The best non-fiction books of all time

From eye-opening autobiographies to political exposés, broaden your horizons with our edit of the best non-fiction books of all time. 

19/08/2021
8 minutes to read
Brown Baby, No Fixed Abode and Stronger book covers

The best non-fiction books can educate readers on vital subjects, offer fresh new perspectives, or simply give us a valuable, and often entertaining, insight into the lives of others. Here is our edit of the must-read non-fiction books of 2021 and the best non-fiction books of all time. 

The best general non-fiction books

Scary Smart

by Mo Gawdat

Book cover for Scary Smart

In Scary Smart, The former chief business officer of Google outlines how artificial intelligence is way smarter than us, and is predicted to be a billion times more intelligent than humans by 2049. Free from distractions and working at incredible speeds, AI can look into the future and make informed predictions, looking around corners both real and virtual. 

But AI also gets so much wrong. Because humanity design the algorithms that make up AI, there are imperfect flaws embedded in algorithms that reflect the imperfection of humans. Mo Gawdat, drawing on his unparalleled expertise in the field, outlines how and why we must alter the terrifying trajectory of AI development and teach ourselves and our machines to live better. 

‘Mo Gawdat is my life guru. His writing, his ideas and his generosity in sharing them has changed my life for the better in so many ways. Everything he writes is an enlightening education in how to be human.’
Elizabeth Day

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch

by Harry Cliff

Book cover for How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch

‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’ - Carl Sagan

Inspired by Sagan’s famous line, Harry Cliff ventures out in search of the ultimate apple pie recipe, tracing the ingredients of our universe through the hearts of dying stars and back in time to a tiny fraction of a second after our universe began. If you've ever wondered what matter is really made of, or how our world began after the Big Bang, or what the very first moments of our universe looked like – then this is the book for you.

Wayfinding

by Michael Bond

Book cover for Wayfinding

Bond explores why some of us are so much better at finding our way than others. He also tackles the controversial subject of sex differences in navigation, and tries to understand why being lost can be such a devastating psychological experience. Discover how our brains make ‘cognitive maps’ that keep us orientated, even in places that we don’t know, and how our understanding of the world around us affects our psychology and behaviour.

The Sleeping Beauties

by Suzanne O'Sullivan

Book cover for The Sleeping Beauties

In Sweden, refugee children fall asleep for months and years at a time. In upstate New York, high school students develop contagious seizures. In the US Embassy in Cuba, employees complain of headaches and memory loss after hearing strange noises in the night.

These disparate cases are some of the most remarkable diagnostic mysteries of the twenty-first century, as both doctors and scientists have struggled to explain them and – more crucially – to treat them. 

Inspired by a poignant encounter with the sleeping refugee children of Sweden, neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan travels the world to visit other communities who have also been subject to outbreaks of so-called ‘mystery’ illnesses.

Making It

by Jay Blades

Book cover for Making It

Making It is an inspirational memoir about beating the odds and turning things around even when it all seems hopeless. 

In this book, Jay Blades reflects on strength, weakness and what it means to be a man.He shares the details of his life, from his childhood growing up sheltered and innocent on a council estate in Hackney, to his adolescence when he was introduced to violent racism at secondary school, to being brutalized by police as a teen, to finally becoming a beloved star of the hit primetime show The Repair Shop.

With Jay's positivity, pragmatism and kindness shining through every page, he shows that with care and love, anything can be mended.

Read our interview with Jay here, as he tells us how hard work and 'mistakes' have been the making of him.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

by Emmanuel Acho

Book cover for Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

This timely non-fiction book on race and racism from the host of the viral video series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man is an essential guide to systemic racism and how to address it. Emmanuel  Acho takes on all the questions, large and small, insensitive and taboo, many white people are afraid to ask – yet which everyone needs the answers to, now more than ever.

Empire of Pain

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Book cover for Empire of Pain

Described by the Washington Post as 'one of the most anticipated books of this spring', Empire of Pain is the story of three generations of the Sackler family, and their role in the stories of Valium and Oxycontin . . .

As one of the richest families in the world, the Sacklers are known for their lavish donations in the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that they were responsible for making and marketing Oxycontin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis – an international epidemic of drug addiction which has killed nearly half a million people.

This masterpiece of narrative reporting is the secret history of the Sackler dynasty.

