What Makes a Nonfiction Book a Favorite?

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I don’t consider myself an avid reader of nonfiction, so I’m still defining what makes it work for me. That said, I have picked up some excellent nonfiction books, and this week’s Nonfiction November topic on what makes a nonfiction book a favorite has brought me back to those books.

Here’s the prompt for this week (hosted by Doing Dewey):

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

While the topic can affect my willingness to pick up a book, what I’m really looking for in any book I read—fiction or nonfiction—is a riveting story. I’m planning to pick up Seabiscuit soon because I now that Laura Hillenbrand can tell an incredible story, even though I have zero interest in horse racing. I probably would not have had great enough interest in HeLa cells if it hadn’t been for my curiosity about the backstory of Henrietta Lacks.

Books that tell a personal story and describe, recreate, or reimagine specific events and conversations are those that I can stick with. In short: narrative nonfiction. Some of my favorites: Unbroken, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Merle’s Door.

Broad overviews written like a history book will not hold my attention. I tried and tried to stick with The Swerve (it won the Pulitzer! And the National Book Award! Ann Patchett loves it!) and I just can’t. The story wasn’t there for me. It was a rare DNF.

As far as whether I go for humor or a serious tone, that usually depends on the medium. If I’m listening to a book, I prefer something light and humorous. David Sedaris is my go-to, and I loved Lauren Graham’s memoir.

If I’m reading a printed book, it tends to be more serious. This month, I read Hunger, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and Between the World and Me—all books that I consider essential reading, but not humorous or light in the least. I try to pick up books that help me understand and learn about experiences that are unfamiliar to me.

What makes a nonfiction book a favorite for you?


What Makes a Nonfiction Book a Favorite?



  1. Narrative nonfiction is my favorite. I still remember reading my first book in the genre, Lost in Shangri-La, and being blown away. There are definitely specific topics that will make me pick up a book, but like you, I’ll read on pretty much any topic if the writing is good enough 🙂

  2. I rarely read nonfiction, but I have been delving into it a little more these days. I like non-celebrity memoirs about people/situations I can relate to; having a connection to the topic makes more inclined to indulge in nonfiction. I also really like travel memoirs–even more if they are funny!

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