As anyone who has followed this blog for any period of time could guess, I like reading fiction. I’ve talked about my favorite novels of all time. I’ve talked about different novels I’ve been reading. But I read almost as much nonfiction as fiction and I haven’t talked much about that.
Nonfiction is a wonderful resource. It is a great way to learn, to experience new places and people that actually exist, to expand your understanding, to reflect on who you are and what the world is. More than just stories, books offer so much.
Here are my favorite nonfiction books that I would recommend to everyone.
#5 – Outliers by Malcom Gladwell
This was a book I read recently after wanting to read it for many years. I’ve been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell for quite a while, but that respect was from loving his podcasts, Revisionist History and Broken Record specifically. I’ve heard such wonderful things about his books, and believed them, but never got around to reading them. Until earlier this year when I picked up this highly praised book.
I love nonfiction, but it isn’t often that a nonfiction book is one that I cannot put down. However, that happened with this book. For at least the first part, I couldn’t stop reading it. Gladwell combined his observational brilliance with fantastic storytelling in such a wonderful, refreshing way.
I put this at number five, but ask me in a few years and it might have crept higher. I’ve only read it once, so I don’t know if I can speak to its re-readability. Also, I already knew a lot of the information in this book, or at least had a vague understanding of it. That is because this book is so good that it pervaded culture and the arguments became common knowledge. Like the whole 10,000 hours to make a master thing. Everyone has heard that, but when this book came out it was brand new.
Either way, this is a phenomenal book and everyone should read it.
#4 – The Remarkable Ordinary by Frederick Buechner
This book, as the subheading indicates, is all about how to stop, look, and listen to life. If you feel like life moves too fast that you miss most of it, this is the book for you. If you don’t have that feeling, this is the book for you because chances are it is happening whether you realize it or not. Buechner writes about the beauty and artistry in the everyday world. He writes about how to experience that beauty in ways you never even thought about.
Frederick Buechner is a relatively new addition to my life. I first started reading him last year (ironically, I started with this book) and have since read five or six books from him. The guy is a master. He is a master wordsmith, crafting sentences and paragraphs so beautiful I am left stunned. It is worth reading Buechner simply because of how marvelous of a writer he is.
But if you’re going to read Buechner, as you should, I think you should start with this book.
#3 – The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsons
This is the book for those of us who love history, but also love a good story. Larsons is able to blend the two, telling a gripping, fascinating story that just so happens to be true. A fascinating look at the horrible monster, Dr. H.H. Holmes, a prolific serial killer who built a true house of horrors where he killed his victims. As if that isn’t an interesting enough story, Larsons sets this against the backdrop of the Chicago World Fair. Either of these stories could have been their own book, but combining them was a stroke of genius. The bleakness of Holme’s hotel mixed with the, on the surface, purity of the White City was a necessary contrast that added levels to this book.
I do think this is a polarizing book. I have seen some people who really hate it and others who really love it. I don’t see that many people in the middle. I think Larsons has a distinct writing style that doesn’t sit well with everyone. But I found this book gripping and fascinating. I can’t wait to read it again.
#2 – On Writing by Stephen King
This should not be a surprise to anyone. I love Stephen King and I love writing. Obviously, I am going to appreciate this book. There are things I disagree with, pieces of advice that don’t work for me as a writer, and things I would suggest beginner writers try differently (just count how many adverbs I have in this post), but I don’t think any of that goes against the spirit of this book. The first thing you must learn as an aspiring writer is what advice to take. The fact is there is no one way to write a good book. What works for King might not work for you. And that is fine. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Which makes writing a book like this an immediate challenge.
Still, it couldn’t hurt to hear from one of the most successful writers of all time, right?
Quite a few people don’t like Stephen King, but this is widely considered one of the best books about writing in modern times. It is practical, but also stays far enough out of the weeds to allow you to glean what works for you and leave what doesn’t. A subject that is near impossible to write about and King does it like a true master of the craft. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in learning what it means to write.
#1 – A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
I absolutely love C.S. Lewis; he is my favorite writer of all time. I am more drawn to his nonfiction work, but I, of course, also appreciate his fiction. The Space Trilogy was a really fascinating read and everyone should love the Chronicles of Narnia. But I think A Grief Observed is an indispensable and often overlooked book by Lewis.
Originally published under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, this book is compiled from a collection of journals that Lewis kept after the death of his wife, Joy. In them he expounds on his grief and his battles with his faith and his ideas. It is a writer, one of the better philosophical writers of his generation, struggling. It is Lewis at his most vulnerable, most hurt, and most relateable.
The first time I read this book, I didn’t get it. I thought it had brilliant quotes and insights, but it didn’t mean much to me. But when I was going through a hard time, I re-read it and oh boy did it hit me. His examination of his faith in the midst of his pain was earth shaking. He helped me come to terms with quite a bit.
As the article “a” in the title suggests, this is one take on grief. This was Lewis observing a particular pain in his life. It is by no means the only way to examine or think about grief, but it is absurdly helpful.
I recommend every single book by C.S. Lewis, but this is my favorite of the lot.