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Book cover for Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

In seven short essays about that big grey blob between your ears, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explores the origins and structure of the brain, as well as shelving popular myths about the alleged battle between thoughts and emotions, or between nature and nurture. Sure to intrigue casual readers and scientific veterans alike, the book is full of surprises, humour and revelations about human nature.

A World on the Wing

by Scott Weidensaul

Book cover for A World on the Wing

This is the rousing story of the billions of birds that, despite the numerous obstacles we have placed in their path, continue to head to the far horizon. The past two decades have seen an explosion in our understanding of the feats of endurance and complexity involved in bird migration. A World on the Wing sees Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted writer and ornithologist Scott Weidensaul track some of the most remarkable flights undertaken by birds around the world.

Bad Blood

by John Carreyrou

Book cover for Bad Blood

How far can you get with no expertise, technology that doesn’t work, and an extraordinary sales pitch? Disturbingly far. Bad Blood is the story of one of the biggest corporate fraud cases of the 21st century. Journalist John Carreyrou explores the rise and shocking fall of tech start-up Theranos, which was valued at $9 billion based on its innovative medical technology before it was all revealed to be a lie.

Read everything you need to know about the Theranos scandal.

Everybody

by Olivia Laing

Book cover for Everybody

Embodiment is not an easy business. From violence to illness, sexuality to racism, the fact of a body can be impossibly hard to inhabit. Olivia Laing draws on her own background in protest and alternative medicine to investigate the reasons why. Laing’s exploration of the complexities of bodily life takes in some of the most significant and beguiling figures of the past century, among them the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the painters Francis Bacon and Agnes Martin and the singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone.

Everybody is a fierce, vital exploration of what it means to have a body in the modern era. 

Queer Intentions

by Amelia Abraham

Book cover for Queer Intentions

What is it like to be queer in the 21st century? With gay marriage legal in many countries across the west, and brands embracing pride celebrations, some might think it’s an easy life. Amelia Abrahams’s book delves into the experiences of those across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, beyond these positive but limited changes, and reveals the battles for progress queer communities continue to fight.

It's Not About the Burqa

by Mariam Khan

Book cover for It's Not About the Burqa

Mariam Khan brings together the voices of seventeen Muslim women living in the west in the twenty-first century. The women tackle issues from arranged marriage to queer identity, racism to wavering faith. Each essay is a passionate call to end the oppression, misogyny and Islamophobia that Muslim women face in western society.

Watch the contributors to It’s Not About the Burqa discuss what it means to be a Muslim woman.

How Stella Learned to Talk

by Christina Hunger

Book cover for How Stella Learned to Talk

When speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger first came home with her puppy, Stella, it didn't take long for her to start drawing connections between her job and her new pet. During the day, she worked with toddlers with significant delays in language development and used Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices to help them communicate. At night, she wondered: if dogs can understand words we say to them, shouldn't they be able to say words to us? Can dogs use AAC to communicate with humans?

The best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs

Hope Not Fear

by Hassan Akkad

Book cover for Hope Not Fear

Despite having experienced the unimaginable, BAFTA award-winner Hassan Akkad holds onto hope and demonstrates the kindness humanity is capable of every day. Hope Not Fear details both Hassan's life in Syria before the war and his perilous journey to the UK as an asylum-seeker, followed by his experiences from the Covid-19 frontline as an NHS cleaner at a London hospital. His account of the pandemic has even driven a government U-turn on the exclusion of the families of NHS cleaners and porters from its bereavement compensation scheme. Hassan's story of triumph over adversity by standing together, united in kindness and love, is the most important message of our time. 

Stronger

by Poorna Bell

Book cover for Stronger

Poorna Bell’s journey to get strong began when – following the death of her husband, Rob – she realized that she had been relying on the men in her life to take out the bins, carry the luggage and move furniture. Poorna is now a competitive amateur power-lifter and the strongest she has ever been. This inspiring non-fiction book is part memoir and part manifesto, starting a conversation about women’s mental and physical strength and fitness which has nothing to do with weight loss. 

Me

by Elton John

Book cover for Me

Me is the heartfelt and candid memoir of world-renowned musician Elton John. We all know the name, and we’ve all heard his songs, but it hasn’t always been glamour and admiration for the singer-songwriter. From his dramatic rise to fame, to coming out as gay whilst in the public spotlight, Me follows the ups and downs of an incredible life.

