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40+ Best Nonfiction Books of All Time to Add to Your Must-Read List

Looking to read something enlightening, educational, and utterly compelling? These beloved nonfiction books will do the trick!

Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.

Grid of four books: The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me, Astrophysics For People in a Hurry, and The Shallowsvia amazon.com (4)

When reality is more interesting than fiction

It’s easy to get lost in a good book, especially if you’re reading one of the best new fiction books, a sizzling romance novel, or some seriously good historical fiction. But the best nonfiction books can equally capture your attention and draw you into their worlds. These works can take many forms and focus on anything and everything—from true crime, science, history, and travel to gender, race, politics, and economics, to name just a few. They may offer a comprehensive view of a topic, provide essential tips and tricks that make your life easier, or even change the way you look at the world. But they all have one thing in common: Their authors bring the subjects to life and make them incredibly compelling.

Here, you’ll find the best nonfiction books of all time—the ones that will really make you think. Most of these titles were culled from the annals of Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle, the National Book Foundation, and influential best-seller lists, but some are classics that have a lasting legacy. Some are important works that help us understand humanity. Others blow us away with their beautiful storytelling. And some are just plain good reads. FYI, this list focuses on general nonfiction, so here are the best memoirs and autobiographies, if you’re interested. Running short on time? Crack open one of these short nonfiction books you can read in a day.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boovia amazon.com

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

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What does it mean to strive for a better life when everything is against you? How do we maintain our humanity in the face of poverty and longing? Boo delves into the lives of the families who live in the Annawadi slum, squatting on forgotten land owned by the Sahar International Airport in Mumbai and striving to make their lives better. As India transforms and modernizes, those who’ve resided in the traditionally “lower” castes have a glimpse of upward mobility and what it takes to get there. This beautifully written masterpiece was a national bestseller, the winner of the National Book Award in 2012 and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and one of Time‘s Best Books of the Decade. It rightfully earns its spot on this list of the best nonfiction books—and it’s one of the books everyone should read in their lifetime.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubnervia amazon.com

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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The concept of Freakonomics looks at a variety of behavioral and social phenomena through an economic lens. This best-seller, which sold more than four million copies worldwide, spawned numerous other books and a podcast that changed the way we look at the world. The authors discuss the everyday workings of everyday things—and how you can figure it all out, if you know the right questions to ask. How do “experts” bend the facts, and why do they make up statistics? How do you catch a cheater? Why is your new car worth so much less the moment you drive it off the lot? What do online daters lie about? Do parents really matter, and what were they telling the world when they gave you your name?

With a following of readers from the New York Times, economist Levitt received a wide range of queries from both ordinary people and the likes of a Tour de France champ and the CIA. Here, with the help of Dubner’s humorous writing, he provides the answers to life’s somewhat-pressing questions. Freakonomics also made our list of the 50 books to read before you’re 50.

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomonvia amazon.com

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

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The winner of more than a dozen awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and Books for a Better Life Award, Solomon’s work draws on a decade of research interviewing more than 300 families. What he found is that when children are faced with adversity or exceptionality, their experience of being different within their families is universal. And he raises this question: Whether a child is deaf, gay, autistic, or genius, do we strive to raise our kids to be like us, or do we nurture their differences and allow them to find a community of their own?

As Solomon notes, while the apple generally doesn’t fall far from the tree, in these cases, they are “apples that have fallen elsewhere.” In family after family, Solomon found that love triumphs and that happy families who strive to accept these children are happy in many other ways. Ever wonder if you’re a toxic parent? See if you have any of these bad-parenting traits.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollanvia amazon.com

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

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Named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, Pollan’s James Beard Award-winning second book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was one of the first critically acclaimed books to look at how we eat in terms of our species’ survival—both in terms of the health of our families and of the planet—answering the question, “Where does my food come from?”

