Here’s my list of the 27 best nonfiction books of all time, in no particular order.
- Essays – The original polemicist and essayist. Montaigne was a social critic living in France in the 16th century. His many essays, ranging from superficial subjects such as cooking and sex, to more serious ones such as religion and death, are still both relevant and fascinating today.
- Civilization and Its Discontents – The culmination of decades of Freud’s work. Freud got many things wrong but he also got many things right. This book exemplifies the best in him while minimizing some of his odder conclusions and proclivities.
- Walden – The classic treatise on individualism and the return to nature. Thoreau sought to live alone in the wilderness with minimal contact with humanity for some years. This book is the result.
- The Prince – Written almost 500 years ago, this book is just as relevant now as ever. Machiavelli spent his career as an advisor to royalty. This book was his realistic and amoral advice to any would-be ruler or person in power.
- Lessons of History – The Durants wrote an 11-volume “History of the World” series that took up pretty much all of their adult lives. This small book is the distillations of the lessons from their decades of research.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – A heartbreaking and powerful memoir about the struggles of growing up as a black woman in segregated America.
- The Diary of a Young Girl – The diary of a young jewish girl who was captured and killed by the occupying Nazi forces.
- The Denial of Death – Written on his death bed, a look at how all of our anxieties and motivations are ultimately rooted in our fear of our own non-existence. Profound and thought-provoking.
- Man’s Search for Meaning – Frankl also survived Auschwitz, but he also happened to be a celebrated psychiatrist. This book argues for a therapeutic model based on a human sense of meaning, with much of it argued from Frankl’s experiences with the Nazis.
- Godel, Escher and Bach – Perhaps the most dizzyingly brilliant, fascinating and interesting books I’ve ever read. The book is about paradoxes and how they can explain consciousness. But to understand his thesis, Hofstadter takes you on an unforgettable journey to get there.
- A Brief History of Time – A beautiful layman’s explanation of the Big Bang, astrophysics and the theoretical explanations behind our universe.
- The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – The most definitive historical account of World War II, the Nazi Party and the Holocaust.
- The Power Broker – The biography of Robert Moses, the most powerful man in New York City for most of the 20th century. The book uses his life to look at the nature of power.
- The Selfish Gene – Sometimes an idea changes how you see the world. Dawkins explains the revolutionary idea in biology of gene selection, completely flipping evolutionary thought on its head.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – An impersonal account of human nature and behavior and the structures that form human society. Imagine if an alien visited Earth for a few thousand years and then had to write a report to explain humans back home.
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – A geological look at the climate crisis and how, by the standards of Earth’s lifespan, we are currently causing its sixth great extinction.
- Night – A short memoir of Wiesel’s time in Auschwitz and how he survived.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything – A tour de force of modern scientific thought. Bryson starts at the Big Bang and brings us all the way up to present day.
- The Year of Magical Thinking – Often considered her best collection of essays, Didion is perhaps the most poignant non-fiction writer of her generation.
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers – An incredible tale of slum dwellers in the worst parts of Mumbai, India. Upsetting yet uplifting. Heartbreaking yet joyous. An incredible book.
- Hiroshima – A blow-by-blow, by the hour, take of seven survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Spellbinding and harrowing.
- The Swerve: How the World Became Modern – An ode to Epicureanism and the history of how a forgotten philosophy was rediscovered on accident, and proceeded to change the world.
- In Cold Blood – The first of its kind, a non-fictional narrative of a murder based on the killer’s perspective.
- Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Often called the greatest survival story ever told, Shackleton’s expedition to the south pole in 1914 got caught in ice, stranding the team nearly a thousand miles from the closest human. The book is about how they survived.
- The Second Sex – A bit outdated now, but this book was earth-shattering at the time. De Beauvoir deconstructs gender and spawns the modern feminist movement.
- Notes of a Native Son – A classic of the 20th century African-American experience. Baldwin is a masterful writer.
- A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – A hilarious collection of observations more than essays, Wallace’s brain is one of the strangest and most brilliant experiences you’ll ever have.
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The Best Nonfiction Books by Category
- The 14 Best Biographies and Memoirs
- The 11 Best Self-Help Books
- The 9 Best Books on Psychology
- The 13 Best Books on Philosophy
- The 11 Best Books on Politics
- The 5 Best Books on Relationships
- The 11 Best Books on Science
- The 12 Best Books on Economics
- The 8 Best Books on Travel
- The 11 Best Books on Money
- The 7 Best Books on Writing
- The 6 Best Books on Creativity
- The 15 Best Books on Business
- The 12 Best Books on History