#NonfictionNovember 2017 Week 4: My Top 10 Favorite Nonfiction Reads

My Top Ten Favorite Nonfiction Reads On Novels And Nonfiction

The topic for Week 4 of Nonfiction November is Nonfiction Favorites, and the hosting blog is Doing Dewey. Instead of answering the provided questions, I decided to put together a list of my Top Ten Favorite Nonfiction Books to date.

The ten titles I selected easily fit into four overarching categories or types of nonfiction: Sweeping Histories, Atypical Memoirs, Memorable Royal Women and Medical Investigations. I reflected further on why I was drawn to each category and title below. In doing so, I realized that the elements I always look for in nonfiction are:

  1. Either a book that effectively summarizes a really long span of time, or one that focuses on a really weird and unique experience
  2. Highly personal writing in either case that always ties back the narrative to individual experience
  3. Conciseness in the writing – no droning on aimlessly
  4. To feel that I am learning something new.

Today is also the first official day of the #ThanksgivingReadathon ! If you haven’t published a Sign-Up post yet or posted your reading intentions on social media, make sure to do so today!

Sweeping Histories

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A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich by William L. Shirer

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Wild Swans by Jung Chang

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I’m a sucker for anything epochal, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Give me a family saga that spans decades and generations and I’m in. I particularly love nonfiction books that look at a long stretch of history (millenia in the case of Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything and decades for the other two titles), and are able to summarize that breadth of history effectively and informatively into an enlightening analysis.

If you want to read more about my love for The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, check out the World War II Nonfiction book list I posted last week. When it comes to the other two titles, it’s the way in which they mix the personal and specific, with the historical and expansive that really draws me in. Among the three, Wild Swans is definitely the most intimate, since it focuses on a single family through the years. It still taught me so much about China’s history and the treatment of women in its society in the period it encompasses. It reads like a novel, but you’re educating yourself at the same time.

If you haven’t read A Short History Of Nearly Everything, I would recommend it most to people who also have a love for scientific nonfiction, astronomy and anthropology. It starts from the REALLY broad – the formation of the solar system and our place on the Earth in space – and then narrows down to the minute by looking into the history of scientific thought on Earth and its most important proponents. Despite this juxtaposition between broad and specific, the book never feels simplistic or introductory. It’s really an amazing feat. I think I’m due for a re-read soon.

Atypical Memoirs

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Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige Hill

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Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

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I find myself recommending these two memoirs over and over again, because I think they are perfect gateways into nonfiction for people who typically don’t read from the genre. Why? It’s both because of their incredible topics as well as because of the very narrative style of the writing. Reading them is a bit like watching a scandalous (and informative) reality series on TV – and in fact I was at first interested in Coming Clean because of how riveting I found the TV series Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive.

Both memoirs are also obviously highly personal. They really dig deep into the emotional side of each writer’s experience and give you a highly unique window into strange aspects of human life like growing up in Scientology and surviving the deeply damaging influence of hoarder parents. Between the two, Beyond Belief is the more exciting story because of just how extreme Jenna Miscavige Hill’s experiences were within the church of Scientology.

Memorable Royal Women

Nonfiction Favorites 3 On Novels And Nonfiction

Catherine The Great by Robert K. Massie

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The Six Wives Of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

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Of course another category I read quite a bit of is royal biographies. The two books I picked for this list were both more specifically focused on the lives of infamous royal women – Catherine The Great and Henry VIII’s Wives. I think what fascinates me so much about learning of women who were in prominent aristocratic positions through history is two fold.

I love reading about their daily lives – the way they maintained their hygiene, dressed, oversaw their households and dealt with their husbands and children, as well as in some cases led their states. Also, as a woman, I am interested in the compromises they had to make during their lives to maintain power, downplay their femininity or in the case of Henry’s unlucky wives, simply try to stay alive.

In particular, I wanted to highlight Catherine The Great‘s biography in this section because I will read anything written by Robert K. Massie. He’s written mostly about Romanov history (a topic I know most nonfiction lovers are suckers for) and every one of his books on the topic is a transporting time-travel experience into snowy tsarist Russia. Catherine The Great is my favorite because the woman on which it focuses is one of the most storied female monarchs in history, and for good reason.

Medical Investigations

Nonfiction Favorites 4 On Novels And Nonfiction

Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan

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The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

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The Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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I featured the book in this category that really solidified my love for Medical NonfictionThe Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a historical look at cancer research that spans centuries but primarily focuses on recent developments starting at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of modern medicine. It’s clearly a large and unwieldy topic to cover in a single book, but Mukherjee does a masterful job of not only creating a story you can follow through individual medical breakthroughs, but tying each breakthrough to the personal stories of the scientists and patients involved. It’s completely and utterly worth reading, especially considering cancer seems to sadly be around every corner these days.

If you want something that steers a bit more on the side of the mystery than the medical, The Ghost Map successfully bridges the unusual divide of medical nonfiction and mystery. It almost has a Sherlock Holmes feel to it, as you follow a young doctor and cleric’s attempts to trace the origins of a destructive cholera outbreak in London in the mid 1800s. Steven Johnson expertly blends history, anthropology, urban planning, medicine and everday life in his narrative, and that’s no small feat.

As for Brain On Fire, it’s highly personal and felt very worryingly relatable to me. The author of the book experienced a viral infection that attacked her brain and had the very atypical effect of making her seem like she was losing her mind. Her account of the experience of no longer being able to trust what you are thinking, feeling, seeing and communicating was absolutely terrifying. The writing is engaging and intimate – she holds nothing back. Another good gateway read for those less familiar with nonfiction.

LineHave you read any of my favorite Nonfiction titles? What did you think? Are you adding any others to your TBR? Let me know in the comments!

