5 nonfiction books to add to your TBR
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
I used to think I didn’t like nonfiction. It turns out that I just wasn’t reading the right nonfiction for me. In general, I’m not a huge fan of self-help books (except for The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi and a few select others) because I often find them loaded with insubstantial fluff. Much like my taste in fiction, I prefer nonfiction that has compelling characters, excellent writing, and a story I can get invested in. I like to learn something from my reading, but not be hit over the head with it.
If you’ve also been wary of nonfiction because it seemed to fall into the two extremes of either dry or fluffy, this list is for you. It is not exhaustive by any means, but it offers a variety of topic areas and nonfiction genres. I hope you’ll find something that draws you in.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021)
I’m sure you’ve heard this brilliant memoir recommended all over the internet since it was published earlier this year. If you haven’t picked it up yet, let this be the sign from the universe (or from your friendly neighborhood book pusher) to pick it up immediately. It’s beautifully written, heartbreaking, and hopeful. Zauner’s story is specific to her, and yet the emotional arc she shares feels universal as she invites the reader into her life.
Crying in H Mart follows Zauner’s story as she loses her mother to cancer, which isn’t a spoiler since the first line is as follows: “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” As the narrative unfolds, however, Zauner reckons with her upbringing, her complicated relationship with her Korean roots, and her journey as a musical artist as the frontwoman of the band Japanese Breakfast.
If you enjoy reading beautifully written memoirs that offer an intimate view into family ties and the importance of culture and heritage, this may be the perfect next read for you. Plus, for those (like me) who love food writing, this book will make you want to browse the aisles of your closest H Mart and learn to make kimchi in your apartment kitchen.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (2020)
I love nonfiction books that teach me something without feeling like a textbook, which is exactly what Gottlieb does in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. At the opening of the book, Gotlieb says that she wants to show the reader how and why people change in the context of therapy, both from her experiences as a therapist and as a patient of a therapist. And that is exactly what she does.
The book alternates between the stories of four patients with unique concerns:
A self-absorbed TV producer who constantly blames others for anything that goes wrong
A newlywed who is dealing with a terminal illness
An elderly woman who has decided she’d like to end her life if she can’t find a compelling reason to live by her birthday
A 20-something struggling with a string of damaging relationships and alcoholism
In addition to the stories of her patients, Gottlieb weaves in her own mental health story as she reels from an unexpected breakup and seeks out professional therapy. Though she knows the ins and outs of therapy from the practitioner's perspective, it becomes clear that it’s much messier to change personally than it is to aid someone else’s change.
If you enjoy books that show you something new about the human experience, as well as provide insight into how you might change, this may be your next great read.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)
Before I read this book, I don’t think I fully understood the intricacies of how unjust our current justice system is. Yes, I believed there were serious problems, but I couldn’t necessarily pinpoint them. This book is the perfect introduction for those who care about true justice but aren’t sure what that looks like.
While you may be familiar with the movie based on Stevenson’s work, the book offers far more depth and nuance than a film could portray. The movie necessarily focuses on the story in Just Mercy—Stevenson’s early days as a lawyer, the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his defense of Walter McMillian—but the book offers far more insight into the specific ways the justice system is broken. While the book follows a handful of real stories of Black and Brown people mistreated by the system, it’s undergirded by statistics, a firm grasp of legal code, and historical insight.
If you’re interested in learning more about what pursuing justice looks like in our modern world, this book would be a great fit for you. I encourage everyone to read this book.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl (2005)
While her most recent memoir, Save Me The Plums, made all manner of “Best of” lists in 2020, I loved Reichl’s earlier book focused on her time as a restaurant critic just as much. Food writing is some of my favorite in the nonfiction genre, and no one does it like Reichl. I will read anything she writes because every one of her memoirs has landed on my personal favorites list.
As the subtitle implies, Garlic and Sapphires takes place during the years Reichl served as the food critic for the New York Times, but it also tells a story of a person learning who they are, gaining confidence, and finding a balance between their professional and personal lives. This memoir is at times laugh-out-loud funny as Reichl describes the various disguises she employed when visiting restaurants as “the critic,” but it’s also sincere as she reckons with the line between where her various personas end and where she as the real person begins, particularly when it comes to her relationship with her husband and young son.
If you enjoy a deep dive into the food scene and love writing that makes you salivate, this is the book for you. I have a feeling that if you like this one, you’ll love her other books too.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (2013)
I don’t typically re-read nonfiction much, but I’ve read this lovely book of essays four times now. The collection ranges from Patchett’s personal story and relationships (particularly with her now-husband and dog, Rose), to her professional roles, to the writing life, to the founding of Parnassus Books. If you’re an audiobook listener, I highly recommend this one on audio as it’s narrated by Patchett herself. There’s something magical about hearing an author read their personal essays aloud.
Since this is an essay collection, I’ll share a few of my favorite pieces it contains:
“The Getaway Car” is one of the best essays on the writing life around, weaving Patchett’s writing journey alongside practical advice for writers.
“This Dog’s Life” is a must-read for anyone who has ever loved a dog, particularly those of us who have always wanted a dog. (Follow it up with “Dog Without End” if you want to bawl your eyes out. You’ve been warned.)
“The Love Between The Two Women is Not Normal” is an intimate look at deep friendships and what it means to love your friend through difficult circumstances.
“The Mercies” is a beautiful story of what it means to live your faith (as evidenced through the nuns) and what it means to walk away from that faith, while still recognizing its worth.
I could go on for quite some time about this book (I mean, I have read it four times!), but I hope you’ll give it a chance. If you enjoy personal essays, you can’t do much better than this collection.
Do you have a favorite nonfiction book? What types of nonfiction do you like best?