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I have to confess: I don’t read much non-fiction. I love to learn and I read plenty of news, blogs, and arcana on the internet (sometimes too much). I often pick up non-fiction books thinking they’d be great topics to learn about, but I find that I have to read those in bits and pieces; I almost never get fully immersed. When I sit down with a book, I’m ready for an escape. This doesn’t mean I need to escape into another world, or even a fictional one. It’s that total immersion in a story that I’m after.
So, if I’m going to sit down with a non-fiction book, it has to hook me with a good story. I don’t find it often, but here are a few non-fiction books that pulled me in just like a novel.
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This tale of Louis Zamperini’s trials during World War II is so harrowing, you’ll have to remind yourself that it’s not fiction—because you won’t believe that one person could survive all that he did: a plane crash, months at sea on a raft, shark encounters…and that’s just the start. This book was hard to read, but also hard to put down. It stuck with me long after I finished it and provided perspective when day-to-day concerns threatened to overwhelm. It’s worth the reread for that reason alone. More info →
Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo immersed herself in a slum of Mumbai to tell the stories of the people who live there. Annawadi sits ironically in the shadow of a billboard reading “The Beautiful Forevers” and is pressed on all sides by the growth of the city that is leaving it behind. Boo herself is not part of the story, and she doesn’t need to be. The lives, hopes, and hurts of the families are richly painted and bring home the individual struggles and systemic obstacles that stand in the way of people rising above the inequality into which they are born. For those of us in the U.S., the stories of struggling families in this faraway country feel closer to home than ever in today’s political climate and stratified economy. More info →
This memoir of a man’s relationship with his dog can be slow at times, especially when he delves into scientific explanations of wolves and dogs, but dog lovers will be captivated. The introvert in me experienced some envy at Kerasote’s solitary writing life near a small town in Wyoming, exploring the nearby wilds with his independent dog. Merle may be no more special than any well-loved dog, but perhaps it’s this quiet life that gives Kerasote the space to observe, contemplate, and articulate Merle’s identity and thoughts in a way that makes him seem human. As with most pet memoirs, keep your tissues handy. More info →
The story of Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” who as a child was separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He encounters danger, violence, disappointment, and surprising moments of humor and humanity as he flees to unknown places in search of safety and a life. This book couldn’t truly be called non-fiction—Dave Eggers himself describes it as “fictionalized autobiography” because of lapses in Deng’s memory and imagined conversations. Eggers writes in Deng’s voice to tell of the horrors faced by these children in Sudan and the difficulties they face as immigrants in the United States. More info →
In the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in her thirties who died of cancer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins University, where she was treated, took some of her unique cells without permission and used them for research. Those cells then became the basis for important medical advances, and they are still sold today for medical research—yet Lacks’s family has never received any compensation. Heavy on science, but interesting to all readers because of the human element, Rebecca Skloot follows the path of the cells, the research, and Lacks’s family, while discussing important questions of ethics and morality in science and medicine. More info →
It’s been a number of years since I read this book (and the other three that come after it), but what I remember most about this memoir is how much fun I had reading it. I recall telling another bookish friend at the time, “These books are just making me happy right now!” There is no large, dramatic story here, but James Herriot’s telling of his life as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire is warm, funny, and touching. Herriot spares himself no embarrassment but proves himself keenly observant and sensitive as he interacts with the characters—human and animal, by turns eccentric, sad, and inspiring—who pepper his stories. This was true comfort reading for me, and one I looked forward to sinking into the couch with. I will re-read at some point, ideally during a snowstorm with a hot cup of tea. More info →
I know there are others out there. What other non-fiction books that tell great stories would you recommend?