My Favorite Nonfiction That Reads Like Fiction

Nonfiction November 2018


Today’s Nonfiction November (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?, Julie at Julz Reads, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, and me) topic is Reads Like Fiction (head over to What’s Nonfiction? for the link-up!):

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

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Nonfiction That Reads Like Fiction

When people ask me for nonfiction recommendations, they often request something that “reads like fiction.” Personally, I don’t need my nonfiction to read like fiction to love it…but, I do love a good nonfiction that reads like fiction! I do feel like many of the iconic nonfiction books could be described as reading like fiction. 

For me, a nonfiction book reads like fiction if there is a strong story arc. If there are central characters whose fates you care about and the story has a beginning, middle and an end. Also, not being able to put it down helps!

Nonfiction That Reads Like Fiction

All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Bragg’s memoir about his childhood growing up destitute, with an alcoholic and mostly absentee father, in rural Alabama. It’s one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books and Bragg is the author I’ve found that comes closest to Pat Conroy (if you’re a regular blog reader, you know how big a compliment this is coming from me!) so far.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (my review)
The true story of the creation of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer masquerading as a doctor who cast a shadow over the proceedings. An excellent true crime / history mash-up and the book that many people would say is the epitome of nonfiction that reads like fiction (I think I agree).

Educated by Tara Westover (my review)
Westover’s memoir about growing up in a survivalist Mormon family who didn’t believe in public education and her journey to break the mold by getting her PhD at Cambridge University. Educated was recently named the #1 Book of 2018 by Amazon and Library Reads.

Forty Autumns by Nina Willner (my review)
Willner, an ex-U.S. intelligence officer covering East Germany, tells the true story of her family being separated by the Berlin Wall and their experience living in Communist East Germany. This one was my favorite book of last year’s Nonfiction November and would make a great pairing with Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones.

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein
This quarter life crisis memoir set in the world of politics might be my favorite audiobook of the year! It’s like listening to your fun friend who happens to have a job (stenographer) in the White House with access to the President give you all the very best anecdotes (plus, a good dose of her love life) over a glass of wine!

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (my review)
Told through the eyes of Martha Dodd, the US Ambassador to Berlin’s daughter, Larson paints a picture of how the German people remained oblivious as Hitler very gradually accumulated the power to enable him to pull off the Holocaust under their noses.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
The true story of the Savannah murder of Billy Hansen and the subsequent trial of antiques dealer and social gadfly Jim Williams. This one blends a suspenseful murder mystery with a portrait of an eccentric Southern town…and, I’m long overdue for a re-read.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (my review)
The story of Rakoff’s experience as a young woman in the 90’s living in NYC and working at the literary agency representing reclusive legend, J.D. Salinger. But, this one reads like a coming of age novel with celebrity guest appearances! 

On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett
The story of eventual Presidential candidate Ross Perot’s rogue rescue of his Electronic Data Systems employees after they were imprisoned in Tehren during the 1978 Iranian Revolution. One of those truth is stranger than fiction stories…that also reads like fiction.

Red Notice by Bill Browder
The true story of Browder’s experience as one of the first foreign investors in Russia after the fall of Communism and widespread privatization. This is one of the few nonfiction books that reads like a thriller.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya (my review)
Clemantine was six years old when she and her older sister (Claire) were separated from their family during the Rwandan genocide and spent the next six years as refugees before being granted asylum in the U.S., and in Clemantine’s case, going on to get a degree from Yale. I kind of wish this one was actually fiction…

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy (my review)
Current New Yorker staff writer Levy’s memoir of self-examination takes a brutally raw and honest look at her life including love, massive loss, and bad decisions.

What are your favorite nonfiction books that read like fiction?

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  1. Great list, Sarah. You are definitely my go to person when it comes to nonfiction. I see several here (including Red Notice) that I want to read. I thought about including Forty Autumns and Educated, but in the end didn’t. Not surprised to see that we both thought From the Corner read like fiction…it truly did read like fiction (especially her love life which felt like a soap opera).

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  2. I’ve read about half of these and all were excellent. Adding The Girl Who Smiled Beads to my list. Thanks.

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  3. I didn’t realize Ken Follett dove into actual nonfiction. I love his writing so might have to check that one out!