Read Elton John on life, fate and embracing your bad side.

Discover seven amazing stories you didn’t know about Elton John.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey

by Mariah Carey

Book cover for The Meaning of Mariah Carey

In this memoir, global icon Mariah Carey finally tells the unfiltered story of her life. This moving portrait of an extraordinary life is not to be missed. The Guardian called it ‘a carefully pieced together self-portrait of one of this generation’s most fascinatingly idiosyncratic, frequently misunderstood artists.’

Gotta Get Theroux This

by Louis Theroux

Book cover for Gotta Get Theroux This

Everyone’s dream dinner guest has put down the camera in favour of the pen. Louis Theroux’s memoir takes the reader from his first gig with documentary maker Michael Moore to establishing himself as a household name. We all trust him to share the stories of communities and individuals with honesty and sensitivity on our screens, and now he offers the same experience for readers with his own life story.

Watch us put Louis to the test in our ‘Did I really say that?’ quiz.

Don’t miss Louis Theroux’s top five documentaries.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Mary Seacole was a fiercely independent self-funded entrepreneur from Jamaica. A trained nurse, she was desperate to offer help during the Crimean War, but was denied work by officials and by Florence Nightingale. Mary knew what she wanted to achieve and wouldn’t let anything stand in her way, so she set up her famous hotel for British soldiers, offering respite from the front line. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands is her gutsy autobiography.


More Myself

by Alicia Keys

Book cover for More Myself

One of the most celebrated musicians of our time, Alicia Keys has a career that many would aspire to. But her rise to fame and success has not been without its challenges. More Myself is a raw and honest account of how one of America’s most successful female singer/songwriters was able to start accepting herself and embracing her self worth.

Discover more of the best autobiographies and biographies.


The most inspirational non-fiction books

No Friend but the Mountains

by Behrouz Boochani

Book cover for No Friend but the Mountains

When Behrouz came to Australia seeking asylum he was wrongly incarcerated and found himself entirely stateless and alone. He wrote this book by sending one text at a time in Farsi from his cell in the detention centre, knowing that his story was also the story of so many others that had gone unheard.

Learn more about Behrouz’s story here.

The Book Collectors of Daraya

by Delphine Minoui

Book cover for The Book Collectors of Daraya

In 2012, the rebel suburb of Daraya in Damascus was brutally besieged by Syrian government forces. In this man-made hell, forty young Syrian revolutionaries embarked on an extraordinary project, rescuing all the books they could find in the bombed-out ruins of their home town. They used them to create a secret library, in a safe place deep underground. The Book Collectors of Daraya is a powerful testament to freedom, tolerance and the power of literature.

The Happiest Man on Earth

by Eddie Jaku

Book cover for The Happiest Man on Earth

This heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir shows us how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times. In November 1938, Eddie Jaku was beaten, arrested and taken to a German concentration camp. He endured unimaginable horrors for the next seven years and lost family, friends and his country.  But he survived. And because he survived, he vowed to smile every day. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’. This is his story. 


The best history books

A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth

by Henry Gee

Book cover for A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth

This lyrical and moving account takes us back to the early history of the earth, a wildly inhospitable place with swirling seas, constant volcanic eruptions and an unstable atmosphere. The triumph of life as it emerges, survives and evolves in this hostile setting is Henry Gee's riveting subject: he traces the story of life on earth from its turbulent beginnings to the emergence of early hominids and the miracle of the first creatures to fly. You'll never look at our planet in the same way again.

Thebes

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Paul Cartledge brings Thebes to life in this vivid portrait of what was once the most powerful city in Ancient Greece. Thebes has long been overshadowed by it’s better-known rivals Athens and Sparta, but Paul argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements, and to our own civilization. 

How to Be a Refugee

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Book cover for How to Be a Refugee

The fate of Jews living in Hitler’s Germany is most familiar as either emigration or deportation to concentration camps. But another, much rarer, side to Jewish life at that time was denial of your origin to the point where you manage to erase almost all consciousness of it. How to Be a Refugee is Simon May’s gripping account of how three women – his mother and her two sisters  – grappled with what they felt to be a lethal heritage. 