He starts with corn (delving into how it’s grown to how it’s processed and incorporated in a multitude of products, including fast food) and pastoral grass (and what it means to be organic and grass-fed), and then moves on to foraging and hunting (and the ethics of eating animals). In the end, what we get is essential reading for anyone concerned with the choices they make about what goes into their bodies.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosservia amazon.com

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

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Twenty years after its initial publication, Eric Schlosser’s engrossing exposé on the fast-food industry is as relevant as ever. A New York Times bestseller and one of Time‘s 100 Best Nonfiction Books, Fast Food Nation reveals more than what’s in that burger you’re eating. It might not come as a shock that Americans spend more money on fast food than they do on new cars, or that on any given day, one-quarter of adult Americans visit a fast-food establishment, but the industry, writes Schlosser, helped transform the American diet as well as “our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture.” It has, in short, become inescapable. Schlosser, an adept storyteller, believes people should know where their food comes from, how it’s made, and what it’s doing to their community. If this doesn’t scare you off fast food, at least skip these 12 items.

The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring by Rachel Carsonvia amazon.com

The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

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The Sea Around Us, an overnight bestseller and winner of the National Book Award winner in 1952, combines Carson’s thorough research (much of it from World War II–era submarine warfare) with her poetic prose. In wondrous detail, she describes the ocean floors and how they were mapped, how islands are born, and how tsunamis remind us of their destructive power. A decade later, Silent Spring, a forerunner for environmental activism, revealed the devastating environmental and human toll of excessive pesticide use, how pesticides contaminate and poison our planet, and how those behind the indiscriminate use of pesticides profit from it. Carson’s classic book spurred changes in legislation that affect our air, water, and planet to this day. Both books are as essential in 2021 as when they were first published.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillardvia amazon.com

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

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Dillard’s book tells of a year’s exploration in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, where Tinker Creek runs. In addition to capturing the beauty and horror of nature and the creatures that inhabit it through the seasons, it’s a “chronicle of solitude,” according to the Atlantic (though Dillard continued to live at home with her husband while she walked about the suburban woods). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, this book placed Dillard among the best nature writers, in the vein of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Her lovely writing captures the magic of being alone in nature. FYI, this isn’t a strict, factual account of her time at Tinker Creek, but instead, as she once noted, “a novelized book of nonfiction.” Pilgrim should be the first of many Dillard books to read. These beautiful nature quotes will put you in the right mindset before curling up with this excellent book.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauervia amazon.com

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer

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Krakauer’s riveting account of the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest that left five people dead is an attempt to provide insight into what went wrong—and also examines his own culpability. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and a #1 national bestseller that sold more than two million copies, it ranks “among the great adventure books of all time,” according to the Wall Street Journal. If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Reader‘s Digest version: Krakauer was sent on the expedition by Outside magazine to cover a guided ascent with seven other clients. While at the summit, a rogue storm blew in, ultimately killing three climbers from four expeditions and claiming the lives of three more within the month. This is an engrossing read, even 25 years after that fateful climb.

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The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoirvia amazon.com

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

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This seminal text chronicles the treatment of women throughout history, particularly the imbalanced gender roles. And though it was published more than 70 years ago in France, de Beauvoir’s exploration of women’s objectified status, their “otherness,” and their absolute identity only in relation to men still resonates today. While her meticulous research does point to “essential” differences between men and women, she does not uncover a rationale for female inferiority, something women still grapple with today. De Beauvoir laid the groundwork for others to tell their own stories, such as in these gripping memoirs by women.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedanvia amazon.com

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

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Published in 1963, Friedan’s book criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through homemaking and child-rearing and that their identities were limited to “happy housewife” or “mother.” More broadly, she explored the idea that these widely held beliefs made women themselves think they had no intellectual value outside the home, which ultimately served to keep them there. Friedan has been credited with sparking second-wave feminism, which focused on issues of equality and discrimination, and this book was named as one of the Library of Congress’ Books That Shaped America and one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Books of All Time.

The 50th-anniversary edition speaks to the current generation of women who still face the question of how to have it all: a successful career and a successful family. Friedan poses the simplest solution: Ask yourself, “What do I want to do?”

