Top Ten Nonfiction Books That Will Change Your Life

These ten books, I can say with confidence, have changed my life in some way, and they will probably change your life too. Or, maybe not, because I’m me and you aren’t. But I’m fairly certain that these books will make you think about nonfiction, or English boarding schools, or minimum wage jobs, or Teddy Roosevelt, in a completely new way.

1.) The River of Doubt, Candice Millard

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If there is any doubt in your mind that Teddy Roosevelt was a badass, read this book. If there is no doubt whatsoever in your mind that Teddy Roosevelt is a badass, read this book to confirm that you are correct. Millard takes the reader through the Amazon with the ex-President and his team of explorers while giving insight into his iron-willed history.


2.) Boy, Roald Dahl

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Roald Dahl is known for his children’s fiction and eerie adult short fiction. However, my obsession with the writer led me to his work of nonfiction, Boy, which details the sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrific stories of his time at boarding school as a child. His stark, simple writing style leaves the reader wondering of he is simply making it all up; unfortunately, he isn’t.


3.) Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

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I read this book as a precursor to my eleventh-grade AP English class, and I think it was the catalyst I needed to start thinking like an adult. While somewhat dated (it was published in 1985), it puts into words everything we’ve ever thought about mass media culture. Mr. Postman made me think about news anchors and politicians as professionals in cosmetics and performance, and introduced the idea that literally everything  we see is some form of propaganda.

4.) 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Cathy N. Davidson

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If you are ever looking for a book to tell you what it’s like to love a culture that is not your own, this is the book. Cathy Davidson spent months in Japan, and analyzes how it really feels to be an outsider in a strongly pervasive and exclusive culture. She frankly describes her struggles to fit in, to act the right way, to learn the language. She has a charismatic voice and an honest writing style that makes me want (even more) to travel.

5.) Hawthorne on Painting, compiled by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne

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I am a painter, so I am a bit predisposed to love a book like this. I do believe, though, that the simplistic, juicy, informative writing in this little book is worth the read for anyone that enjoys art. Hawthorne goes through his own process the way a professor would speak to a favorite student. His descriptions of composition, painterliness, and light are as beautiful as Shakespeare describing his dark-eyed lover. To me, at least.

6.) Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

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This one is for anyone that ever dreamed of climbing Mount Everest as a kid. Interspersed with the history of people that had endeavored to climb Mount Everest in the past, Mr. Krakauer tells a personal account of his climb to the summit. This chilling story is not for the weak of heart, or stomach. (Pun intended.)

7.) Nickel and DimedBarbara Ehrenreich

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I have never been interested by reading about politics, economics, or the like. In Nickel and Dimed, Ms. Ehrenreich talks about the logistics of working-class, minimum wage jobs in a personal way that completely changed my mind about the subject. As an undercover journalist, Ms. Ehrenreich works multiple minimum wage jobs from 1998 to 2000 in an effort to understand the struggles of the people we take for granted. Besides talking in an informative and honest way about the relationship between unfairly low wages and inflated housing and food costs, she also discusses the difficulty of working as a maid or a waitress. She has a degree in cell biology, she says, but the jobs she worked required much more of her: stamina, focus, quick learning, and the ability to work through pain. The summary of the book does not sound like a thriller, but I could not put this down.

8.) The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan

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These essays are called the best for a reason. This book opened up the world of short creative nonfiction to me. The essay is a beautifully diverse format. This book was filled with authors that I knew and loved and people I’d never heard of, but promptly became obsessed with. Like I said, the word “best” is in the title. Joyce Carol Oates wasn’t kidding.

9.) A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah

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I’m still not sure if this book is too sad to enjoy, or just sad enough where I want to read it again. Mr. Beah gives a first-person account of his life before, during, and after being a child soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone. It’s heartbreaking, but it also tells exactly how these children are manipulated into service, and how difficult it is for them to leave their life of violence. Simply written, but haunting and beautiful.

10.) A Natural History of the SensesDiane Ackerman

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This is my all-time favorite nonfiction book, hands down. Ms. Ackerman takes the reader through all five senses, giving detailed accounts of how different cultures in history treasured each sense, talking about different cultures that experience things like smell in a different way, and just giving sensual descriptions of the world around her. Every time I read this book, I find myself putting it down every few pages and taking in the smells and sights and sounds and feelings of whatever is around me. This book will change the way you experience your environment. And once you realize you’re not paying enough attention to how beautiful each sense is, it’s time to read the book again.


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