20 life-changing nonfiction books that you can finish in a day

Category #2 for the 2016 MMD Reading Challenge is “a book you can finish in a day.”

This could be a long book, or a very short book, depending on your reading speed and what title you choose. But if you’re still looking for a book to fulfill this category, I’ve gathered up a list of likely suspects.

These twenty slim nonfiction works all run 200 pages or less, and deliver a lot of bang for the buck. Most readers can knock one of these off in an afternoon, but will think about what they read between the covers for weeks, months, even years after they finish.

(Head here for a list of short fiction works you can finish in a day.)

Life-changing nonfiction books you can finish in a day
Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

In this short memoir of sorts, Lamott distills everything she's learned from a lifetime of praying down to the basics. She wanders a bit, but there are so many gems in these pages. 102 pages. More info →
What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

In this short, practical guide, Vanderkam examines how and why successful individuals depend on their morning routine, and how you can do the same. She profiles a wide variety of individuals, who do all kinds of things with their early hours: exercise, spiritual practices, family time, creative work. The common thread: they’re all intentional about using their mornings well, which is crucial to success. You can finish reading this in an hour, but don't skip the time diary exercise. It will change your mornings—and your life. 192 pages. More info →
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Jacobs's manifesto aims to convince readers everywhere: reading is supposed to be fun! I expected Jacobs to be stuffy, but he won my heart when he called Harold Bloom a snob. Lots of good nuggets and insights for book lovers, plus inspiration to expand your reading list and spend more time between the spines. This book is best enjoyed slowly, a few pages at a time. 162 pages. More info →
The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style

This is THE classic style guide for writers of all sorts. In their distinctive witty style, Strunk and White advocate for clear, concise, and accurate English. Time magazine named it one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. 105 pages. More info →
As a Man Thinketh

As a Man Thinketh

"As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." Allen believes the quality of your thoughts are responsible for the quality of your life. This short book (first published in 1902!) prompts you to examine how, and why, you think the way you do. My mom first gave me this little classic; it's one of her favorites. 80 pages. More info →
A Briefer History of Time

A Briefer History of Time

In response to reader demand, Hawking wrote this shorter and more accessible version of his instant classic A Brief History of Time Make no mistake: it's still dizzying and more than a little daunting for non-scientific types, but I found most of Hawking's explanations about the science and nature of time to be intelligible and even enjoyable.176 pages. More info →
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

The publisher describes this instant classic as The Art of War meets The Artists Way. I call it a good kick in the pants. This is THE BOOK on breaking through your creative blocks everything else is derivative. You'll resonate with so much of what Pressfield says about the many forms the Resistance takes, and how to combat it. I recognized myself over and over in these pages–and I'd thought I was the only one. 192 pages. More info →
The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”

“Quotidian” means “ordinary,” or “everyday,” and in this slim volume (88 pages!) Norris affirms the inherent worth of the mundane tasks that consume our everyday–the cooking, the cleaning, the dishes, the diapering. “What is it about repetitive acts that makes us feel that we are wasting our time?” Norris asks. Yet she insists that our daily activities are anything but trivial, and have the power to shape our souls, if we let them. A beautiful book worth reading over and over again. Take note: the text is largely contained within Norris's longer memoir Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. 89 pages. More info →
Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together

Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together

I heard Anne Lamott say once that everything she knows about writing also applies to faith, and everything she knows about faith also applies to writing. She wasn't the first writer to make that connection and she certainly won't be the last. Cyzewski explores the interweaving of writing and faith, and specifically prayer in this thought-provoking and genuinely useful little book. The book is written from a Christian perspective (albeit a generously inclusive one), and as the author himself says, "if you're already inclined to both write and pray, you may as well figure out how they can help each other." Indeed. 94 pages. More info →
The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful

The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful

A decorating book that's much more than a decorating book. Myquillyn Smith walks the reader through all fourteen (!!!) homes she's lived in as an adult, explaining how she learned to create a beautiful home despite the many limitations. Her mantra is "it doesn't have to be perfect to be beautiful," and she'll fill you with confidence that you, too can create a beautiful, welcoming home that also feels lived-in and loved-on, despite your own lovely limitations. Practical and inspiring. 198 pages. More info →
Gift from the Sea

Gift from the Sea

This short book was first published in 1955 yet still feels fresh and relevant for today. Lindbergh muses on womanhood, solitude, busyness, contentment, growing older, and more. Equal parts memoir, meditation, and practical guide, this one is worth coming back to again and again: you'll discover new insights with each reading. 130 pages. More info →
The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills

