Calling all history buffs! The following books deliver true-life stories with the propulsive pacing and compelling characters you’d expect from a work of fiction. Whether you’re searching for answers about America’s troubled past, intrigued by historical true crime, or hungry for an astonishing adventure, you’re sure to find it in the captivating nonfiction books below.
11 Riveting History Books That Read Like Novels
These eye-opening accounts are impossible to put down.
You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live
By Paul Kix
In You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live, journalist Paul Kix chronicles a pivotal moment in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The narrative begins in our distressed present, where footage of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer leads Kix back to a harrowing historical image: that of a police dog attacking a Black teen in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The photo inspires Kix to delve into the legacy of Project C, the 10-week campaign led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to desegregate the city of Birmingham. In vivid detail, Kix captures this critical moment in American history, tracing the campaign as it unfolds and bringing to life the four men who led the struggle: Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Bevel. Thoroughly researched and powerfully told, You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live delivers a “gripping, novelistic account… Readers will be riveted from the first page to the last” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
By Scott Shane
In this highly anticipated upcoming release (September 2023), Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Scott Shane tells the story of little-known abolitionist Thomas Smallwood, a man who helped hundreds of enslaved people escape to freedom in the North and who named the “underground railroad.” Born into slavery, Smallwood not only bought his own freedom and began working for himself by the 1840s, but with the help of an activist named Charles Torrey, he orchestrated large-scale escapes in the Baltimore area. Smallwood repeatedly risked his own freedom to help Black families flee the brutal slaving industry, all while documenting the endeavors in impassioned and satirical newspaper articles, in which he first cited the “underground railroad” as their means of escape. Featuring an extraordinary real-life hero and suffused with period detail, Flee North is a compelling read from start to finish.
Devil in the White City
By Erik Larson
In 1893, star architect Daniel Hudson Burham set his sights on his most ambitious project yet: guiding the Chicago World’s Fair into fruition as its Director of Works. While the upcoming exposition was Burnham’s chance for greatness, it allowed another man, Henry H. Holmes, to unleash his monstrous nature. Bestselling author Erik Larson captures the splendor and brutality of this moment in his acclaimed historical true crime account, contrasting Burnham’s achievements with Holmes’s ghoulish crimes. With an enchanting turn-of-the-century setting and a dazzling cast of historical figures, Devil in the White City is as engrossing as your favorite crime drama.
By Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is a true story of resilience that reads like a rousing survival tale. From juvenile delinquent to Olympic track runner, Louis Zamperini had already lived multiple lives by the time he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1941. But in 1943, after a flight gone wrong, the young airman found himself afloat on a life raft miles from land, battling starvation, dehydration, and the perils of the open sea. Miraculously, Zamperini persevered — only to face a more distressing ordeal. Hailed by The Wall Street Journal as a “powerfully drawn survival epic,” Unbroken is an astonishing biography that grabs your attention and won’t let it go.
The Warmth of Other Suns
By Isabel Wilkerson
A New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson charts the mass migration of Black Americans from the southern states to new communities in the North and West over the course of several decades. Told through the eyes of three individuals who leave behind the strictures of the South in search of brighter futures, Wilkerson’s book turns history into a mesmerizing narrative replete with vivid settings, complex characters, and intense emotions. This sweeping account is “a landmark piece of nonfiction” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times).
The Professor and the Madman
By Simon Winchester
In Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, ambition and obsession collide to create one of the most significant projects in literary history: the Oxford English Dictionary. Helmed by Professor James Murray, the curation of the OED was a formidable undertaking. As the overseeing committee reviewed submissions for the project, they were shocked to find that more than 10,000 definitions came from one man, Dr. W.C. Minor — and in a twist fit for fiction, Dr. Minor was an inmate in a criminal asylum. Surprising, enthralling, and entirely true, The Professor and the Madman is an altogether wonderful narrative.
The Lost City of Z
By David Grann
In this gripping tale that reads like an adventure thriller, bestselling author David Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon) tells the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his doomed search for the Lost City of Z. In 1925, Fawcett and his companions set out into the Amazon, intent on discovering a fabled ancient city concealed deep within the forest. Fawcett was convinced of the city’s existence and certain of his success. Instead, he vanished into the enveloping jungle, igniting a new mystery over his fate. Entwined with tales of Grann’s own jungle adventures, The Lost City of Z is a spellbinding adventure.
By Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the incredible true story of the Black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations were instrumental in sending America into space. While names like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong made headlines, it was Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden — known as NASA’s “human computers” — who crunched the numbers to ensure each mission’s success with nothing but slide rules, adding machines, and pencils. Though their work contributed to some of NASA’s most significant achievements from WWII to the Space Race, as Black women, they endured racism, misogyny, and Jim Crow–era bigotry. Shetterly expertly weaves the lives of these four compelling characters into a heartfelt and inspiring work of narrative nonfiction.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
A New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot chronicles the life of one woman who died in 1951 but whose cells live on in some of science’s most important medical breakthroughs. Henrietta Lacks, known to scientists as HeLa, was a tobacco farmer in the South, working the same land as her enslaved ancestors. She died of cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. When scientists acquired a sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without Lacks’s knowledge or consent, they soon discovered that her cells thrived in a laboratory environment. One study led to another, to another… HeLa cells were used in the development of vaccines, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization, and to study the effects of the atom bomb. Yet while Lacks’s cells spawned a multimillion-dollar industry, Lacks herself remained buried in an unmarked grave. With nuanced attention paid to race relations and bioethics, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a beautiful and complex telling of one woman’s eternal life.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
By Kate Summerscale
Kate Summerscale delivers a historical true crime account with the panache of a classic detective novel in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. The 1860 murder of three-year-old Saville Kent shocked Victorian England. In response, Scotland Yard sent its finest investigative mind to crack the case: Inspector Whicher, a protodetective. When Whicher arrived at the scene of the crime, he encountered a host of suspects and a brutal murder mystery to solve. The inspector soon zeroed in on the culprit — but would England accept his suspicions as truth? Summerscale vividly chronicles the murder at Road Hill House and the unraveling of the legendary investigator who helped solve it in this propulsive true-life tale.
In the Heart of the Sea
By Nathaniel Philbrick
From award-winning author Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea tells the saga of the whaleship Essex, an ill-fated vessel that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In 1819, 20 crew members set out from Nantucket aboard the Essex, but their voyage turned disastrous when a sperm whale rammed the ship, sinking it and leaving the crew stranded at sea. For more than three months, the sailors fought for their lives, beaten by the elements and ultimately turning to extremes in a desperate bid for survival. Told in unflinching detail and bolstered by Philbrick’s meticulous research, In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale of tragedy and perseverance and a testament to the formidable power of nature.