I hate the concept of guilty pleasures because it often does an injustice to the pleasure. But if I am ever feeling stuck, bored, under-stimulated, over-stimulated or tired and on the road, I know there is one book genre that will get me out of my funk—narrative non-fiction.
Sure, these books are for entertainment purposes first, just like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. They blow my mind for that reason. How do the authors do it? To tell this epic story and make even the background details seem exciting? To keep you on the edge of your seat even when, most of the time, you already know the ending? They can tell you the way the sunset looked on a day they never witnessed, they can tell you what the hero was thinking—deeply and intimately so.
All of this is more than journalism, more than facts—it is storytelling. That’s what narrative non-fiction is at it’s finest: storytelling about real people doing extraordinary things. It’s the arc, the rising and falling action, climax, the characters…and shockingly, it’s all true.
Below, I’d like to recommend what I think are just a few of the classics of the genre. These are books I loved so much that I read them in marathon sittings, wanting to get to the end but hoping they never finished. These authors are masters of their craft who can teach us not just about writing, but at their best, give us insights about life and the human condition. Enjoy!
1. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Did you know that Moby Dick was based on a true story? And that the real story is arguably better? There was a real whaling ship that was broken in half by an angry sperm whale. And then it gets crazy. The members of the crew escaped in three lifeboats, traveling thousands of miles at sea with little food and water until they slowly resorted cannibalism (like drawing straws, killing and then eating the loser, cannibalism). Besides being an utterly unbelievable story, this book also gives a great history into the whaling industry and the cowboy-like entrepreneurs who led it. Wow.
2. Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough & John Helyar
Honestly, a leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco (yes, the cracker company and the tobacco brands were once one company) by a couple of investment bankers in 1988 should be a really boring book. But somehow it isn’t. It not only isn’t, it’s basically a microcosm of the entire finance industry in the 80s. There are so many characters, so many twists and turns, so much detail. Look, I just went through the Dov Charney/American Apparel saga from the inside and as crazy as that I still on many occasions found myself saying, “Meh, still not as good as Barbarian.” Also the writer of this book, Bryan Burroughs, is just a plain master of this genre. His other two books are 100% worth reading and just as good as this one: The Big Rich and Public Enemies deserve to be on this list.
3. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candace Millard
I thought I knew about Theodore Roosevelt. This book opens with him stranded in the Amazon jungle begging his son to let him kill himself so he wouldn’t be a burden on their exploring party any longer. And then it gets better from there. I mean, did you know he is credited with being the first to chart and navigate a totally unknown river as long as the Nile? And that he did that after he was President, just for fun? I’m not sure I need to explain much else, but if you needed more convincing, I will say that Candice Millard who wrote Destiny of the Republic (which I highly recommend) wrote this too and it’s better than her last book. Not only is there a bunch of great history and drama here, it shows a human side of Roosevelt I had not understood before.
4. And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi and Bruce Henderson
It’s hard for me to say which Vincent Bugliosi book is best, but I am partial to the And the Sea Will Tell because it’s different than his others. Bugliosi was famously the prosecutor of Charles Manson and wrote a great book about it in Helter Skelter. In this book, he’s the defense attorney for Jennifer Jenkins (not her real name), a woman tried for the murder of married strangers committed by her boyfriend on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They were caught when they pulled into a Hawaiian yacht club with the dead couples boat…painted in a different color. Some six years later, the wife’s body was found in a chest which washed up in a heavy storm. WTF right? Was she in on it? Did her weird boyfriend do it alone? What possible motivate did they have? Bugliosi empathizes with his client but she remains a mystery to him and to us. Most people think she was complicit in the murders but not Bugliosi, who tells the story not only of what happened on this lonely island but the riveting trial and ultimate acquittal.
5. A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 by Frederic Morton
One of my favorite books ever is a book called A Nervous Splendor, which looked at the insane intersection of Crown Prince Rudolf, a young Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, and the playwright Arthur Schnitzler in Austria in 1888. The book begins and ends with Rudolf, a melancholy, difficult young man whose suicide, one could argue, put in motion the events of WWI. You wouldn’t think that such an intersection and coincidences could have gone unknown for so long, but they have. And that’s why you have to read books like these—because they show you a side of history that has been ignored or lost.