A House Through Time

by David Olusoga

Book cover for A House Through Time

Historian and award-winning TV presenter David Olusoga and research consultant Melanie Backe-Hansen offer readers the tools to explore the histories of their own homes, as well as giving a vivid history of British cities, industry, disease and class. Packed with remarkable human stories, A House Through Time is an intimate history of ordinary lives through extraordinary buildings across Britain.

Don’t miss our edit of the best history books


The best political books and legal books

Fake Law

by The Secret Barrister

Book cover for Fake Law

The epidemic of fake news continues, with amateurs spreading ‘fake law’ through our media. Enter the Secret Barrister, to make sure readers are informed on how the British legal system really works. Revealing the truth behind many of the biggest legal stories of recent years, the Secret Barrister debunks the lies and shows us how the law touches every area of our lives.

Revolt

by Nadav Eyal

Book cover for Revolt

Revolt is an eloquent and provocative challenge to the prevailing wisdom about the rise of nationalism and populism today. With a vibrant and informed voice, Nadav Eyal illustrates how modern globalization is unsustainable. He contends that the collapse of the current world order is not so much about the imbalance between technological advances and social progress, or the breakdown of liberal democracy, as it is about a passion to upend and destroy power structures that have become hollow, corrupt, or simply unresponsive to urgent needs.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, described it as 'a well-written and thought-provoking account of the current crisis of globalization. Not everyone will agree with Eyal's interpretation, but few will remain indifferent.' 

Losing Earth

by Nathaniel Rich

Book cover for Losing Earth

From David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg the words on everyone’s lips are ‘climate change’. It’s not a new discussion but it’s an increasingly relevant one. Nathanial Rich’s book embodies this by turning back the clock to the climate activism of the 1980s and where it went right or wrong, imparting lessons and vital information for the 21st century reader.

Antisocial

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For several years Andrew Marantz immersed himself in the world of America’s alt-right, seeing first-hand how they use social media to advance their corrosive agenda, as well as meeting the social media entrepreneurs whose reckless ambition made this possible. Antisocial is the result – a shocking look at the changing political landscape in the face of ‘fake-news’ and fringe ideas going viral.


The best business books and books about success

Think Like a Breadwinner

by Jennifer Barrett

Book cover for Think Like a Breadwinner

In Think Like a Breadwinner, financial expert Jennifer Barrett reframes what it really means to be a breadwinner by dismantling the narrative that women don't – and shouldn't – take full financial responsibility to create the lives they want. Featuring a wide variety of case studies from women at all stages of their careers and financial lives, Barrett shares the secrets of women who already think like breadwinners. Barrett reveals not only the importance of women building their own wealth, but also the freedom and power that comes with it.

Working Backwards

by Colin Bryar

Book cover for Working Backwards

Launched out of Jeff Besoz's garage in 1994, Amazon is now one of the biggest and most profitable companies in the world. In Working Backwards, two Amazon executives lift the lid on how the company achieved such domination, and how products including Kindle, Amazon Prime, Amazon Echo and Alexa came to be. Sharing the secrets of the company's fourteen leadership principles, meticulous hiring process and rigorous business principles, this is a must-read book for entrepreneurs.

Growth IQ

by Tiffani Bova

Book cover for Growth IQ

In Growth IQ, Salesforce's Tiffani Bova shares ten strategies for how companies big and small can achieve sustainable growth. In this book about success, Bova explains that a purpose-led culture is at the heart of the world's most successful organisations and teams, and shares practical takeaways you can apply to your business.

Looking for more inspiration? Read on for the best books about success. 


The best sports books

Too Many Reasons to Live

by Rob Burrow

Book cover for Too Many Reasons to Live

The inspirational memoir from rugby league legend Rob Burrow on his extraordinary career and his battle with motor neurone disease.

This is the story of a tiny kid who adored rugby league but never should have made it  and ended up in the Leeds hall of fame. It's the story of a man who resolved to turn a terrible predicament into something positive  when he could have thrown the towel in. It's about the power of love, between Rob and his childhood sweetheart Lindsey; and of friendship, between Rob and his faithful team mates. Far more than a sports memoir, Too Many Reasons to Live is a story of boundless courage and infinite kindness.

My Life and Rugby

by Eddie Jones

Book cover for My Life and Rugby

One of the most recognisable names in rugby, Eddie Jones has finally committed his own personal journey to writing. From growing up in a working-class household in Sydney, Australia, to devising the Japanese team’s 2015 victory, and coaching the English rugby squad to new heights, My Life and Rugby tells it all.

