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Truth is stranger than fiction and, for this reason, the best nonfiction books of all time have the power to change your life.

woman with book and bookshelves.

I read a variety of nonfiction: memoirs, biography, true crime, self-help, scientific data, social issues, and more. Given such a broad range, it was difficult to compile a list of the best nonfiction books of all time.

I revised the list several times, and I ended up focusing on a small compilation of only the best of the best — the handful of books that would first stick out in my mind if anyone specifically asked me: “What are the best nonfiction books of all time?”

These are the books I never forgot. I came out of each one different than I was before reading it. I also specifically decided not to include any true crime or self-help books, as those feel like a specific subset to me. I also tried not to include any books that may feel divisive to some readers.

Below are what I deem to be the best nonfiction books of all time.

Best Nonfiction Books of All Time

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank is a book that was never meant to be a book. It’s the diary of a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland.

What’s always struck me about Anne was her “old soul” – for a teenager writing in a diary under horrible circumstances, she professed some of the most complex views of her time:

  • “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
  • “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
  • “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”
  • “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
  • “No one has ever become poor by giving.”
  • “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”

The Diary of Anne Frank has inspired generations, and it will continue to do so. If you haven’t read it, it’s a must-read, which is also on the Rory Gilmore book list. And if you have read it, it’s worth re-reading.

Educated by Tara Westover

#1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Globe bestseller

Educated was both difficult to read and impossible to put down.   It’s the memoir of a woman who grew up in the Idaho mountains with her survivalist Mormon family.  Her father ran a junkyard, and her mother worked as a midwife and natural healer. 

More notably, however, her father was fanatical about preparing to survive the apocalypse.  Westover’s family didn’t believe in doctors or hospitals, and they home-schooled the children. 

She began educating herself, and she first entered a real classroom as a college student at Brigham Young University.  She later went on to study at Harvard.  In one of the most memorable scenes in Educated, she asked what the Holocaust was during class.  

Educated is filled to the brim with shocking tales like this, from the family members’ gruesome accidents and bloody injuries to familial abuse, and I wondered how PTSD may have affected Westover’s story.  

I still think about it all the time. It’s guaranteed to make you think and leave you gasping.

Related Post: Educated Summary and Review

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

  • Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography
  • Instant New York Times bestseller 

Know My Name is one of the best books of the 21st century. It’s the exquisitely written, thought-provoking memoir of the Stanford sexual assault victim, whose victim impact statement at her assailant’s sentencing went viral.

She tells her story in-depth the likes of which I haven’t read before, and it makes you question everything you thought you knew about sexual assault. Without a doubt, Miller has made a tremendous impact in publicizing her story.

Below are some of the notes I took while reading this book. I will let them speak for themselves:

  • Confusion and naivete
  • Blaming the victim
  • Rape is not a consequence for drinking.
  • Women are expected to do things to avoid rape but men aren’t.
  • How the media frames him as an athlete and shares his narrative that he thought she enjoyed it
  • Victims are painted as liars for forgetting any details, whereas perpetrators can change the entire narrative.
  • Leniency toward white wealthy athletes
  • The default answer is assumed to be yes if you can’t say no.
  • We should focus on the losses of the victim, not the perpetrator.
  • Social change is a marathon, not a sprint.

Read Know My Name to hear Chanel Miller’s story in her own words, and to actively listen to the meaningful arguments she presents.

The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff

New York Times bestseller

The Only Plane in the Sky was one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. I want it in every American’s hands (or ears, because the audiobook is superb).

It’s a minute-by-minute account of 9/11, told entirely through the dialogue of five hundred people, from children in various parts of the United States to President George W. Bush. It was very likely the most thoroughly researched and curated book I’ve ever read.

Despite the fact that I very clearly remember 9/11 and its aftermath, I still learned an incredible about from The Only Plane in the Sky. I found myself telling others about the stories in the book and Googling for more information. Sure enough, at times, it was devastating.

The audiobook was narrated by an entire cast, and it was utterly fantastic. It also included real audio snippets from the day, like a podcast or a documentary. It was, without question, one of the best books on 9/11 and the best audiobooks of all time.  It’s also great for a road trip, based on the universality of the topic and the discussion it fosters.

It’s emotional.  It’s raw.  And it’s realEveryone should read or listen to this book. 

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

National bestseller

Reese’s Book Club pick Tiny Beautiful Things comes from the bestselling author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, and it consists of the “best of” her advice columns from The Rumpus’s “Dear Sugar” column.

There’s something so intimate about seeking and giving advice between strangers, and Strayed handles it with empathy, honesty, and a bit of humor.

There’s cheating, grief, money problems, reaching goals and so much more. Strayed’s carefully chosen words weave a tapestry of real life — the highs, the lows, and everything in between. The result is a modern poetic masterpiece.

Tiny Beautiful Things is for everyone, but it’s especially good for fans of the radio’s “Delilah” and Brene Brown. It will melt your heart.

Related Post: Best Books for Graduates

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

  • #1 New York Times bestseller
  • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

When Breath Becomes Air was the first audiobook to which I ever listened, and I never forgot its lasting impact as one of the best books on dying.

In the book, Kalanithi is a 36-year-old neurosurgeon diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer who questions the meaning of life with exquisite detail and complexity. After all, what makes life worth living, when you unexpectedly come face to face with your own mortality?

As both a patient and a medical provider, Kalanithi has a nuanced view that, as the title suggests, will take your breath away.

More Nonfiction Book Recommendations

Those are the best nonfiction books of all time. A few others worth mentioning if you have already read the above are:

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  1. The list is wonderful! I would also suggestive The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.