12 Best Historical Nonfiction Books You Should Read

Historical nonfiction books offer a fascinating glimpse into the past, providing readers with a detailed account of real events and the people who shaped them. These books have the power to inform, educate, and inspire, and offer a unique perspective on history that more traditional textbooks simply cannot match. If you’re looking to dive into the world of historical nonfiction, here are the ten best books you should read.

12 Best Historical Nonfiction Books You Should Read

Why Historical Nonfiction Books are Worth Reading

Before we dive into our top ten picks, it’s worth considering why historical nonfiction books are so valuable. At their core, these books offer the chance to understand history in a more engaging and relatable way. Rather than simply reading about dates and events in a textbook, you can explore the past through the eyes of people who were there.

Understanding the Past Through Engaging Stories

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War (The Civil War: 1861-1865 Book 2)

Historical nonfiction books use narrative storytelling to bring the past to life. Through vivid descriptions and engaging characters, readers are transported to another time, allowing them to experience history in a more meaningful way. This can help create a more personal connection to the past and deepen your understanding of key events and their significance.

What about fictional history books? For example, reading about the Civil War in a textbook can feel dry and unemotional. But reading a historical fiction book like “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara can transport you to the battlefield, allowing you to experience the emotions and struggles of the soldiers. This can give you a deeper understanding of the human cost of the war and the impact it had on the nation. I personally love a combination of fiction and non-fiction but the choice is of course yours (and this article will focus on non-fiction books to read.

Gaining New Perspectives on History

Historical nonfiction books also offer the chance to gain new perspectives on history. By focusing on overlooked or lesser-known events, or by presenting history through the eyes of previously marginalized groups, these books can upend traditional narratives and offer a new understanding of the past. This can challenge our assumptions and force us to think critically about the way we view history.

For example, “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the 20th century. By focusing on the experiences of individual migrants, Wilkerson upends the traditional narrative of the migration as a single event and shows the complex and varied experiences of those who participated. This can challenge our assumptions about the migration and deepen our understanding of its impact on American society.

Learning from the Experiences of Real People

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Perhaps most importantly, historical nonfiction books offer the chance to learn from the experiences of real people. By immersing ourselves in the lives of historical figures, we can gain insights into their motivations, values, and beliefs, and use these lessons to inform our own lives. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to read historical nonfiction books: the chance to learn from those who came before us.

For example, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” offers a firsthand account of the civil rights movement and the experiences of one of its most prominent leaders. By reading about Malcolm X’s life and beliefs, we can gain insight into the struggles and triumphs of the movement and use those lessons to inform our own activism and advocacy.

Overall, historical nonfiction books offer a valuable opportunity to engage with the past in a meaningful and relevant way. Whether you’re a history buff or simply looking to deepen your understanding of the world around you, these books are worth exploring.

Best Historical Non-Fiction Books

Reading historical nonfiction is a great way to gain new insights into the past and learn from the experiences of others. These ten books offer engaging narratives, meticulous research, and thought-provoking insights into some of the most significant events and people in human history.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I; Barbara W. Tuchman's Great War Series (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books)

First published in 1962, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book offers a detailed account of the events leading up to World War I. Tuchman’s engaging narrative style and meticulous research bring the complex political and military machinations of the time to life. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the causes of what was then the deadliest conflict in human history.

Tuchman’s book takes readers on a journey through the complex web of alliances, treaties, and political maneuverings that led to the outbreak of World War I. She explores the personalities and motivations of the key players, from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Sir Edward Grey, and offers a detailed analysis of the military strategies and tactics employed by the various armies. The result is a vivid and compelling portrait of a world on the brink of disaster.

You can find this book here.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America

In this captivating work of narrative nonfiction, Larson tells the story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the serial killer who used the fair’s crowds to cover up his crimes. The book weaves together two seemingly unrelated stories, creating a fascinating portrait of a city on the cusp of modernity.

Larson’s book is not just a gripping true crime story, but also a fascinating glimpse into the world of the late 19th century. He explores the technological innovations and cultural trends that were transforming America at the time, from the invention of the Ferris wheel to the rise of the “City Beautiful” movement. The result is a rich and nuanced portrait of a pivotal moment in American history.

You can find this book here.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Skloot’s book tells the story of an African American woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951 and have been continuously replicated for scientific research ever since. The book explores the ethical and racial implications of this practice and delves into the fascinating story of the woman behind the cells.