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Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahlvia amazon.com

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl

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A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, this impeccably researched nonfiction book shows how the epidemic of selecting for boys has skewed the natural sex ratio (of 105 boys to every 100 girls) for the entire world. What started as firsthand observation of China’s “missing” girls, led to similar observations in other countries. But the research led beyond one-child policies and orphanages overrun with girls to an even darker secret, including in the West, that involves sorting sperm and selective abortion. Hvistendahl warns that by condemning men to singlehood, we’re creating a world that will be dominated by male violence, prostitution, and sexual predation.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwellvia amazon.com

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

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Both The Tipping Point and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking are essential Gladwell. Twenty years ago, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell laid out what would today be called influencing: that singular moment when an idea becomes a trend, both in business and in human behavior. In exploring how something small can blow up, he also delved into how we can use it to affect positive change. In his second international bestseller, Blink, he turns the lens inward and looks at how we make decisions—how to block out the noise and focus on the essentials. Why are some decisions good while others not, and why are some people generally better at making them than others?

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjeevia amazon.com

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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Mukherjee, an oncologist and researcher, tells the gripping story of cancer and how it has affected human lives for thousands of years. He recounts the discoveries and victories, as well as the setbacks and adversities. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, for which the jury called it “an eloquent inquiry, at once clinical and personal.” It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and became the subject of a Ken Burns documentary on PBS. A biography in the true sense of the word—an intimate look inside the “mind” of cancer in order to understand and demystify it—Mukherjee raises the ultimate question: Is cancer’s demise in our future?

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nulandvia amazon.com

How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nuland

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The one thing we all have in common is death. Nuland, who was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, attempts to demystify the process of dying by presenting it in its biological and clinical reality so that we can deal with what frightens us the most. To illustrate, he chose six of our most common disease categories because they represent “certain universal processes that we will all experience.” If we know the truth about death, he writes, we can be prepared for it—with less fear. Winner of the National Book Award in 1994, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award, it’s a moving account of what it is to die our own unique deaths.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Sklootvia amazon.com

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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When Henrietta Lacks was dying of cervical cancer, her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. Those cells, called HeLa, are still alive 70 years later and have contributed to remarkable strides in medicine, including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and chemotherapy. But at what cost? This #1 New York Times bestseller that appeared on more than 60 best-of-the-year lists in 2010, tells the story of Lacks, the journey of her cells, and what happened when her children learned of the medical theft 20 years after her death—and the millions of dollars they were excluded from. In this important and engaging read, Skloot turns a light on medical ethics and the long history of medical experimentation on Black Americans.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coatesvia amazon.com

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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At its most basic, Between the World and Me is a letter to the author’s adolescent son. But Coates’ profound text goes beyond his own experiences about his place in the world as a Black man by eloquently weaving it with historical and current events in terms of race. How can we reckon with this history—a history that was built on the suffering of others—and find a way forward? Called “required reading” by Toni Morrison, Between the World and Me was the winner of the National Book Award in 2015, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and one of Time‘s Ten Best Nonfiction Books of the Decade. It’s also one of the essential books for understanding race relations in America.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 by Taylor Branchvia amazon.com

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 by Taylor Branch

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this is the first of three volumes by Branch. It details the early years of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his rise to greatness as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s more than a biography of King—it’s a civil rights history of the United States, starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and ending with John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Branch profiles the key players (Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, J. Edgar Hoover) and events (the Freedom Rides, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the bombing of the Birmingham Baptist church) that come together to form the basis of a movement that still carries on today. While everyone knows who MLK was, here are some other important Black Americans you probably didn’t learn about in history class.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkersonvia amazon.com

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

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Like many of the authors on this list, Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, is a talented researcher with a gift for storytelling. Her most recent book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, was an Oprah’s Book Club pick for 2020 and a #1 New York Times bestseller. For The Warmth of Other Suns—which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010 and was named on several best-of-the-year lists—Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand families to find three that represented the untold story of the decades-long migration of nearly six million Black Americans out of the South in search of a better life. She beautifully captures their cross-country trips and how they set up in their new cities, bringing with them Southern food, faith, music, and culture. Wilkerson asks: Were the people who left the South better off for having left?

