to read, and I have to admit that narrative nonfiction books are my absolute favorite.
There’s something so compelling about approaching the dividing line of fiction vs nonfiction – using fiction techniques to enhance a nonfiction story.
Not sure what narrative nonfiction means? Don’t worry, I’ll start with the narrative nonfiction definition before diving into the best examples of narrative nonfiction that you’ll want to add to your reading list.
What is Narrative Nonfiction?
Sometimes called creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction is a type of nonfiction that reads like a novel.
Narrative nonfiction is still nonfiction. These books are well-researched and factually accurate. The difference is in the literary techniques used in narrative nonfiction books. For narrative nonfiction is all about the story – telling a compelling narrative that is as informational as it is entertaining.
Imagine the difference between nonfiction and fiction as a spectrum, where on one side is the completely imaginary fiction and on the other dry factual nonfiction.
Narrative nonfiction would fall as close to the fiction side as you can while still being nonfiction. On the other hand, historical novels are as close to nonfiction as you can while still being fiction – factually correct in almost everything but with artistic license in some regards.
Bestselling NOnfiction Memoirs
One of the most powerful memoirs of recent years, Jeannette Walls recounts the story of her tumultuous childhood. She opens the book with the account of how at 3 years old, she ends up hospitalized with severe burns after pouring scalding water on herself when cooking hot dogs for lunch. You meet her charming father Rex, equal measures brilliant and paranoid; her mother Rose, selfish and depressed; and her three siblings, trying their best just to survive. To quote my husband, “Sometimes someone’s train wreck of a life is fascinating.”
There is no excuse to not read Tara Westover’s spectacular memoir. In my opinion, Educated was one of the best books of the last decade. Westover grew up in the rural mountains of Idaho with no formal education. Despite her extremist survivalist parents and violent older brother, Westover managed to make her way into college, eventually earning a Ph.D. Her amazing determination is inspiring while the circumstances of her childhood are incredibly sad. Definitely one of those books that will stay with you for a long time.
J. D. Vance
First off, you need to understand that J. D. Vance’s memoir is not about life in rural Kentucky as I often see erroneously stated. Instead, it’s about his family life in Southwestern Ohio and how the Hillbilly culture and ethics his grandparents brought from rural Kentucky affected the lives and choices of his grandparents, parents and even himself. Having grown up in that same region of Ohio, I can say that many of his observations ring true. While you might not agree with all of Vance’s conclusions, he has certainly started a conversation, forcing readers to ponder how culture affects us and what heritage you will pass down to your children.
As a therapist, Lori Gottlieb spent all day helping others with their problems. Yet, when her longtime boyfriend unexpectedly broke up with her, she found herself on the receiving end of therapy. Gottlieb’s memoir is top-notch with exceptional pacing, slyly weaving in explanations of therapy within the fascinating story of Gottlieb’s therapy sessions. You’ll quickly become attached to finding out what happens to her patients – a narcissistic tv producer, a dying newlywed, and a depressed senior citizen. A great book club book that highlights the importance of discussing mental health.
Sometimes it takes doing something crazy, like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, for you to truly put your life in order. By 22, Cheryl Strayed’s life felt out of control, so she decided to make a life-changing decision to hike the PCT. Her story (and the subsequent movie) have inspired many women to search to find themselves in a similar fashion, making it one of the top books of the decade. While I don’t think everyone needs to go on a crazy hike as she did, all of us could sometimes use a reset on our lives. You’ll laugh at Strayed’s mishaps, be in awe had her stupidity and bravery, and, if you are like me, really want to go for a hike.
Roxane Gay has made a name for herself among contemporary Black female authors with her bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist. In her poignant memoir, Gay focuses on her weight and self-image. After being raped as a child, Gay used food and an overweight body as a shield. Speaking with candor on the realities of being obese in America and the conflict between self-love and self-care, Gay’s opinions are raw and honest and complicated.
