Over the course of the last decade or so, nonfiction has undergone a slow and gradual revolution, taking cues from the page-turning tone and immediacy of fiction to make itself more narrative, engaging, and exhilarating. We are now gifted with a wave of compelling, inspirational nonfiction.
Every year, countless nonfiction books come out that prove to be as spellbinding as any gripping novel. Their writers have the language mastery and tight grip on pacing as their novelist counterparts. And what we have here is a list of compelling, engaging non-fiction books for fiction readers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. It doesn’t match any particular themes. Here, you’ll find a few books about race, feminism, travel, nature, politics, history, and more. What connects them all is an intensely lyrical quality that makes them such spectacular page-turners.
This is, arguably, a more personal list than usual. These are all inspirational non-fiction books that have captivated and changed us, and should change you, too.
And, of course, every one of these inspirational nonfiction books has the power to teach, and to shift your perspective entirely.
Humankind by Rutger Bregman
Rutger Bregman has made a name for himself by upsetting conversative politicians and capitalists the world over. The Dutch historian made waves in 2018 with the astute and excellent Utopia for Realists.
In 2020, he followed it up with Humankind, a book which rewrites the common narrative that most of us follow when it comes to seeing our fellow man.
While most of us are taught that human beings are innately selfish and cruel, Bregman uses a wealth of historical, political, and cultural examples to break this narrative apart and prove that humans are instinctively good and kind.
Bregman points to everything from warzones to psychological experiments to the behaviour pattern of arctic foxes in order to definitively demonstrate just how kind the average human is.
He also uses this book to demonstrate how our current capitalist and political systems allow a minority of bad people to rise to the top.
Few books are as enthralling, captivating, educational, and revolutionary in their thinking as Humankind. A necessary, inspirational nonfiction book that has the power to change, well, everything.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
This was my own first experience with real narrative nonfiction. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is both a personal and a political journey across 20th century China. Based in London, historian and author Jung Chang is the daughter of a woman who played her own role in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
In Wild Swans, Chang takes us on a captivating journey through the personal lives of her grandmother, her mother, and herself, telling the story of 20th century China as she goes.
I read this book after having spent a year living in Shanghai. If I’d read it before, instead of afterwards, it would have taught me so much that could have helped and prepared me. A true lesson in reading books about a place before you go there.
I can’t think of a better example of captivating, inspirational nonfiction than Wild Swans. One of the greatest narrative works ever written and a grand lesson in history, politics, and family.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
A book for our time like no other. While there are countless contemporary works of inspirational nonfiction that cover the topic of race across the US, the UK, and beyond, it was Eddo-Lodge’s book that helped rekindle the discussion just a few years ago.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was initially born out of a simple blog post and morphed into an incredible text about black history in the UK, Britain’s role in the African slave trade, and current attitudes towards race in the UK, both socially and politically.
Eddo-Lodge’s book is an eye-opener for white readers. The UK has a nasty habit of not talking about racism and its history of slave-trading, in spite of how much pride white Brits have in the legacy of the British empire.
Eddo-Lodge tears all of this apart and makes sure we listen to black British voices. Necessary inspirational nonfiction reading for anyone and everyone.
Yes, You Are Trans Enough by Mia Violet
As a non-binary reader and writer, I’ve read a lot of transgender stories. At age 23, was captivated by the album Transgender Dysphoyia Blues by Against Me! and my journey went from there. Books by writers like Laura Kate Dale and Against Me!’s own Laura Jane Grace have been invaluable works of transgender nonfiction.
But it was Mia Violet’s Yes, You Are Trans Enough that proved to be the most lyrical, addictive, and captivating book by a trans writer I had yet read. Hilarious, life-affirming, encouraging, and sweet, this is a wonderful example of inspirational nonfiction by a trans writer.
Taking a difficult and intensely personal topic and making it a light, fun, and inspiring read is no easy feat, by Mia Violet is a savvy, competent nonfiction writer; a master at what she does. A lesson in gender euphoria as much as dysphoria.
An outstanding work of inspirational nonfiction and an excellent transgender book for anyone looking to understand the queer world, and the world in general, a bit better.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens needs no introduction. One of the best-selling books of the past decade, Sapiens was then followed up by the equally compelling Homo Deus and the starkly depressing 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. But regardless of its popularity, Sapiens still deserves a spot on this list.
The reason for that is simple: Sapiens is a book that I, and millions of other readers around the world, continue to think about on an almost daily basis. This history of the human race is full of digestible philosophy, politics, and economics lessons.
It touches on world religions, human rights, and such curious, fascinating themes as the history of money, the evolution of writing, and the very concept of ideas and shared belief in those ideas.
By this point, everyone and their mum has read Sapiens. But, in case you haven’t, you really need to stop waiting. Sapiens is the most compelling, inspirational nonfiction book I’ve ever read.
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak
This slender little book is, at the time of writing, almost brand new. And its author, British-Turkish writer of fiction and nonfiction Elif Shafak, is more popular than ever. A world traveller and award-winning author, Shafak’s voice is one worth listening to, regardless of the topic.
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is a lesson in optimism. It has the power to rekindle our hope and our faith when we all feel so exhausted by climate change, the rise of populism, and more.
