Posted May 20, 2013 by in Awesome Books

Great Nonfiction: A Beginner’s Guide

In a culture where we spend childhood reading The Baby-sitters Club, high school and college English classes pressing through the classic novels our teachers foist on us, and adulthood keeping current with the Gone Girls of the moment, it’s easy to see reading as a fiction-centric endeavor. Why think about great nonfiction when there’s so much great fiction? It can sometimes seem as though the world of nonfiction is limited to pop science, buzzy business books, tragic memoirs, and whatever dry old essays we encountered in academics.  Been there, done that.

Now, I love Emerson and Thoreau, and I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.  But the following list is not meant to be a remedial English class or a catch-up guide to bestselling popular nonfiction. Rather, it’s a way into all the wonderful things that great nonfiction can be, and a way for habitual fiction readers (or anyone looking for an excellent read) to venture deeper into the joys of nonfiction.  Below, you’ll find a list of five essays and five longer works of nonfiction—arranged in no particular order—each of which provides a unique window into great nonfiction’s capacity to surprise and delight.


Starting Small: Great Essays


1. “Picka Pocketoni” by David Sedaris

This essay, about the author getting mistaken for a pickpocket on the Paris metro, makes me laugh every time. It’s typical Sedaris: hilarious, insightful, and somehow cutting and compassionate at the same time. Pick up his well-known Me Talk Pretty One Day collection, start with this essay, and proceed to devour the rest of the book.

2.“A Slight Sound at Evening” by E.B. White


Okay, I’m cheating just a little: this 1954 essay from The New Yorker is about the centennial of Thoreau’s Walden. But even if you don’t care about Thoreau at all, hear White out: this quietly moving piece about why and how literature can matter is a must for booklovers everywhere. If, like me, you can’t get enough of White’s beautiful voice—and especially if you’re a sucker for animal stories—move on to “Bedfellows” next. Both are available in White’s The Points of My Compass.



3. “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn” by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem is primarily known for his excellent fiction, but his essays are just as good. This one, from TheDisappointment Artist, is about the author’s relationship with the Brooklyn subway station near where he grew up. Simultaneously a personal story, an informative account of New York transit history, and a meditation on the shifty role that place plays in all of our lives, this essay is a microcosm of everything great nonfiction can be.

4. “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard


 The atmosphere of this essay—available in Beard’s The Boys of My Youth—will stay with you forever, even after you’ve forgotten the title and author. Though it’s ostensibly about the author’s  experience caring for her elderly dog, it’d be a spoiler to say much about the essay’s events. The writing, though, is a model of slowly devastating restraint, both otherworldly and completely true to life. The essay is also available online here.




5. “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf

This one is, I admit, almost in the long-form category. But it’s well worth the extra pages. Outwardly, it’s an articulate and engaging exploration of women writers throughout history, but more importantly, it’s a look into what it takes to bewholly oneself.  An illuminating read for anyone—male or female, writer or not—who’s ever wanted to do anything deeply.


And if you’re feeling ambitious: Check out John D’Agata’s anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay. It’s a comprehensive look at the history of the form, and D’Agata’s imaginative definition of “essay” turns up some unexpected gems.



Settling In: Great Book-Length Nonfiction

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

It’s a memoir of an over-the-top family, yes. But unlike some such memoirs, every word of this one rings with relatability. Detailing her life growing up with passionate, irresponsible, wildly adventurous parents, Walls is unfailingly candid and compassionate, writing in a voice that’s simultaneously true to the little girl she was and the wiser woman she became.

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  2. 2. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the same vein as great nonfiction like The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air, Philbrick’s account of a doomed Nantucket whaling ship in 1819 is a gripping adventure story, based on little-known documents detailing the ship’s disaster. Never weighed down by its ample historical detail, Philbrick’s writing is vivid and immediate. This book is worth reading for the introductory chapters on Nantucket life alone.


3. Oranges by John McPhee

A classic of long-form journalism, this book’s subject is as straightforward as its title. But oranges, it turns out, are not so simple after all; as McPhee reports on the history, agriculture, commerce, and culture behind the familiar citrus fruit, it becomes a revealing—and often humorous—lens through which to view myriad facets of life on this planet.

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4. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

An early entry into the burgeoning graphic memoir genre, this book focuses on Bechdel’s experience growing up in herfamily’s funeral home and her complicated relationship with her father. Bechdel’s matter-of-fact tone and haunting grayscale images make for an immersive reading experience, and the abundance of literary references is a special treat for booklovers.


5. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasarimages

This was the book that made me love nonfiction, back when I was fourteen and could barely understand some parts of it. It’s not as dramatic as the Russell Crowe movie, but in its detailed rendering of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash Jr.’s life, it’s ultimately more affecting. From its inside perspective on top-tier academia to its heartfelt look atNash’s relationships with his family, Nasar’s wonderfully readable narrative is a model of biography done well.


And if you’re feeling ambitious: Get a copy of Stephen Hawking’s The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. I’m serious. It’s shockingly readable, often very funny, and endlessly illuminating. Plus, you’ll feel smarter just by owning it.

So, what did I miss? What are your favorite examples of great nonfiction? Leave a comment with your recommendations!


Image credit: das_kaninchen via Creative Commons

Great Nonfiction: A Beginner’s Guide 5.00/5 (100.00%) 2 votes

Hannah Sheldon-Dean

I'm a lifelong literary omnivore, and am delighted to be turning my obsession with books into a career. I currently write for Kirkus Reviews and Bookslut, and I also work as a freelance writer and editor for organizations and individuals of all stripes. When I'm not messing around with words, you'll find me singing, cooking, or wandering the streets of Brooklyn. Check out all my articles.