Reading non-fiction allows us to dig deep into something. To discover its history, its nuance. To follow an author’s train of thought on a topic and engage with arguments they have spent years developing. The best ones teach us about the world and make us question the way we think. Here are ten non-fiction books that tell us something about being human, from evolution to death:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
This is a book that made me stop whoever was close by while I was reading it and grab on to their arm, desperate to share what I had just learnt. It charts the history of human beings from evolution to the present day with such a humbling sense of perspective and connection, to the earth, to the people around us and everyone who has come before. We are each so insignificant when viewed from this distance and there’s something strangely reassuring about that.
Exposure by Olivia Sudjic
In Exposure, Olivia Sudjic describes the baseline feeling of anxiety as similar to “having just finished a third coffee, when someone texts ‘we need to talk’ and then doesn’t call for hours, or at all”. Her language is visceral and physical in a way that’s rare when discussing mental health. And she writes with insight and clarity about the relationship between creative work and the crippling experience of anxiety.
The Descent Of Man by Grayson Perry
As a man who feels like something of an outsider within his own gender, Grayson Perry has been examining and questioning society’s ideas around masculinity since childhood. Here, he looks at four central themes: power, physical appearance, violence and emotion. He uses stories from his own life to consider how traditional masculinity fails men. It’s an open and honest book that advocates for change.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
I would happily read Jon Ronson’s thoughts on anything; he’s funny, insightful and interesting, always. And this is a topic that is becoming increasingly important: the cruelty of social media and the rise of mob mentality. The book is full of case studies, people whose lives have been dismantled after making an offensive joke and going viral or been publicly shamed in court. It will make you question your own part in it and think twice about how you use social media.
H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Helen Madconald had always wanted to be a falconer and as she approached 40, in the midst of grief, she bought a goshawk, a bird “murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign”. H Is For Hawk follows the pair’s progress, as the falcon becomes tamer, she becomes more feral. It’s an incredibly moving book about being a human in the wild.
You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) by Andrew Hankinson
It’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true: I could not put this book down. The premise sounds strange, but bear with me. The story is told through the internal monologue of Raoul Moat, who shot three people and then himself during a police standoff in 2010. Andrew Hankinson has created a powerful depiction of his mental illness that’s intense and claustrophobic, and also humane. You know what’s going to happen from the first page, but you can’t help but hope throughout that things might end differently.
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
The Good Immigrant began as a crowdfunding project by writer and editor Nikesh Shukla who wanted to show publishers that there is demand for diverse voices. It is a collection of 21 honest, funny and poignant essays from black, Asian and minority ethnic writers about their experiences of living in Britain. Seeing all of these accounts in one place is incredibly powerful. It’s a vital read for anyone living in the UK and the US version – with 26 new essays – is published this spring.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
As modern medicine improves, the question of how long – and at what cost – life should be prolonged is an important one. Atul Gawande is a surgeon and so this is a question that he has to answer every day. He has thought deeply and sensitively about how we can age with dignity and die with grace. Being Mortal is a deeply affecting book that will change the way you think about death, and maybe also life.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson defies genre and this is no different, part psychoanalysis, part true crime and part memoir. Her writing is thoughtful and interesting, and she examines everything with rigour. Her aunt was murdered in 1969 and 35 years later new DNA evidence was found. The case was reopened. The Red Parts is about the trial, about our fascination with violence and the way that grieving is made public in the media.
Hope In The Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
It can be difficult to feel positive at the moment as our news feeds swing from one disaster to another. But here, Rebecca Solnit makes the argument for hope. Change happens via gradual shifts in attitude and it is happening all the time. This book is galvanising and inspiring. It will make you want to change the world: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”