Read all about Eddie’s rugby highlights.

Lights Out, Full Throttle

by Damon Hill

Book cover for Lights Out, Full Throttle

Johnny Herbert and Damon Hill have competed in 261 Grand Prix between them, with twenty-five wins, forty-nine podium finishes, one World Championship, 458 championship points and a Le Mans win. Since retiring from the sport they have earned cult status as commentators and pundits. Lights Out, Full Throttle is a tour through the world of Formula One – the oily rag for the petrolhead fan to inhale while waiting for the racers to line up on the grid.

Discover our edit of the best sports books and autobiographies.


The best self-help books

Cracking the Menopause

by Mariella Frostrup

Book cover for Cracking the Menopause

Deploying straight-talking but humorous prose, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup and health journalist Alice Smellie aim to get us talking about the menopause. With the latest science, expert advice and personal stories, this book is crammed with information for something that half the population will experience, but which hardly anyone wants to discuss. 

Featuring case studies from women in every walk of life and all stages of their menopause journey, you'll find wise words and enlightenment throughout, whether you're entering the perimenopause or have been experiencing symptoms for years, this essential book separates the myths from the reality and offers expertise, hope and advice.

What Happened to You?

by Oprah Winfrey

Book cover for What Happened to You?

Through wide-ranging and often deeply personal conversation, Oprah Winfrey and Dr Perry explore how what happens to us in early childhood – both good and bad - influences the people we become. They challenge us to shift from focusing on 'What’s wrong with you?' or 'Why are you behaving that way?' to asking 'What happened to you?'. This simple change in perspective can open up a new and hopeful understanding for millions about why we do the things we do, why we are the way we are, providing a road map for repairing relationships, overcoming what seems insurmountable, and ultimately living better and more fulfilling lives.

Notes from Your Therapist

by Allyson Dinneen

Book cover for Notes from Your Therapist

For anyone in need of a daily dose of affirmation and empathy, therapist and mental health counsellor Allyson Dinneen shares this collection of artful and beautifully photographed hand-written insights, based on her popular Instagram account. These bite-sized words of wisdom cover everything from setting boundaries and navigating relationships to how to take good care of yourself. As she does in her practice, through these notes Dinneen seeks to cultivate emotional well-being, recognize the struggle of being human, and offer a nurturing, compassionate perspective.

Nobody Tells You

by Becca Maberly

Book cover for Nobody Tells You

Inspired by her own experience and frustration at the lack of honest information, Becca Maberly felt passionately that Nobody Tells You was a book the world needed. 

As a postnatal expert and the founder of A Mother Place, she compiled this collection about the highs and lows of the unique and often nerve-wracking experience of pregnancy, childbirth and beyond, alongside her father, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, Roger Marwood. 

Offering professional and reassuring advice from experts alongside over 100 real-life accounts of pregnancy, birth, and life with a baby, Nobody Tells You will give you all the tools you need to be informed and prepared for one of life's great journeys.

The Kindness Method

by Shahroo Izadi

Book cover for The Kindness Method

In these difficult times, we could all benefit from showing ourselves a little kindness. If you want to use this time to make a change, Behavioural Change Specialist Shahroo Izadi believes there’s only one way to make change last, and that’s to be kind to yourself. The Kindness Method was developed through a combination of professional training and personal experience and will leave you feeling empowered, positive and ready to make a change, whether it’s weight loss, cutting down on alcohol or improving your relationships.

Here, Shahroo shares five ways to be kinder to yourself today. 

Broken (in the best possible way)

by Jenny Lawson

Book cover for Broken (in the best possible way)

The instant New York Times Bestseller from the author of Furiously Happy and Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Broken (in the best possible way) is about living, surviving, and thriving with anxiety.

As Jenny Lawson’s hundreds of thousands of fans know, she suffers from depression. In Broken, Jenny humanizes what we all face in an all-too-real way, reassuring us that we’re not alone and making us laugh while doing it. 

Hilarious, heart-warming and honest, Broken is a beacon of hope and a wellspring of laughter when we all need it most.

For more inspiring reads, don’t miss the best self-care books. 


In this episode of Book Break, Emma takes a look at some of the weird and wonderful non-fiction books you may not have heard of:

What's Your Favourite Weird and Wonderful Non-Fiction?