On a December morning in 2004, a tsunami struck Sri Lanka, killing Sonali Deraniyagala’s parents, husband, and children. Wave loads page upon page of tragedy. Deraniyagala describes the loss of her family and the difficult journey she had to create a new life for herself. Many readers have called this the saddest book ever, so be prepared for a deep look at how one woman has learned to process her almost unbearable pain.
True Crime Nonfiction Stories
Truman Capote was the founder of narrative nonfiction with his thrilling look at an unspeakable crime. On November 15, 1959, in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men brutally murder the Clutter family in their home for no apparent reason. Through extensive interviews from the first days on the scene and following the events all the way to the execution of the murderers, Capote suspensefully unfolds the whole story of exactly what happened and more intriguing of all, why it happened. Make sure you set aside a chunk of time to read this modern classic because, I promise, once you start you’ll realize this is a book you can’t put down.
In 1981, a death at the grandest mansion in Savannah provokes the question: Was it murder or self-defense. The shooting sends a tidal wave through the town whose effects are still visible a decade later. With a colorful cast of characters, you’ll hardly believe this narrative nonfiction story isn’t a novel.
David Grann investigates the fascinating case of the Osage murders in the 1920s. After discovering oil on their land, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma are among the richest people in the world at the time. Once the death toll surpasses 24 Osage, the newly created FBI takes up the investigation to expose an alarming conspiracy behind these notorious crimes.
Michelle McNamara’s hunt for a serial killer epitomized the fascination with true crime narrative nonfiction. For over a decade, a violent serial rapist plagued Northern California and then went on to commit 10 sadistic murders, never to be caught. Thirty years later, journalist Michelle McNamara took on the cold case, obsessively determined to find the Golden State Killer. Posthumously published two years after her death, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is McNamara’s masterpiece of her search for the truth. Even more fascinating, only two months after this book was published, a suspect was formally charged in the murders.
The rare endangered ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii only grows in a few places, one of which is the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Florida. Obsessed with obtaining ghost orchids to sell for profit, horticulturist John Laroche hatched a scheme to use a loophole in the law that allows Seminole natives to pick the flowers in the wild. Susan Orlean dives into the world of flower-selling to learn all about Laroche’s obsession and his subsequent arrest.
Allison Hoover Bartlett
Step into the world of rare book collecting with a cat-and-mouse game between an amateur detective and a book thief. While most rare book thieves are in it for the cash, John Charles Gilkey just desperately wanted to own the books he loved so much. As Gilkey’s escapades continue, book dealer Ken Sanders finds himself driven to catch the thief. Exploring the common love of books, Bartlett befriended both Gilkey and Sanders to learn all about Gilkey’s exploits and how Sanders was finally able to catch him.
Narrative NOnfiction about War
Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book details the life of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner who even shook hands with Hitler at the Berlin Olympics. Shot down in the Pacific Ocean in 1943, Lt. Zamperini managed to survive on a life raft for 47 days only to be found by the Japanese. Lt. Zamperini’s resilience will amaze you as he struggles to survive life as a Japanese prisoner for almost three years.
On August 6, 1945, for the first time, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on a city, completely destroying Hiroshima, Japan. War correspondent John Hershey was one of the first Western journalists to witness the ruins of Hiroshima. Commissioned by the New Yorker, Hershey wrote about the events of the day and the memories of the survivors in an article that was reprinted as a Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
In 1993, a hundred US soldiers were dropped by helicopters into a crowded Mogadishu market in the middle of the day to capture two Somali warlords. The quick in-and-out operation went to pieces when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, trapping dozens of soldiers in place overnight in a hellish fight against thousands of Somalians.
Stephen E. Ambrose
The thrilling account of Easy Company, a unit of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army is one of my favorite World War 2 books. The book gets its title from the Shakespeare quote, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Instead of following one man’s journey, the cast of characters winds in and out as men come and go from the company due to reassignment, injury, and death. Stephen Ambrose’s powerful book is a remarkable look at the everyday men who became legends.
Science & Technology Nonfiction Narratives
Raising questions about privacy, medical research, and ethics, Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching the history of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells. Just before her death of cervical cancer, Henrietta Lack’s cells were taken without her permission and scientists figured out how to keep them alive indefinitely. The created cell line was then used for countless medical research. Interspersing the history of Henrietta’s family with the medical use of her cells, Skloot has penned a memorable work.
