14 Riveting Narrative Nonfiction Books

By Kaitlyn Johnston

History is alive in these compelling accounts.

If you love to get swept away by a nonfiction book but crave the storytelling style of a propulsive novel, narrative nonfiction is for you. The genre infuses true-to-life accounts with dramatic pacing and novelistic flair, bringing history to life in vivid detail. We gathered 14 of our favorite narrative nonfiction books to get you started.

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live

By Paul Kix

In this striking new work of narrative nonfiction, journalist Paul Kix delves into Project C, the 10-week Civil Rights campaign in 1963 that changed the course of history. Kix takes us behind the scenes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s effort to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama — then considered the most racist city in America. Through extensive research, Kix offers a peek into the inner lives of the campaign’s four extraordinary leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Bevel. A powerful report that reads like a thrilling novel, You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live is an “eloquent contribution to the literature of civil rights and the ceaseless struggle to attain them” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

Last Call

By Elon Green

In his Edgar Award–winning Last Call, journalist Elon Green tells the true story of the Last Call Killer, a serial murderer who targeted members of New York City’s gay community in the 1980s and ’90s. The murders occurred amid staggering crime rates and the unfolding AIDS epidemic, and because the killer targeted gay men, his crimes received next to no media coverage. With insight and compassion, Green tells the full story of this lesser-known case, prioritizing the victims and championing the resiliency of the gay community. Bestselling author Robert Kolker says, “Last Call feels like the most timeless literary true-crime classics, even as it forges a path through uncharted territory in the genre.” The acclaimed narrative also makes for an excellent true crime book club selection.

Bad City

By Paul Pringle

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Paul Pringle delivers a “master class in investigative journalism” (The New York Times) in Bad City. The riveting nonfiction narrative follows Pringle as he and his colleagues at the L.A. Times root out abuse and corruption across Los Angeles. What begins as a single tip about a drug overdose soon reveals a web of criminality that winds through L.A.’s most influential institutions and creeps its way toward Pringle’s home turf. Masterfully crafted and delivered at a thrilling pace, Bad City reads like an explosive L.A. noir novel come to life.  

The Warmth of Other Suns

By Isabel Wilkerson

In her epic New York Times bestseller, acclaimed author Isabel Wilkerson movingly traces the migration of Black Americans from the South to city centers in the North and West. Told through the lives of three individuals, who all left their home for new beginnings in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, The Warmth of Other Suns chronicles their personal experiences while detailing the seismic cultural shifts brought about by the journey. Together, the accounts create an unforgettable portrait of a country in flux and an exceptional piece of narrative nonfiction.

The Emperor of All Maladies

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

Physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee unfurls the history of cancer in this Pulitzer Prize–winning work that merges in-depth science writing with vivid storytelling. Mukherjee draws on more than five centuries’ worth of data to chronicle cancer’s presence, documenting the death tolls, medical breakthroughs, and declarations of war on the malady. In the end, The Emperor of All Maladies is the story not just of a deadly disease but of human hubris, failure, and hope.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

A New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the remarkable story of a woman who’s been dead for decades but whose cells live on in vital scientific studies. Known as HeLa to scientists, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken without her consent and immortalized in a lab, grown in cultures to be used in a range of experiments. These studies led to sweeping medical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine and IVF to gene mapping and cloning. But as Lacks’s cells saved lives and spawned a multimillion-dollar industry, Lacks herself remained buried in an unmarked grave. Skloot delivers a “masterful work of nonfiction” (Slate) that addresses the unending life of HeLa as well as the shameful history of experimentation on African Americans and the twisted legal battles over who controls your body.

Devil in the White City

By Erik Larson

It’s 1893, and the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is the fixation of people far and wide. Among them is Daniel Hudson Burnham, a visionary architect and the fair’s director of works, and Henry H. Holmes, a Chicagoland con artist hotelier who may have been one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. In Devil in the White City, bestselling author Erik Larson transforms this sensational moment in time into an unforgettable work of creative nonfiction, contrasting the wonder and promise of the Chicago World’s Fair with the horror of Holmes’s deeds.

Hidden Figures

By Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly’s bestselling Hidden Figures follows the story of the Black women whose mathematical calculations powered some of NASA’s most significant accomplishments. Known as “human computers,” Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden solved equations with only slide rules, adding machines, and pencils on paper. Facing discrimination at every turn, these brilliant women were essential to America’s successes during WWII and the Space Race. Shetterly chronicles the lives of the four women, addressing themes of race, discrimination, science, and achievement, in an essential contribution to American history.

Unbroken

By Laura Hillenbrand

From juvenile delinquency to competing in the Berlin Olympics, Louis Zamperini’s life had already seen some surprising turns. But in 1943, while serving as an American bombardier in WWII, Zamperini’s plane went down over the Pacific, propelling the young soldier into his most harrowing challenge yet. In Unbroken, bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand chronicles Zamperini’s journey, vividly capturing his fight to survive the open ocean and the terror of the POW camps. The result is a powerful story of perseverance, both of body and of mind.

Nothing to Envy

By Barbara Demick

Barbara Demick narrates the lives of six citizens of North Korea over 15 years in her award-winning nonfiction book Nothing to Envy. Demick goes deep into the experiences of those living under a totalitarian regime and records their mounting frustrations with a government that fails to support its people while demanding unwavering fealty and crushing dissent. The Wall Street Journal hails Nothing to Envy as a “deeply moving” account that’s written with “novelistic detail.”

And the Band Played On

By Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts details the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s in his internationally bestselling And the Band Played On. In this classic work of narrative nonfiction, Shilts describes how, despite the evident danger of AIDS, information about the disease and funding for the fight against it was exceedingly hard to come by. A stirring historical document and a gripping story, And the Band Plays On is essential reading.

Killers of the Flower Moon

By David Grann

A sweeping true crime book that reads like a murder mystery, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann chronicles the heinous murders that plagued the Osage Nation in the 1920s. With their land sitting upon invaluable oil resources, the men and women of the Osage Nation were at the time the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Yet there were others who sought to separate the Osage from their black gold fortune — by any means necessary. When Osage members began turning up dead, the FBI, with the help of a former Texas Ranger, took on the case and unearthed a shocking conspiracy. Intense, propulsive, and impeccably researched, Killers of the Flower Moon is a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical true crime narratives. Its highly anticipated book-to-screen adaptation is set for release later in 2023, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone.

Cover of Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air

By Jon Krakauer

When journalist Jon Krakauer set out to climb Mt. Everest, he didn’t expect his expedition would turn disastrous. Into Thin Air is his first-hand account of the climb that claimed five lives and left countless more forever changed. Haunted by the experience and consumed by guilt over the deaths, Krakauer reports in heartbreaking detail the tireless efforts of the Sherpas, the mistakes that proved fatal, and the calamitous storm that descended upon the group. His visceral account combined with additional interviews and research results in what The Wall Street Journal calls one of “the best adventure books of all time.”

Evicted

By Matthew Desmond

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Evicted by Matthew Desmond follows the lives of eight families living in Milwaukee as they fight back against the threat of homelessness. Desmond offers a rare perspective on the poverty epidemic in America, providing a window into the experiences of these families as the pendulum swings between despair and possibility. Unflinching in its honesty and beautifully written, Evicted is a sterling example of the power of narrative nonfiction.

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