Skloot’s book is a powerful exploration of the intersection of science, ethics, and race in America. She tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family with sensitivity and compassion, while also offering a critical analysis of the medical establishment and its treatment of African Americans. The book is a reminder of the importance of informed consent and the need for greater diversity in medical research.

You can find this book here.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

Larson’s second book on this list tells the story of William E. Dodd, the US ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to World War II. As the Nazis began their rise to power, Dodd became increasingly disillusioned with the German government, and his story offers a unique glimpse into the early days of one of the most devastating conflicts in human history.

Larson’s book is a chilling reminder of the dangers of fascism and the importance of standing up to tyranny. He explores the complex political and social dynamics of 1930s Germany, from the rise of Hitler to the persecution of Jews and other minorities. Dodd’s story is a testament to the power of individual courage and the importance of speaking out against injustice.

You can find this book here.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of the Great Migration, the movement of millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West in the decades after World War I. Through carefully researched stories of individual migrants, Wilkerson explores the complex social and economic factors that drove this massive demographic shift.

Wilkerson’s book is a powerful reminder of the enduring legacy of racism in America. She tells the stories of people who left their homes and families behind in search of a better life, and who faced discrimination and hardship in their new communities. The book is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

You can find this book here.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

This inspiring tale tells the story of the University of Washington rowing team that competed in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Against all odds, the underdog American team won gold, and Brown’s book is a testament to the power of determination and teamwork.

Brown’s book is not just a sports story, but also a powerful exploration of the human spirit. He tells the stories of the individual rowers and their families, as well as the larger social and political context of the time. The result is a gripping and inspiring tale of triumph over adversity.

You can find this book here.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers

In this meticulously researched biography, McCullough tells the story of the two brothers who changed the world with their invention of the airplane. The book offers a detailed portrait of the Wright brothers’ lives and the many obstacles they had to overcome in order to achieve their dream of flight.

McCullough’s book is a fascinating exploration of the history of aviation and the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers. He tells the stories of the brothers’ early experiments and their struggles to gain recognition and support for their work. The result is a compelling portrait of two men who changed the world.

You can find this book here.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Larson’s third book on this list tells the story of the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915. Through detailed research and vivid storytelling, Larson creates a thrilling account of the tragedy and its aftermath, exploring both the political and personal repercussions.

Larson’s book is a gripping and suspenseful tale of one of the most significant events of World War I. He tells the stories of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, as well as the political and military leaders who were involved in the decision to sink the ship. The result is a vivid and compelling portrait of a world at war.

You can find this book here.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a groundbreaking exploration of the history and science of cancer. Mukherjee offers a detailed account of the disease throughout history, from its earliest appearances to the cutting-edge research of today. The result is a comprehensive and deeply moving portrait of one of humanity’s greatest adversaries.

Mukherjee’s book is a powerful reminder of the importance of medical research and the need for greater understanding of this devastating disease. He tells the stories of individual patients and their families, as well as the scientists and researchers who have dedicated their lives to finding a cure. The result is a deeply human and compassionate exploration of a disease that touches us all.

You can find this book here.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding Place

In this inspiring memoir, ten Boom recounts her experiences as a member of the Dutch resistance during World War II. After being arrested by the Nazis, she, her sister, and her father were sent to various concentration camps, where they relied on their faith and the support of their fellow prisoners to survive. It’s a powerful reminder of the resilience and courage of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity.

Ten Boom’s book is a testament to the power of hope and faith in the face of evil. She tells the stories of the people she met in the concentration camps, from fellow prisoners to Nazi guards, and offers a powerful critique of the ideology that led to such atrocities. The result is a deeply moving and inspiring memoir that offers hope and inspiration to readers of all backgrounds.

You can find this book here.

Whether you’re looking to gain new insights into history, learn from the experiences of others, or simply enjoy a well-crafted story, these ten historical nonfiction books are sure to engage and inspire. So pick one up today and let yourself be transported to another time and place.

FAQs

What are the best non-fiction history books about Europe?

The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey, Europe by Norman Davies, Millennium by Tom Holland, Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley, and Four Queens by Nancy Bazelon Goldstone are all fantastic European history books.

What are the best American non-fiction history books?

1776 by David McCullough, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn are all brilliant choices.

What are the best non-fiction history books about South America?

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, and The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie are excellent options.

YouTube video
Eddison Monroe
Latest posts by Eddison Monroe (see all)