Margot Lee Shetterly
Telling of the true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians, this book became a hit movie in 2016. Segregated from their white colleagues, these fierce women used pencil and paper to calculate the physics needed to launch men to the moon. Be warned that the writing is a bit dry but the characters are fascinating.
At only 36 years old, Dr. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Suddenly, he found himself thrust from the role of a neurosurgeon to that of a dying patient. Coming face-to-face with his mortality, Kalanithi decided to write his memoir and wrestle with the question: “What makes life worth living in the face of dying?” Easily one of the best memoirs of the decade, When Breath Becomes Air will likely make you sob uncontrollably.
The triumph of modern medicine has created cures for endless diseases and extended life, but at what cost. Surgeon Atul Gawande contemplates how the medical profession must remember that quality of life is more important than quantity of life. Opposing procedures that unnecessarily prolong suffering, Gawande discusses how to humanly reform hospice care and the care of the elderly to provide aid and dignity.
Shortly after World War II, Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American Dream, raising their twelve children in Colorado. Until one after another, six of their ten sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The tale of an American family who became the center of most of our current research on schizophrenia, Hidden Valley Road has become one of the top nonfiction books of 2020.
Best Narrative Nonfiction About Sports
Michael Lewis is an expert at writing narrative nonfiction, and he takes his talents to cover football in The Blind Side. You probably know it’s the inspiring story of Michael Oher, who, after being taken in by the Tuohy family, rose to become one of the most sought after football players of his generation. However, what you probably don’t realize is that the book itself is also about the evolution of football. Lewis gives a fascinating look at how the game has changed over the decades and why that leads to the importance of Michael Oher’s position.
While writing a story about the overcrowding on Mt. Everest, investigative journalist Jon Krakauer got much more than he expected. Climbing to the summit on May 10, 1996, Krakauer’s group was engulfed by a storm that ended up claiming five lives. With his firsthand account of the glories and dangers of climbing Mt. Everest, Krakauer will have you gripped to the page as you follow along with his expedition. This heartstopping modern classic that anyone with an outdoor mindset will love has certainly earned a place among the best narrative nonfiction books.
Daniel James Brown
In a sport dominated by elite East Coast schools, a group of young men, sons of dockworkers, loggers, and farmers, at the University of Washington rowed to the Olympic Gold Medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Led by an enigmatic coach and aided by a visionary boat builder, the nine working-class boys came together with determination and commitment to become world champions.
H. G. Bissinger
When you think of Texas, high school football probably comes to mind. Football is serious business in the Lone Star State, and nowhere more so than Odessa. Way out in the oilfields of West Texas, the lives of the people of Odessa seem to revolve around nothing but football, for which they have been rewarded with the winning-est football team in Texas History. Bissinger’s exposé on the subject shines a brilliant light on the town’s obsession – both the good of uniting its citizens and the bad of justifying anything that will help the team win on Friday night. Friday Night Lights inspired both a dramatic motion picture and a successful television series, but the book is completely true.
In 1938, the single biggest newsmaker was not Hitler or Mussolini, but the crooked-legged racehorse Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand details how such an unlikely hero became an American icon. When Charles Howard wanted to own racehorses, he allied himself with Tom Smith, a mysterious mustang breaker from Colorado, and Red Pollard, a half-blind former boxer turned jockey, in a partnership that would transform bad luck and injury into an inspirational success story.
Narrative Nonfiction Business Books
In grad school, Phil Knight had a crazy idea that Japanese running shoes could overtake the domination of German company Adidas. He partnered up with his former track coach to help design innovative shoes and traveled to Japan to bring this crazy idea to life. Following the ups and downs of the journey that built the billion-dollar company Nike is today, Knight’s memoir will hook you in with a band of eccentric characters and an underdog story with excellent narrative pacing.