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwinvia amazon.com

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

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This compilation of previously published essays from the 1940s and 1950s also landed on the Guardian‘s and Time‘s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time. The essays explore what it means to be Black in America, touching both on his life in Harlem and in Europe. Though written at the dawn of the civil rights movement, his observations are still pertinent today. Baldwin was “one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the 20th century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic,” according to the publisher of the most recent edition. Another book by Baldwin is considered one of the most controversial of all time.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Boisvia amazon.com

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

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Du Bois was a civil rights activist, sociologist, historian, and one of the founders of the NAACP. In The Souls of Black Folk, he focused on the experiences of Black Americans under the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow “color-line,” which suggested that one’s skin color dictated which part of the train they could sit in or which water fountain they could drink from. Du Bois also explored the concept of “double-consciousness,” in which he suggested that Black Americans must be aware of themselves both as to how their families and communities view them but also as how White America sees them—and how one carries on when the world looks at you with this double standard. This text is as critical today as when Du Bois wrote it in 1903.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexandervia amazon.com

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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This New York Times bestseller, which spent nearly 250 weeks on the list, was named one of the best books of the 21st century by Slate and the Chronicle of Higher Education and won the NAACP Image Award in 2011. It also helped inspire the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to the U.S. criminal justice system. The book looks at the justice system as a form of racial control that ravages communities of color—and the crises faced by these communities as a result of mass incarceration and institutional racism. As Alexander writes, it’s no longer permissible to use race as a justification for discrimination, but by using the criminal justice system to label people of color as “criminals,” it’s “perfectly legal” to discriminate against them. The 10th-anniversary edition contains an update by the author that looks at the state of criminal justice reform today.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfevia amazon.com

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

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Credited as a founder of New Journalism, Wolfe married traditional journalism—the reporting of facts—with the narrative elements typically found in novels and other fiction writing. In The Right Stuff, he recounts the USA’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, from the seven astronauts’ perspective. By focusing on the lives of the “Mercury Seven,” we glimpse not only the dangers of their mission but also the tolls that the Space Race took on families. The winner of the National Book Award in 1980 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, this book was made into a motion picture and remains one of the most compelling stories of our attempt to leave Earth. Here are more hit movies that were books first.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capotevia amazon.com

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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From the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this genre-breaking “nonfiction novel” tells the true-crime tale of the Clutter family murders in 1959 and the subsequent trial and execution of the two perpetrators. In addition to retelling the facts of the story, Capote brings to life the emotional turmoil of the residents in the small Kansas town where the murders took place and paints empathy for the men who committed them. Capote was one of the pioneers of this form of narrative, or literary nonfiction—what was called New Journalism. Originally serialized in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and was later made into a film of the same name. To Kill a Mockingbird fans will delight in knowing that Harper Lee accompanied childhood friend Capote to Kansas as his research assistant.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendtvia amazon.com

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt

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This engaging and beautifully written book tells the story of a murder in Savannah, Georgia. Or was it self-defense? Unraveling the mystery involves a rich tapestry, ripe with eccentric characters. There’s the genteel new-money antique dealer and the redneck boy toy at the center of the tale, the potty-mouthed transgender performer, a voodoo priestess, the society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club, and a bulldog named Uga. Steeped in tradition, with gorgeously painted scenic beauty making Savannah its own character, Midnight was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that was later made into a motion picture. Don’t miss these other true crime books you won’t be able to put down.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roachvia amazon.com

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

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This often-hilarious tale of what happens in the “life” of a human cadaver is a compelling read. Roach’s storytelling leads us through the centuries and how cadavers have been a part of not only major medical advancements (such as heart transplants) but scientific discoveries as well (via a trip aboard the Space Shuttle). Cadavers have been used as crash-test dummies, and they’ve helped answer the mysteries of plane crashes. Roach, a science and humor writer, moves beyond the “ew” and makes this curious New York Times bestseller well worth the read. If you enjoy humor writing, give some of these funniest books of all time a whirl.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carrvia amazon.com

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

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The Shallows asks the question: As we embrace the Internet, what do we sacrifice intellectually? Carr provides compelling research that shows how the Internet is rewiring our brains, affecting how we communicate, socialize, and remember. We think we’re in control…but are we? “We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads,” he writes. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and a New York Times bestseller, this 10th-anniversary updated edition includes a new afterword that examines the effects of social media and smartphones on our cognitive and behavioral health.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodesvia amazon.com

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

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This sweeping literary account of the atomic bomb—from the discovery of nuclear fission, through the conception of the weapon with the Manhattan Project, to the devastating horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—won the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Though written like a suspense novel, this mesmerizing history of nuclear weapons still resonates, 35 years after it was first published. Next, learn about the man who survived both atomic blasts—and lived to be 93.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkingvia amazon.com

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

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Hawking’s prose is accessible and gripping, and it reads as if you’re talking to your favorite physics professor. He asks (and answers) questions like: “Where did the universe come from? Did it have a beginning, and if so, what came before?” and “What is the nature of time, and will it ever come to an end?” It was a #1 New York Times bestseller and a presence on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for 237 weeks. In the most recent edition, published in 2017 (the year before his death), Hawkings was able to update topics that “underpin some of [his] proudest accomplishments as a physicist.” But are there mysteries about the universe that even Hawking couldn’t answer?

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tysonvia amazon.com

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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From America’s beloved astrophysicist comes this #1 New York Times bestseller, which spent more than a year on the list and sold more than 1 million copies. Science frequently makes the headlines, but do you know what the discoveries actually mean? Can you talk about black holes, quantum mechanics, and whether life exists outside our own planet? With this title, broken down into manageable chapters that you can read and digest just about anywhere, you’ll know what those cosmic headlines mean and “be culturally conversant” in Tyson’s field—so much so that you may even want to read more. Tyson’s engaging tone is what’s made him a regular presence on late-night television who’s also gotten chummy with Sesame Street‘s lovable characters.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Brysonvia amazon.com

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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For a more humorous account of “how we got here,” there’s Bill Bryson. The prolific, best-selling author—who has written about travel and nature (A Walk in the Woods), his own life (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid), and language (The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way)—is known for his entertaining takes on every topic he tackles. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson attempts to understand the universe, starting with the Big Bang and moving through the rise of civilization (and the coinciding extinction of several animal species), by interviewing the world’s top scientists in his characteristic, charming way. How did we get from there being nothing to there being something (us), and everything in between? But more significantly, how do scientists know these answers?

Annals of the Former World by John McPheevia amazon.com

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, this compilation of four previously published works includes 20,000 new words. The conceit is simple: For one year, McPhee, accompanied by geologists, journeyed across the United States at about the 40th parallel. The result is an unparalleled geology primer of North America, plate tectonics (what it is and who figured it out), different geologic eras, the tensions between geological discovery and environmental preservation, and the geologists themselves. Written by one of our most revered and prolific writers, Annals is as sweeping a narrative as the topic it covers.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbertvia amazon.com

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

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There have been five mass extinctions on Earth in the last half-billion years that caused the diversity of life to plummet. (Looking at you, asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.) Scientists are monitoring the next great extinction—and we’re the cataclysm. Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, blends elegant writing with hard research into a compelling and entertaining read; each chapter examines an extinct species and how we learned about it, or a declining ecosystem where die-off is currently happening. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year, The Sixth Extinction makes us look at the disappearances happening right before us—and consider our lasting legacy.

All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodwardvia amazon.com

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

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The exposé on the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s role in it earned the authors a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for the Washington Post in 1973. This book, named one of Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Best Nonfiction Books, went beyond the headlines, introducing readers to the “Deep Throat” informant and other behind-the-scenes aspects of their investigative journalism. Engagingly written, the 40th-anniversary edition includes an afterword on the legacy of Watergate, which is as pressing in our current political climate as ever. Part detective story, part political thriller, this book inspired a generation of journalists.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinnvia amazon.com

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

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Zinn undertook the monumental task of rewriting the “official” history that’s been taught in schools: the history of the wars, the presidents, and the victors. Instead, he presents history from the eyes of the underdogs—the Native Americans, slaves, laborers, immigrants, and women—starting with the landing of Columbus, with updates to include President Clinton’s first term in office. A finalist for the National Book Award, it has sold nearly five million copies since its publication in 1980 and has been heralded as essential reading for every American. And if you love history, these are the best podcasts to listen to right now.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wrightvia amazon.com

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

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It’s been 20 years since the events of 9/11, and questions remain. Many books have been written in the aftermath, but Wright’s Pulitzer-winning account uncovers the five decades preceding the attack. He explains in sweeping detail the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and where our own intelligence failed to prevent the attacks. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Books of All Time, and was the basis of a television series.

