School in a Book: Classic Nonfiction

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.

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

Of course, the lists below also feature numerous difficult-to-read works, particularly the advanced compilation. Confession: I haven’t read all of these. Instead, somewhere along the way (mostly in philosophy and history classes) I learned about the significance of the texts–the historical context, the main takeaways and the way the text changed people’s thinking. Feel free to do the same.

Here are some questions for consideration:

  • What main point does the piece make?
  • What is the historical context of the piece?
  • Who was the author (profession, social standing, age, etc.) of the piece?
  • What is the genre of the piece?
  • What does the author have to gain or lose from others accepting or rejecting his ideas?
  • What events led to the writing of the piece?
  • What events resulted from the writing of the piece?
  • How did the piece change people’s thinking?

Classic Nonfiction

  • The Holy Bible
  • The Analects, Confucius (551–479 BCE)
  • Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze (c. 6th century BCE)
  • The Art of War, Sun Tzu (late sixth century BCE)
  • Republic, Plato (c. 428–347 BCE)
  • Apology, Plato (c. 428–347 BCE)
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
  • Rights of Man, Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
  • Common Sense, Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
  • On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
  • 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)
  • 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 Declaration of Independence
  • The Constitution of the United States
  • The Bill of Rights
  • The Gettysburg Address
  • The Magna Carta
  • The “I Have a Dream” Speech, Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (1929–1945)
  • The Story of My Life, Helen Keller (1880–1968)
  • Roots, Alex Haley
  • Autobiography of Malcom X, Malcom X
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright (1908–1960)
  • Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (1920–1980)
  • Native Son, Richard Wright
  • The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom
  • A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
  • The Meaning of It All, Richard Feynman
  • The Story of Paul Bunyan
  • The Story of John Henry
  • The Story of Daniel Boone
  • The Story of George Washington and the Apple Tree
  • The Story of Paul Revere

Modern Classic Nonfiction and Other Choices

  • The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, parts one through four, Susan Wise Bauer
  • The Well-Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer
  • The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer
  • What Your Kindergartener Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • What Your First Grader Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • What Your Second Grader Needs to Know, E.D. HirscWhat Your Kindergartener Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • What Your Third Grader Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • What Your Fourth Grader Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch
  • The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
  • A good world history encyclopedia
  • A good science encyclopedia
  • Wikipedia
  • The free online video learning series by the Khan Academy
  • Alexander of Macedon, Peter Green
  • Treblinka, Jean-Francois Steiner
  • The War Magician, David Fisher
  • Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer
  • The Particle at the Edge of the Universe, Sean Carroll
  • The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene
  • Endurance, Scott Kelly
  • Genome, Matt Ridley
  • The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin
  • Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales
  • The Underachiever’s Manifesto, Ray Bennett
  • Being Mortal, Arul Gawande
  • Flourish, Martin Seligman
  • Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmivaly
  • The Inner Game of Work, W. Timothy Gallway
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell
  • Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini
  • What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis
  • The Long Tail, Chris Anderson
  • Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  • Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  • Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  • Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath
  • On Writing, Steven King
  • Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
  • The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
  • Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell
  • How Children Fail, John Holt
  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman
  • Love Sense, Sue Johnson
  • Parenting with Love and Logic, Foster Cline
  • If I Have to Tell You One More Time, Amy McCready
  • The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle
  • A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle
  • Conversations with God, Parts One through Three, Neale Donald Walsch
  • 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
  • Dying to Be Me, Anita Moorjani
  • A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken
  • Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klostermann
  • When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
  • Educated, Tara Westover
  • Go Ask Alice, Anonymous
  • A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard
  • A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout
  • Into the Wild, John Krakauer
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

Advanced Classic Nonfiction

  • Selected writings of Buddha (c. 500–300 BCE)
  • Selected writings of Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE)
  • Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
  • Rhetoric, Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
  • History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (c. 460–400 BCE)
  • The Koran
  • The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Peter and Heolise Abelard (c. 1090–1164)
  • De Republica and other writings, Cicero (106–43 BCE)
  • 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)
  • Wars of the Jews, Josephus (37–100)
  • Annals, Tacitus (c. 56–117)
  • The Early History of Rome, Livy (c. 64 BCE–17 CE)
  • 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 BCE)
  • Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (121–180)
  • The City of God, St. Augustine (354–430)
  • 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 Papers, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)
  • The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, Victor Hugo (1802–1885)
  • Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)
  • A Child’s History of England, Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
  • For Self-Examination, Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
  • Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin
  • 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

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