Imagine a Silicon Valley startup that raised insane amounts of money all based on a gigantic fraud. It sounds like a fictional thriller, but it is the actual true story of the company Theranos. Investigative journalist John Carreyrou’s expose of Elizabeth Holmes’s company is an eye-opening read and one of the best narrative nonfiction books of recent years.
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond tells the true stories of eight families from the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. All of these families are barely scraping by, having had to spend almost all of their earnings on rent alone. Each is facing eviction and an unknown future. Based on years of fieldwork, Evicted takes an eye-opening look at extreme poverty and eviction in America today.
The U.S. stock market crash in 2008 sparked a great recession that affected a generation. Michael Lewis explains that the real crash came a year earlier in the bond and real estate derivatives markets. The Big Short follows four Wall Street outsiders who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse and made loads of cash doing so. Michael Lewis does an excellent job taking dense material and turning it into an easily understood, compelling character-driven drama.
Nonfiction to Explore the World
It’s hard to imagine a dictatorship right out of dystopian fiction could be alive and well right in our modern world. Yet, reading about North Korea, you’ll be astonished at our own modern-day totalitarian society. Through the stories of six North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea, Barbara Demick tells the history of an Orwellian society that has had a major influence in the last decade.
In the shadow of Mumbai’s luxury hotels lies the Annawadi slum where life is brutal. However, a wave of worldwide economic prosperity has even Annawadi’s residents hopeful that their life is improving. Boo introduces you to a colorful cast of characters including Abdul, a Muslim teenager making a profit in recycling garbage; Asha, a woman resolved to use political corruption in her favor to send her daughter to college; and Kalu, a teenage scrap metal thief. Boo follows the Annawadi residents as a global recession rocks the city and tensions caused by race, caste, and money affect each of them.
For two years, every Thursday morning Azar Nafisi would gather seven of her female students in her living room and read forbidden Western classics like Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabokov. With Islamic morality squads patrolling Tehran to censor and inhibit artistic expression that went against their fundamentalist beliefs, Nafisi and her students risked their lives to immerse themselves in exploring how the literature connected to their lives.
Top Nonfiction Books About History
From the First World War to the 1970s, a mass exodus ensued of Blacks leaving the South and settling in northern and western cities. Wilkerson’s book highlights three stories from The Great Migration: Ida Mae Gladney who left sharecropping in 1937 for a blue-collar life in Chicago; George Starling, who left Florida in 1945 for Harlem where he fought for civil rights; and Robert Foster, who moved from Louisiana in 1953 to become a personal physician.
In a series of essays, Joan Didion conveys the essence of life in the 1960s, mostly focusing on California. Placing herself at the center of each piece, Didion’s reporting describes the grim realities behind San Francisco’s perceived utopian counterculture in blunt terms. With essays on John Wayne and Howard Hughes and growing up in California, Didion’s collection is renowned for its distinct styling.
A master of narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson turns his attention to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Larson expertly interweaves two parallel storylines. The first is that of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect and mastermind of the fair. At the same time in Chicago, there lurked the serial killer Henry H. Holmes, a pharmacist intent on building his own type of fairgrounds – a torture chamber full of every imaginable horror. By contrasting the lives of these two figures, Larson presents a startling juxtaposition of American history.
With meticulous in-depth research, Dave Cullen examines the mass shooting that forever changed America. In a day and age where shootings are sadly becoming the norm instead of the exception, Cullen takes you back to that fateful day in 1999. On that tragic day, Cullen was one of the first reporters on the scene and has since spent years piecing together the full story of what happened at Columbine High School.
A Civil War hero and reformist congressman, James A. Garfield was nominated for president against his will and went on to use his Presidency to fight against political corruption. Yet, just four months into his presidency, he was shot by a deranged assassin. Although he survived the initial shooting, the bullet in his spine left Garfield incapacitated, sparking a heated behind-the-scenes power struggle. Although every means was tried to help the ailing President, the incompetence of his doctors eventually led to his death two months after the shooting.
What are Your Favorite Narrative Nonfiction Books?
What do you think? Do you like that narrative nonfiction books read like novels? Or do you prefer to read less literary history books? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Nonfiction Books to Read: