Love Nonfiction

Nonfiction Novice: Branching Out from Memoirs


Even though nonfiction makes up a pretty big portion of my reading, not enjoying it is a feeling I totally understand. I just started to find my niche in nonfiction over the last few years and it can be a tricky road to navigate; there’s often a fine balance between riveting and mind-numbingly boring. I’m on a mission to help the nonfiction novice! We’re going to start with the one thing I hear most often from other readers: “The only nonfiction titles I really like are memoirs.” It’s usually followed by an interest in branching out and uncertainty over where to look first. If you’re comfortable reading memoirs, it may be best to take baby steps and head toward narrative nonfiction that blends the author’s life experience with research on a specific topic. I have a few favorites to get you started.


So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan’s love for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby pushed her to write So We Read On, which examines the history of the novel and its impact on American culture.


Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

In Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Dreger shares her experiences, both high and low, learning to navigate the delicate balance between research and activism.


Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

In his incredibly powerful book, Atul Gawande uses his experience as a surgeon as a lens for examining the modern missteps of end of life care.


Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist is Roxane Gay’s collection of essays focused on the intricacies of modern feminism, told by pulling apart her own life experiences, pop culture, and politics.


Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green

Kristen Green tells the story of her hometown in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and the shocking role it played in resisting school integration in the 1950’s.


For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney

After visiting one of the group’s founding schools in Tibet, Rosemary Mahoney is determined to learn more and commits to spending three months teaching English at a Braille Without Borders’ adult school in India.


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

In chapters that range from heartbreaking and infuriating to uplifting and hopeful, Bryan Stevenson details his time working with prisoners on death row and juveniles facing endless life sentences.


Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

In Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe digs into the Jane Austen fandom from both the inside, with the the Jane Austen Society of North America, and the outside.

Which nonfiction titles have helped you branch out from memoirs?


  • Meaghan Walsh Gerard

    Nonfiction can be daunting. There is so much out there and so much of it is boring or terrible, or both. Best thing to do is find a topic you like — Civil War, chefs, Japanese art — and then find books that speak to you on that subject. Once you start peeling back the layers, you will find other side topics, historians, authors, and more.
    Some safe bets: Erik Larson (Devil in the White City, Dead Wake), Sy Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus), Mark Adams (Meet Me in Atlantis), Kathryn Harkup (A is for Arsenic).
    Happy Reading!

  • Kay

    I’ll once again add my recommendation for BEING MORTAL. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, but that book is wonderful and important. As to what I have enjoyed in the ‘non-fic’ category – well, I have very much enjoyed a few of Erik Larson’s books. Especially THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. I also discussed one of Cokie Roberts’ books about early American women – FOUNDING MOTHERS. We had a great discussion. Since that time Roberts has written several books about American women through the ages.

    • Founding Mothers has been on my list for awhile. I’m going to have to find time to read it!

    • I think Being Mortal is SO accessible, especially because it’s something that nearly all of us have had (or will have) to deal with at some point.

  • Rebecca Foster

    I think The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of All Maladies are nonfiction books anyone can get into. Both popular science/medical in theme. Anything interdisciplinary should have broad appeal, e.g. Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson, The Remedy by Thomas Goetz, Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, or Quiet by Susan Cain. Adam Gopnik, Simon Garfield and Geoff Dyer write great NF books on a wide variety of topics.

    • I really enjoyed the first part of The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks, but by about halfway through, I kind of lost interest when I felt like the book had shifted to being more about the author than Henrietta. I did finish, though. I’ve been wanting to read Quiet for awhile…..maybe this year.

    • Love the idea of multidisciplinary titles – they really do seem to capture the interest of so many different people.

  • I think my problem with non-fiction is only that I prefer fiction. There are so many non-fiction books out there that interest me and that I know I would like, but because of time restraints (that we all have), I have to pick and choose, and I will almost always choose fiction. But the good thing about lists like this is that I will always have good options to pick from when I’m ready for non-fiction. I won’t be floundering around wondering what to read or ending up choosing something boring and dry. :)

    • I totally get that! I preferred fiction for so long (especially right after finishing school…my brain was just overloaded with the info and I wanted none of it).

  • Great picks here. I think the reason some of us enjoy memoirs is that they’re often essentially narrative in structure — they’re telling someone’s story. I bet that a person who doesn’t normally go for non-memoir non-fiction would enjoy just about any good narrative non-fiction. As for folks who never read nonfiction at all (but want to try it), I think another commenter, Meaghan, had a great suggestion — find a topic you’re interested in, and read the stuff that interests you on that topic.