For more TBR options, check out my other book lists on Novels And Nonfiction on World War II NonfictionScientology, True Crime, North Korea, Scientific Nonfiction, Fateful Voyages, Noble Women Through History, Memoirs Of Escape And Redemption and Medical Memoirs.

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  34 comments for “#NonfictionNovember 2017 Week 4: My Top 10 Favorite Nonfiction Reads

  1. November 22, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    Shorer’s Rise and Fall is unsurpassed. When I first read it, I could not put it down. Robert Massie is an, idol, but his newer books, edited by his 2nd wife have not been as fabulous to me. Ghost map was a surprise favorite. Superb list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 22, 2017 at 10:57 pm

      Hmmm I think Catherine The Great is his most recent book and I loved it! Not sure which of his other recent ones I’ve read or not. Glad you enjoyed the list!


  2. Juliana | Wild Places
    November 22, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    I love A Short History of Nearly Everything — it’s one I read every few years to remind myself how small I am. Bryson’s always a lot of fun. The Ghost Map is on my TBR too, and I think I’ll have to add Wild Swans, it sounds fantastic. Great list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 22, 2017 at 5:45 pm

      Glad you found some recs for your TBR! Happy Thanksgiving!


    • November 22, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      Wild Swans was one of those books that while I was reading it, I kept thinking that I couldn’t believe how well done it was. It really hits all the marks! Hope you enjoy it!


  3. November 22, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    I read The Ghost Map years ago – I really enjoyed it. I would love to read more like it.
    I’m glad you included A Short History of Nearly Everything… I’ve often wondered how he could fit everything in there and still actually say something! You read a lot of NF, so I know it must be good!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 22, 2017 at 10:46 pm

      The title of A Short History Of Nearly Everything is somewhat misleading. He really focused on the history of science as it connects to humans discovering realities about the planet, evolution, physics etc. It’s still really well done, and yes I highly recommend it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. November 22, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    I love Massie’s Catherine the Great bio (and almost everything of his) and I really liked The Ghost Map. All three of those memoirs are already on my TBR, even more motivated to get to them after seeing you recommend them so highly. Wild Swans sounds intriguing too, I know next to nothing about that topic…glad to find such great recs!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. November 22, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    I need to try more medical books – Brain on Fire looks really good! I still haven’t tried a Bill Bryson book but I do have one on my shelf … I can’t wait to try it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 23, 2017 at 4:40 am

      Two of his books – A Short History Of Nearly Everything and At Home – are pretty different from his more travel focused writing (which I personally do not love). If you own one of his travel/memoir sort of books and end up not liking it, you may still like the other two I mentioned!


      • November 24, 2017 at 2:04 am

        Oh no! I think I own a travel one, I’d have to double check. Hopefully I still like it!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. November 23, 2017 at 3:56 am

    LOVED The Ghost Map! I Featured it on my blog back in 2010. https://maphead.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/plague-pestillence-and-disease/
    Brain on Fire, A Short History of Everything and Wild Swans are all in my personal library and SO need to be read!
    I so wanna read Beyond Belief! If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to read Going Clear and Inside Scientology.
    Great post! Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. November 23, 2017 at 6:05 am

    A great list, I added some snce Im trying to read more nonfiction!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. November 23, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    You’ve given me a lot of great ideas here that I had forgotten about – thank you so much! Very much agree about Wild Swans and Henry VIII as well, both brilliant books. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  9. November 23, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    I am always impressed with how well you know yourself and your reading tastes, Ottavia. I will admit, the only category you’ve listed above which draws my attention is Atypical Memoirs. I don’t know why! That said, I really want to read The Emperor of All Maladies. Or, well, listen to the audiobook. I almost exclusively listen to nonfiction via audiobook. Have you listened to any of these? Or have recommendations for nonfiction audiobooks I could pick up?

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 25, 2017 at 2:10 am

      I actually weirdly haven’t listened to any of these on audiobook, but I would imagine that the more narrative memoirs (Beyond Belief, Brain On Fire and Coming Clean) would be the most engaging in audio. I recently listened to Evicted in audiobook and I think it worked pretty well. I’ve also heard really good things about Trevor Noah’s memoir in audio. Unbroken was another great one to listen to 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 30, 2017 at 11:59 pm

        Thank you for all the recommendations! I try to listen to all memoir-esque books via audiobook if the author is narrating. Born a Crime fits that description, so it’s on my short list.

        Thanks for all the recommendations! They are on my list now. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  10. November 23, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    Medical Investigations are not my thing. BUT all your other categories, I love. That Catherine the Great biography was so good. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra is also very good – obv totally tragic. Brain on Fire, Beyond Belief and Wild Swans have all been on my list for ages and ages. Good reminder to maybe actually read them one of these days!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 25, 2017 at 2:06 am

      Glad you enjoyed the list! Out of the last 3 you mentioned I would definitely go with Beyond Belief first 🙂


  11. Susie | Novel Visits
    November 25, 2017 at 4:16 am

    Wonderful list. The only one I’ve read is Brain on Fire and I really enjoyed it. Scary!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Anne Simonot
    November 25, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Another book about hoarding that I enjoyed was Dirty Little Secret; sorry, can’t remember the author’s name. She talks about the secrecy & stigma of growing up in a hoarding household. Interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 26, 2017 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks Anne! I’ll have to look it up. I’d definitely be interested in reading more on the topic.


  13. November 26, 2017 at 8:07 am

    I really loved Brain on Fire, The Emperor of All Maladies, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII too! And I share your interest in those topics, so I’ll have to check out the other books you loved too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. December 4, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    What a lovely list, Ottavia! I added several to my TBR. I think in the new year, I will try to read more nonfiction. I enjoy it. Thanks for the great titles! 🙂


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