It’s a book that can be read over a coffee, with the lyrical strength of poetry and the wisdom of a hundred lifetimes. It has a simple message but it presents that message through personal examples and grounded, cautious optimism.
A beautifully written book that may just help to alleviate some anxiety. And, in this world, that is worth everything.
Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink
I’ve talked before, in both an article and a video, about how I didn’t grow up reading. About how it took the right teacher to inspire me to pick up a book at age fifteen. Since then, books have been my comfort, my solace, my inspiration. This book communicates all of that better than anyone else could.
Dear Reader is both a personal journey through a life lived among books and a lesson in the importance of books to provide love, laughter, friendship, company, understanding, sympathy, everything.
Rentzenbrink is an intensely funny writer who brings so much joy and humour to every topic, even the darker ones. Her words could inspire a tree to grow without sunlight.
If you’re a lover of stories and the written word, this book will remind you why. If you’re not, get ready to have your life changed. This is true inspirational nonfiction and a real love-letter to literature.
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane
Robert Macfarlane is a national treasure. A writer whose words have the power to captivate in much the same way that a great work of art or a pure natural landscape does. It’s fitting, then, that the subjects of his writing and language and nature.
Macfarlane is a man who sees the majesty of the British landscape, and is endlessly fascinated by the evolution of the English language.
Every one of his books is worth diving into for its romanticism, scientific and etymological lessons, and sheer beauty, but Landmarks is where I started, and I say you should, too.
Landmarks is a travelogue which takes us across the physical natural spaces of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as well as the linguistic spaces of those areas, too. The book explores the language of a place and the weight of that language to bring new life to something as simple as a hill or a rabbit warren.
Robert Macfarlane has a unique eye, and with his words he can give you that same sight that he uses to inspire his books. Inspirational nonfiction? Honey, yes, you have no idea.
Strangers by Rebecca Tamas
A collection of alluring, inspiring essays on the human relationship with itself, its race, and the planet itself, Strangers is like nothing you’ve ever read.
In this collection, Rebecca Tamas weaves a narrative through the loose theme of man-and-nature as she considers climate change, capitalism, and other big, contemporary talking points.
Strangers is very much a book for our times, inspired by modern politics and the state of our world. It reveals a sharp intelligence and each essay has the power to inspire the reader. It’s slender and concise, but mighty, with the power to move mountains.
The Power of Ritual by Casper Ter Kuile
This book was a very recent discovery for me, handed to me by Books & Bao’s dear friend Rick MacDonnell. Casper Ter Kuile is a British-born, US-based fellow of Harvard Divinity School, and his book explores the importance of religious ritual in a secular world.
The book begins by considering what church-related practices are lost in an increasingly secular world. The two most prominent things are community-based practices, in which a group of likeminded people share time and support one another, and personal rituals like prayer.
The Power of Ritual invites secular readers to explore their own habits, hobbies, and personal behaviours, looking at how we can add a spiritual sense of ritual to the everyday, thus enhancing the importance of what we do.
He considers how our favourite novels can become sacred texts. How a community space like Crossfit can become church-like community spaces. It’s a simple concept with an immense amount of potential impact. It has changed the way I personally approach individual and community habits, and I hope it can change you, too.
In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life
Here is a delightful and varied collection of modern essays by a selection of writers from a wide range of backgrounds, classes, and cultures.
Anyone who has ever had a home has had a kitchen. We all cook; we all eat; we all wash dishes. But it’s in talking about the familiar that we can often have our eyes opened the most. Or, at the very least, feel tickled and inspired.
In the Kitchen offers a handful of writers a platform on which they might talk about their own relationship to food and cooking. From childhood tales to family rituals, from local cuisines to culinary journeys, In the Kitchen is a varied and inspiring delight.
Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton
It’s always a risk, telling people you’re a socialist. A Marxist. A communist. With every day that goes by, the likelihood that the other people will reply with “me too!” goes up, but the fear that they will turn and run is still there.
A book that has helped me understand my own politics, the modern political landscape, and the writing of Karl Marx much better is Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. I was impressed by Eagleton as a modern philosopher when I read his book On Evil but Why Marx Was Right is, undoubtedly, his magnum opus.
If, like me at age 26, you’re someone who aligns themselves on the left and sympathises with what you’ve read about Marx, but a dive into Das Kapital just seems too daunting, Why Marx Was Right is the book you need.
This is a book which uses humour and a grounded approach to politics, history, and economics to demonstrate why Marx was right about, well, everything. It takes common arguments against Marxism and disputes them. It takes vague leftist ideas and cements them. It is a book to convince anyone (who isn’t a wealthy capitalist landowner) why Marx was right.
Goodbye, things by Fumio Sasak
This quiet book is written as a series of very short, easily digestible essays on minimalist living, starting with the home or living space. From here, Sasaki helps the reader to transform their entire life and how they view the world around them.
Inspired by movement-makers like Marie Kondon, Sasaki improves on the Japanese philosophy of minimalist living in meaningful, deeply affecting and inspiring ways.
Goodbye, things helps the reader to reconsider their approach to their own income, their personal aspirations, their wants, needs, and urges, and so much more.
This book has the power to change your attitude towards work, home, family, possession, and everything that has come to define us as modern people. A truly inspirational nonfiction book for this generation.