  • I am reading more nonfiction already this year than I did last year. This is partially because of my choice to participate in the #NFBookclub at Doing Dewey. One think I have never been able to read with success is a memoir. There are very few I have started and been able to finish! I do like biographies and autobiographies, when they are about a historically significant person. And I did like Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand a LOT. Possibly my favorite nonfiction book I ever read is Manhunt by James Swanson, maybe because I’m a bit of a Lincolnophile. (It happens when you grow up in the Land of Lincoln!)

    • Reading nonfiction with other people doesn’t really seem like it would have the same appeal as a fiction book club, but I LOVE to read nonfiction in a group. There are always good debates and issues to talk around.

  • Just Mercy is my next book club book. I’m looking forward to that one.
    I love this post – yay for non-fiction! I’m a biography whore – I’m just about finished with one about Jennie Churchill which is really so good. I like to tell people that if they can find books about interesting people, or people that had modern sensibilities that didn’t match the time, they will find some great reading experiences. I tend to always read about women: royals, duchesses, women ahead of their time.
    I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick so far this year – it started as a way to shake up my reading that was feeling quite humdrum. It’s definitely been feminist-skewed: Bad Feminist, My Life on the Road, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Drink. But also Ghettoside, In Other Words, and Tiny Beautiful Things.
    I find that if you’re interested in learning more about something, there’s a non-fiction book out there for you. Seems like in the last few years, non-fiction has come leaps and bounds – it’s so palatable, so accessible now. And if someone really doesn’t know where to start, they should just go with Erik Larson.

    • I’m SO excited you’ll be reading Just Mercy…it’s so wonderful.
      And my nonfiction is totally feminist-skewed, too. It’s a pretty good way to go ;)

  • Amanda

    I have to look up the Janeite – that sounds fun! I agree with Eva below, definitely one should start with what you want to learn about. I’d say the Dead Duke, His Missing Wife.. is so like a mystery novel it would be a fun start. Mark Bowden is always great, Killing Pablo is fascinating.

    • Janeites is REALLY fun, and I say that as a person who is pretty ambivalent about Jane Austen. I think it would appeal to big fans even more.

  • This post was made for me!! I actually started thinking back to books I’ve read in the past and discovered that I’ve actually read quite a bit of non-fiction, but one book turned me against it. I do enjoy memoirs but want to expand from just memoirs or biographies. I almost checked out Galileo’s Middle Finger the other day. I do have a hold on at the library for Missoula, so maybe I’m on the right track?

  • Christy

    The books that opened my eyes to the joys of nonfiction were Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief.

  • Lovely, lovely list. I intend to read ‘Bad Feminist’, and ‘Being Mortal’ this year. I’ve been reading such good stuff about those, I cannot wait to read.

  • Jennine G.

    Loved So We Read On, but I am slightly biased. I love everything Gatsby.

  • Aha! Among the Janeites is already on my shelves. Although I tend to forget about it. I was just talking with my mom about Being Mortal. Definitely keen to get to that one, too.

  • Kailana

    I used to read a lot of non-fiction history books but I have really neglected them… I wouldn’t say I typically read a lot of memoirs, but I think the numbers have been growing. I really need to read Bad Feminist. I own it, I started it, but 2015 was a bad reading year in the beginning and I never finished it.

  • I love this! I used to read more memoirs than I do now — I think the way I branched out was actually when I was in that phase of reading a ton about extremely fundamentalist Christianity. I read a book where the guy, a journalist, went undercover as a student at Jerry Falwell’s university, which was fascinating. And then I started reading more narrative nonfiction, and then more scholarly stuff, on that topic. Then many more! And now I read nonfiction all the damn time.

    All of which to say, I love this post. This is a great way to expand outward. You are a genius.

  • Great recommendations! I’d suggest anything narrative nonfiction – Erik Larson, Michael Zusak, Jill Leovy’s Gehttoside, Kate Brower’s The Residence, Karen Abbott, Hampton Sides… I could go on all day, haha.

  • Words for Worms

    I just finished Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy and was like “Why don’t I read more non-fiction? Oh yeah. I’m apparently bad at choosing it because I usually find it dull.” So, like, this post? I needed it. Among the Janeites sounds like my jam.