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyenvia amazon.com

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Written by a Vietnamese-born, American-raised novelist, this finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award asserts that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Just in the naming difference alone—the Vietnam War (to us in the United States) and the American War (to those in Vietnam)—shows how the war will be known and remembered. It’s a compelling look at how we remember the dead and how we remember the living and what they did during the war.

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 by Saul Friedländervia amazon.com

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 by Saul Friedländer

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As a follow-up to Friedländer’s 1997 volume, The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939, this Pulitzer Prize winner follows the trajectory of Jewish persecution and relocation to its terrible conclusion. Together, the two books form “the standard historical work on Nazi Germany’s mass murder of Europe’s Jews,” according to the New York Times. In the second volume, Friedländer weaves historical accounts of the war with hundreds of witness testimonies, diaries (including Anne Frank’s), letters, and postwar trial transcripts. Friedländer, who was born in Prague but spent his boyhood in Nazi-occupied France, lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Adolf Hitler, but he also touches on those who served him, as well as the countries and leaders who resisted (and those who remained fearfully silent). This sweeping account reads like a novel, but it gets to the heart of this dark subject.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brownvia amazon.com

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

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In this heartbreaking portrayal of how the West was “won,” Brown tells the tale of those who “lost” it. He used council records and first-person accounts of the chiefs and warriors of several Native American tribes to describe the massacres and broken treaties their people endured. Published in 1971, shortly after the horrors of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam shocked the nation, Bury My Heart brought home the “dark roots of American arrogance.” Brown showed how the U.S. government lied and manipulated to take Native lands and that Native Americans are anything but the “savages” depicted in Westerns.

Called “impossible to put down” by the New York Times and named one of the 100 best books of all time by Time, it sold nearly five million copies. After a year in which we saw the Dakota Access Pipeline shut down and half of Oklahoma classified as a Native American reservation, this book is as important as ever.

RELATED: 12 Untold Stories of Native American Heroes

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shiltsvia amazon.com

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

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An international bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987, and one of Time‘s 100 best books of all time, Shilts’ story of the dawn of the AIDS epidemic is a shocking look at how the stigmatized virus was left unchecked to spread, with no safeguard for public health. It details the tragic irony that by the time America paid attention, it was already too late. In a thoroughly researched and compelling narrative, Shilts describes the discovery of the disease, patient zero, and the race to tame this looming threat. In talking about the virus, Shilts could have been speaking about the current pandemic: “There were the first glimmers of awareness that the future would always contain this strange new word. AIDS would become a part of American culture and indelibly change the course of our lives.”

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Trussvia amazon.com

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

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This New York Times bestseller is more than just a grammar book. It’s a humorous and historical proclamation that proper punctuation matters. The title stems from a joke about a panda, which eats shoots and leaves…except with a misplaced comma, as in the title, the panda’s actions can be misconstrued. And therein lies Truss’ reasoning for standing up for punctuation: Without it, there’s no reliable way of conveying meaning. Though we might not speak in commas, em dashes, and semicolons, proper punctuation tells us how to read, the way sheet music instructs a musician how to properly play a song. Earning a spot among the best nonfiction books, it’s a must-read for grammar nerds…and everyone else. While you wait for your copy to arrive, check out these little grammar rules that will make you sound smarter.

Jennifer Kushnier
Jennifer Kushnier is a nonfiction book editor, content creator, and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in books and magazines such as Men's Health, Women's Health, and Prevention, and online at CookingLight.com, FoodandWine.com, EatingWell.com, and thekitchn.com. In addition to cooking, her specialties include health & wellness, relationships, and pets.