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  4. I know what you mean about wishing some nonfictions books were fiction. I’ve read a lot of memoirs about abuse and mental illness and many times I’m upset for the people. You know a memoir was written well if you want to run into their house and pull them out and save them from the crap.

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  5. So many of these sound excellent. I also didn’t know about this one by Ken Follett, or about the Ross Perot story. I’d like to read The Girl Who Smiled Beads and From the Corner of the Oval (talk about opposite ends of the spectrum…). Much as I say I need to get away from WWII books for a while, In the Garden of Beasts sounds fascinating.

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  6. I loved the 4 I’ve read and own a few of the others. I need to get to them soon.

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  7. Elizabeth wrote:

    My favorite non-fictional “fiction” book of the year was Bad Blood. Loved both the plot and the characters, and the fact that it was completely true made it even better!

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  8. Jan wrote:

    Great topic!

    We are of like minds Sarah. I don’t need my NF to read like fiction but when it does I certainly enjoy it. I do like it when a NF makes me better educated (Dopesick, Killers of the Flower Moon). I also like to laugh and be amused (David Sedaris, Dear Fahrenheit 451).

    We have some similarities in our lists: In the Garden of the Beasts (really, any Erik Larsson book), Forty Autumns, The Girl Who Smiled Beads (one of my top NF this year) .

    Kelly Corrigan’s Tell Me More is also near top of my list this year.

    I’m going to checkout your other titles!

    Posted 11.20.18 Reply
  9. Rennie wrote:

    Forty Autumns and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are just the best! I don’t re-read very often but Midnight is one I’ve read a couple of times. Such a unique book.

    I’ve been meaning to get to Red Notice, I’m glad to see it ranks so highly for you. All Over But the Shoutin’ and On Wings of Eagles sound really interesting too, I don’t think I’d heard of either of those..what an amazing list you came up with!

    Posted 11.21.18 Reply
  10. Resh wrote:

    Great list. I enjoyed The Girl who smiled Beads. Hoping to read Educated soon

    Posted 11.21.18 Reply
  11. I’m so with you on great characters for nonfiction. They really help me connect with the story. Your list is so good! Thought about adding Educated to mine as well. Leaned a little harder into biographies than I thought I would for this topic.

    You know, I saw Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on a couple of lists, I knew intellectually that that meant it was nonfiction but it took until your blog to go “OH! That’s a true story!” Not sure what that says about me…

    I really need to get my hands on In the Corner of the Oval Office!

    Posted 11.21.18 Reply
  12. Christa wrote:

    I’d add In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick to this. Great list!

    Posted 11.23.18 Reply
  13. Great suggestions! I feel like I’ve been recommending Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a bunch this year, but haven’t read it for quite some time. I could probably use a re-read, too!

    Posted 11.25.18 Reply
  14. You’ve got some great options on your list! About the only one I would add (and as a recommendation to you) would be The Boys in the Boat. It’s sports and the Olympics- two of your go-tos. I had no interest in rowing but was finally nagged into reading it by my mother and it was the first 5 stars I ever gave to non-fiction.

    Posted 12.3.18 Reply
    • Meredith Hill wrote:

      I completely agree with you. I put off reading Boys in the Boat thinking it would bore me to tears. Instead, to my surprise, I absolutely loved it and became a rowing enthusiast. It’s an absolutely wonderful book!

      Posted 4.5.20 Reply
  15. I love that Forty Autumns made your list too! I really enjoyed that book! And I can’t believe I haven’t yet gotten to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That’s a narrative nonfiction classic!

    Posted 12.5.18 Reply
  16. Sallye wrote:

    Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg is also a very good book. My family is from the south and his stories are reminiscent of stories I heard growing up. He has become one of my favorite authors.

    Another great nonfiction book that trads like fiction is Killer Flowers of the Osage Moon. Very sad story of how native Americans were mistreated.

    Posted 12.9.18 Reply
  17. Sallye wrote:

    Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg is also a very good book. My family is from the south and his stories are reminiscent of stories I heard growing up. He has become one of my favorite authors.

    Another great nonfiction book that reads like fiction is Killer Flowers of the Osage Moon. Very sad story of how native Americans were mistreated.

    Posted 12.9.18 Reply

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