6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Truman Capote, childhood friend of Harper Lee, writes one of the greatest true crime books of all time. It’s the gruesome 1959 murder of an entire family by two ex-cons who served time together. Why did they commit this murder? Who were these men? Why the unspeakable violence? These are the questions that fascinated Capote who spent hours interviewing the murderers at great length. He doesn’t so much answer all of the questions as he does give us a glimpse into an utterly foreign world. As Perry Smith told him in one interview: “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” Jesus Christ. This book is a classic and perhaps the first in its genre for a reason.
7. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Holy shit, this book is good. That’s why I have recommended it so many different times by now. Even if it was just the main narrative–the chase to kill a man-eating Tiger in Siberia in post-communist Russia–it would be worth reading, but it is so much more than that. The author explains the Russian psyche, the psyche of man vs. predator, the psyches of primitive peoples and animals, in such a masterful way that you’re shocked to find 1) that he knows this, and 2) that he fit it all into this readable and relatively short book. You may have heard about the story on the internet a while back: a tiger starts killing people in Russia and a team is sent to kill it (Russia is so unreal, they already have a team for this). At one point, the tiger is cornered and leaps to attack the team leader…and in mid-air the soldier’s rifle goes into the tigers open jaws and down his throat all the way to the stock, killing the tiger at the last possible second. The autopsy later revealed that the tiger had been shot something like a dozen times during its life and lived. And on top of that Vaillant also wrote an amazing book called The Golden Spruce, about one of the most unique trees to ever grow on this planet—until it was chopped down by an eco-terrorist with mental problems…and then mysteriously disappeared and was never seen again.
8. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis
This book has got an entrepreneur who builds three billion dollar companies during the course of the book (Silicon Graphics, Netscape and WebMD). It’s got an epic quest to build the world’s largest sailboat. It has a “Rosebud”-esque tuba that makes multiple appearances. Jim Clark is the vehicle through which you come to understand Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship and in some ways, the new American Dream. Michael Lewis knows how to tell a story, yes, but mostly he knows how to find stories and his best books—The New New Thing being one of them tell stories through characters that are almost too good to be true. I would put his newer books The Big Short and Flash Boys up there with this book but they are less narratives and more explanatory. This book is all story and goddamn it’s a good one. (Also, I read this book because while I was poor, I tricked a friend from college into buying it “for us to share.” I still own the copy, he has not read it. Sorry Milt!).
9. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America by John M. Barry
This book is amazing and its subject matter isn’t constrained to just the South or the flood of 1927. It opens with the rich citizens of New Orleans hurrying to the levee to survey a growing emergency and ends with a decision that influenced the direction of America in innumerable ways—from its next President to the permanent decline of the South’s most important city to race relations for the next fifty years. It’s one of those books that is so meticulously researched and so masterly written that it is at once a book guaranteed to be a success (it was) and so much more educational than a book of its popularity would suggest.
10. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
50 plus years old, this is a story that more than stands the test of time. Sir Ernest Shackleton makes his daring attempt to cross Antarctic continent but his crew and boat are trapped in the ice flows. What follows are 600 days of harrowing survival, first from the elements, then from hunger, then from the sea as he makes a daring attempt in a small lifeboat to reach land 650 miles away, then again as he struggles over land and mountains to bring relief to his men. And when he finally arrives with it, Shackleton simply boards them on the boat and returns home as if nothing had happened. He was an immensely brave man in the midst of terrible adversity and we see this so clearly in a book based on the remarkable diaries of his men. He never quit, never seemed to despair. This book (and his life) were living proof of his family motto: “Fortitudine vincimus” (By endurance we conquer).
Here’s a test for narrative nonfiction that all these books pass: if the author had made it all up, would it still be good? What makes these books so impressive is that at times it almost feels like they did—the books read so well you could think they were fiction. That the storyteller was creating the story to fit their purposes and not the other way around.
But of course, these books are history at its most interesting. It’s not always history you’d think that you’d care about but trust me, pick up one of these book and see what happens. And course, feel free to add your own recommendations below.