Comprehensive Reading List: Nonfiction (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

When I was in school, nonfiction was textbooks. And the encyclopedia and the dictionary, too. What nobody told me is that there’s another kind of nonfiction out there. There’s the kind that’s actually fun to read.

Modern nonfiction is some of the most entertaining, well-written stuff you can find. (After all, if you want to make money writing about neuroscience, for example, you’d better make it relevant, understandable, and full of fascinating anecdotes, right?) It’s stimulating and informative, but that’s not all it is: it’s a road map for becoming a better person. Nonfiction can widen your perspective, give you wisdom, make you stronger . . . maybe even make you a happier person. Nonfiction helps us come up with new goals and ideas about what our lives can encompass–then takes our hands and helps us draw the circles.

With this in mind, here is my carefully curated list of what are, in my humble opinion, the best, most inspiring works of nonfiction in existence. To make the list, books must be:

  • Engaging;
  • Perspective-altering; and
  • Uniquely informative.

Though this list may seem overwhelmingly long, my promise to you is that I haven’t put anything on it that doesn’t truly deserve to be here. With some exceptions, these books aren’t stuffed with humdrum filler; they’re solid. And the exceptions are exceptions for a reason.

Also, they’re books I’ve actually read. Which is why this list is definitely a work in progress; I’m always reading awesome new stuff, and I’ll update this page regularly and tell you about it. (The permalink for this post is on my homepage.)

Note that the best of the best are marked with asterisks.

It’s such a great time to be a reader, isn’t it?

Comprehensive Reading List: Nonfiction

Essential Classic History and Philosophy Texts

The Holy Bible
The Koran
The Analects, Confucius (551–479 BC)
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze (c. 6th century BC)
The Art of War, Sun Tzu (late sixth century BC)
Selected writings of Plato (c. 428–347 BC)
Rhetoric,
Aristotle (384–322 BC)
De Republica
and other writings, Cicero (106–43 BC)
Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch (c. 46–120)
Enchiridion, Epictetus (c. 55–135)
The Confessions, Saint Augustine (354–430)
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (c. 480–524)
Selected writings of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380–1471)
In Praise of Folly, Erasmus (1466–1536)
Novum Organum, Frances Bacon (1561–1626)
The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes (1596–1650)
Discourse on Method, Rene Descartes (1596–1650)
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (1632–1704)
The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke (1632–1704)
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
Rights of Man, Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
Common Sense, Thomas Paine (1737–1809)*
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797)
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859)*
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)*
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896)*
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897)*
Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)*
Other works by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)*
The Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963)
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)*
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
The Constitution of the United States
The Gettysburg Address
The Magna Carta
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (1929-1945)*
Go Ask Alice, Anonymous*
The Story of My Life, Helen Keller (1880–1968)*
Roots,
Alex Haley*
In Cold Blood,
Truman Capote*
Autobiography of Malcom X,
Malcom X*
Mythology, Edith Hamilton*
Black Boy, Richard Wright (1908–1960)*
Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (1920–1980)*

Optional Advanced Classic History and Philosophy Texts

Selected writings of Buddha (c. 500–300 BC)
Selected writings of Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC)
Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Wars of the Jews, Josephus (37–100)
Annals, Tacitus (c. 56–117)
The Early History of Rome, Livy (c. 64 BC–AD 17)
The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius (c. 69–after 122)
The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian (c. 89–after 160)
On the Nature of Things, Lucretius (c. 99–55 BC)
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (121–180)
The City of God, St. Augustine (354–430)
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380–1471)
The Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus (1466–1536)
Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther (1483–1546)
The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther (1483–1546)
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin (1509–1564)
Selected writings of John Knox (c. 1513–1572)
The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)*
Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross (1542–1591)
The Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703)
Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather (1663–1728)
An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
The Way to Wealth, Ben Franklin (1706-1790)
The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
The Journal of John Woolman, John Woolman (1720–1772)
The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1723–1790)
A Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
On American Taxation, Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Life of Johnson, James Boswell (1740–1795)
Memoir, Correspondence and Misc., Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)
The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, Victor Hugo (1802–1885)
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)*
A Child’s History of England, Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
For Self-Examination, Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (1818–1883)
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams (1838–1918)
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Frederich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Beyond Good and Evil, Frederich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
An Autobiography, Annie Besant (1847–1933)
Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
The Ego and the Id, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler
Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale
The Ecclesiastical History, Adam Bede
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

Other Recommended History, Geography and Philosophy Books

The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Susan Wise Bauer*
A good world history encyclopedia (either aimed at children or adults)*
A good geography encyclopedia*
Travel guides as needed/desired*
Diary of Anne Frank,
Anne Frank*
Roots,
Alex Haley*
In Cold Blood,
Truman Capote*
Autobiography of Malcom X,
Malcom X*
The Power of One,
Bryce Courtenay
Citizen Soldiers,
Stephen E. Ambrose
Alexander of Macedon,
Peter Green
The Devil’s Triangle, Richard Winer
Treblinka, Jean-Francois Steiner
The War Magician, David Fisher
Is Paris Burning?, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
An American Life, Ronald Reagan
Plain Speaking, Merle Miller
Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen
Twelve Great Philosophers, Wayne Pomerleau
Mythology, Edith Hamilton*
Aku-Aku, Thor Heyerdahl
1776, David McCullough
The Bridge at Chappaquiddick, Jack Olsen
The Night of the Grizzlies, Jack Olsen
Enola Gay, Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux
The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
Don’t Know Much About History, Kenneth Davis*
Bomb, Steve Sheinkin
Cyberpunk, Katie Hafner
How the Web Was Won, Paul Andrews
The Hundred Year Diet, Susan Yager
Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer
Citizen Soldiers, Stephen E. Ambrose
Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bower*
Black Boy, Richard Wright (1908–1960)*
Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (1920–1980)*
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

Best Science Books

A good science encyclopedia for children*
A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking*
The Particle at the Edge of the Universe, Sean Carroll*
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman*
The Meaning of It All, Richard Feynman*
The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene*
Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
Zoobiquity, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz
Bonk, Mary Roach
Spook, Mary Roach
Endurance,
Scott Kelly
Being Mortal,
Arul Gawande*
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
Genome,
Matt Ridley
Gulp!, Mary Roach
Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe,
Robert Lanza and Bob Berman*
Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable–and Couldn’t, Steve Volk

Best Politics and Economics Books

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Capitalism and other books by Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand
Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen
Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert T. Kiyosaki*
The Four-Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferriss
God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley

Best Psychology and Sociology Books

The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman*
The Plug-In Drug, Marie Winn
Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher
The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Summers
Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm
The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg*
Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath*
Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath*
How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer
Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath
What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, Malcom Gladwell
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcom Gladwell
Other books by Malcom Gladwell
The Feeling Good Handbook, Kenneth Burns*
The Consuming Instinct, Gad Saad
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, Dan Ariely
Irrationally Yours, Dan Ariely
Dressing Your Truth: Discover Your Type of Beauty, Carol Tuttle*
Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman
Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman
Flourish, Martin Seligman*
Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmivaly*
The Science of Happiness, Stefan Klein
The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky
Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, Daniel Nettle
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard
Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener & Robert Biswas-Diener
Happiness, Ed Diener
The Happiness Equation, Neil Pasricha*
Engineering Happiness, Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin*
The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor
What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo
The Inner Game of Work, W. Timothy Gallway*
The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell*
The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook
The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel
The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantarn
Daring Greatly and other books by Brené Brown, Brené Brown
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon*
Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, Candace Pert*
Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d, Candace Pert
A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming, Dylan Tuccillo, Jared Zeizel and Thomas Peisel

Best Diet and Health Books

The Diet Alternative, Diane Hampton
French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
Food Rules, Michael Pollan
Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes
Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, Gary Taubes
Neanderthin, Ray Audette
Overcoming Emotional Eating and other books by Geneen Roth, Geneen Roth
Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
How to Make Almost Any Diet Work, Anne Katherine
Fasting and Eating for Health, Joel Fuhrman
How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds, Dana Carpender
The Diet Cure, Julia Ross

Best Writing Books

The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
Spunk & Bite, Arthur Plotnik
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, Luke Sullivan
A Whack On the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech
Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell
On Writing, Steven King
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maas
How Fiction Works, James Wood
Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole
Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster
Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Hyon
Your Life Is A Book, Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann
Hooked, Leslie Edgerton
Good Prose, Tracy Kidder
Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow
The Memoir Project, Marion Roach Smith

Best Education Books

The Well-Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer*
The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer*
How Children Fail, John Holt*
How Children Learn, John Holt
Learning All the Time, John Holt
Instead of Education, John Holt
The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin*
Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn*
The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn
No Contest, Alfie Kohn
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Books Children Love, Elizabeth L. Wilson
Study Is Hard Work, William H. Armstrong
In Their Own Way, Thomas Armstrong
Seven Kinds of Smart, Thomas Armstrong*
Unschooling Rules, Clark Aldrich
Un-Jobbing, Michael Fogler
The Unschooling Handbook, Mary Griffith
The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould

Best Marketing Books

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini*
Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi*
What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis*
Viral Loop, Adam L. Peneberg
The Whuffie Factor, Tara Hunt
The Long Tail, Chris Anderson*
Trust Agents, Chris Brogan*
Get Slightly Famous, Steven Von Yoder
Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsich
Whacha Gonna Do With That Duck?, Seth Godin
Linchpin, Seth Godin
Other books by Seth Godin
Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell
Grapevine, Dave Balter and John Butman

Best Relationships Books

His Needs, Her Needs, Willard F. Harley, Jr.*
Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice, John Gray*
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and other books by John Gottman, John Gottman*
Love Is Never Enough, Aaron Beck*
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunti Feldhahn
The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, Dr. Laura Schlessinger
For Better, Tara Parker-Pope
A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle*
I Need Your Love – Is That True?: How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them, Byron Katie and Michael Katz*

Best Parenting Books

Between Parents and Child, Haim G. Ginott
Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, Adele Faber
Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber
Parenting with Dignity, Mac Bledsoe
Parenting with Love and Logic, Foster Cline
The Child Whisperer, Carol Tuttle
If I Have to Tell You One More Time, Amy McCready
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv
The Case for Make-Believe, Susan Linn
Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn
Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn
Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Mordechai
Attachment Parenting, Katie Allison Granju
The Baby Book, Barry Sears
The Discipline Book, Barry Sears
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Bryan Douglas Caplan
Home Grown,
Ben Hewitt
Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Oh, Crap! Potty Training, Jamie Glowaki

Best Memoirs

The Story of My Life, Helen KellerA Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard
A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout
Into the Wild, John Krakauer
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso
Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday Martin
Jay J. Armes, Investigator, Jay J. Armes and Fredrick Nolan
Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klostermann
Klostermann II, Chuck Klostermann
Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman
Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman
Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gill
Found, Jennifer Lauck
It Was Me All Along, Andie Mitchell
Let’s Take the Long Way Home,
Bossypants, Tina Fey
Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
Sex Object, Jessica Valenti
They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson
In Memory of Bread,
Ordinary Light,
Passage, Connie Willis
Glitter and Glue, Kelly Corrigan
The Middle Place, Kelly Corrigan
Lift, Kelly Corrigan
Dying, Cory Taylor
The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy
Hunger, Roxane Gay
What Comes Next and How to Like It, Abigail Thomas
The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey
The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch
My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, Amy Silverstein
Flat Broke With Two Goats, Jennifer McGaha
Fifty Acres and a Poodle, Jeanne Marie Laskas
Fifty Years in Polygamy, Kristyn Decker
Why I Left the Amish, Saloma Miller Furlong
Cult Child, Vennie Kocsis
Favorite Wife, Susan Schmidt
“It’s Not About the Sex” My Ass, Joanne Hanks and Steve Cuno
Banished,
Growing Up Amish, Ira Wagler
Educated, Tara Westover
Cult Insanity,
Go Ask Alice, Anonymous
Straight Pepper Diet, Joseph W. Naus
Coming Clean
Fall to Pieces,
Mary Forsberg Weiland
Girl Walks Out of A Bar, Lisa Smith
Manic, Terri Cheney
Madness, Marya Hornbacher
Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, Chelsea Handler
My Horizontal Life, Chelsea Handler
Official Book Club Selection, Kathy Griffin
I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster
MWF Seeking BFF, Rachel Bersche
Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me, Rachel Bersche
A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate Bornstein
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, Kristin Newman
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Lev Golinkin
Eating Ice Cream With My Dog, Frances Kuffel
A Year of No Sugar, Eve O. Schaub
It Was Food vs. Me-And I Won, Nancy Goodman
Massive, Julia Bell
The Taming of the Chew, Denise Lamothe
Hungry, Allen Zadoff
The Good Eater, Ron Saxen
The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, Wendy Shanker
Locked Up for Eating Too Much, Debbie Danowski
Full, Kimber Simpkins
Learning to Eat Along the Way, Margaret Bendet
Dying to Be Me, Anita Moorjani
Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda
The Search For Grace: A Documented Case of Murder and Reincarnation, Bruce Goldberg
Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace, and More, Joe Vitale
Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives, Brian Weiss
Ten Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, Dan Harris
A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence

Best How-To and Miscellaneous Books

Drawing with Children, Mona Brookes
The Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer and Marior Rombauer Becker
The Story of the Incredible Orchestra, Bruce Koscielniak
The Nourishing Homestead, Ben Hewitt
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle
Who Would You Be Without Your Story?: Dialogues with Byron Katie, Byron Katie
A Mind at Home With Itself, Byron Katie
A Thousand Names for Joy, Byron Katie
Conversations with God, Parts One through Three, Neale Donald Walsch
Whatever Arises, Love That, Matt Kahn
The Shack, William Young

*You can also review my Best Spirituality Books list here.

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