This pithy little guidebook is devoted to deliberate practice. Skipping over abstract theories, Coyle shoots straight for the practicalities, sharing 52 ways to put more effective practice into your life. This surprisingly readable guide is packed with fascinating insights and practical tips covering diverse fields like sports, music, art, math, and business. I avoided reading it for a long time because the cover's little gold seal made it look like a gift book. Don’t make that mistake—this book is a gem. 160 pages. More info →
The Alchemist

The Alchemist

This is the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of treasure and sets off on a journey to find it, meeting all kinds of interesting characters along the way. This little book has been on the bestseller lists for years and has over a million ratings on Goodreads. 197 pages. More info →
One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

Kaizen is the Japanese art of making significant changes through small, simple steps. I loved this book for its straightforward explanation of the kaizen concept and the numerous anecdotes showing the method put into practice. A short, easy read and well worth the time if you're interested in habit formation (or kicking your Diet Coke habit). 182 pages. More info →
A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own

Woolf's long essay about society and art and sexism is thoroughly of its time and timeless. She argues that a woman must have money and a room of her own (literally and figuratively) in order to write well. It's a little slow to get into but keep at it: this is one of Woolf's most accessible and rewarding works. 112 pages. More info →
Zen In The Art Of Writing

Zen In The Art Of Writing

Bradbury is remembered for his inventive stories and fantastically creative mind. In this essential book for writers, he shares his process and spills his secrets. Bradbury dishes a surprising amount of practical advice for a book with the word "zen" in the title. 158 pages. More info →
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

Following a catastrophic stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby spent several weeks in a coma, then wakened to a new reality. The 44-year-old sharp, high-living editor of French Elle was now a victim of "locked-in syndrome": he was mentally alert but unable to move or speak. Through sheer determination and a dose of the miraculous, Bauby learns a new way to communicate: by blinking to "speak," selecting one letter at a time, as someone read aloud a new alphabet rearranged in order of the letters' frequency of use. The diving bell of the title is the sheer weight of his useless body, but the butterfly is the human spirit that flies free. A wonderful and moving memoir. 132 pages. More info →
The Origin of Others

The Origin of Others

In 2016, Morrison delivered the Norton lectures at Harvard University. This is the book form of those addresses; because they were first delivered as lectures they are exceptionally easy to read, although the themes themselves are hard. I especially enjoyed Morrison's discussions of her own popular works, like Beloved and Paradise, and her references to authors like Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner. With a foreword by Ta-Nehisi Coates. More info →


"What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it." In this moving memoir, Wiesel recalls his experience as a young boy with his father in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944-45, during the Holocaust at the height of World War II. It's amazing how much Wiesel packs into 100 pages. "Never shall I forget ... " 132 pages. More info →
The Getaway Car

The Getaway Car

Everyone knows Ann Patchett, but readers tend to overlook this e-only mini-memoir. Patchett sketches a path from childhood through the completion of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Stops along the way include her college years, a failed marriage, the Iowa writing program, and a waitressing stint at TGIFriday’s. I loved this one enough to include it in the summer reading guide. A great read for any Patchett fan, but an absolute must-read for writerly types. 46 pages. More info →

What are YOU reading for this category? (This is my pick. It’s not nonfiction.)

20 life-changing nonfiction books that you can finish in a day


Leave A Comment
  1. Jill Koly says:

    I just read The Nesting Place yesterday. I also started reading 100 Recipes from America’s Test Kitchen, and it blew me away. I got it from the library, but I need to get my own copy. I can see myself cooking every recipe from that book. Breaking out of my cooking rut is definitely life changing!
    The Pleasures of Reading sounds wonderful. Thanks for this list!

  2. Your first choice (The Quotidian Mysteries) made my list of books to read in a day, too: http://faithehough.blogspot.com/2016/02/2016-reading-challenge-10-books-you-can.html. It definitely changed the way I approach motherhood. Though I notice a lot of my friends (people with generally the same life ideals I have) kind of hated it. I wonder why it strikes some people so differently.
    I have both The War of Art and Pray, Write, Grow–I should probably read the two of them!

  3. liz n. says:

    Haven’t chosen the book for this category, yet. I could cheat and read “The Uncommon Reader,” but I’ve read it at least a dozen times already, and I’m supposed to be reading as many new-to-me books as possible this year.

    I’m currently reading from another category in the challenge: A book recommended by a bookseller or librarian.

  4. Stacy says:

    Thank you for the list! I love all things Anne Lamott, even her books that contain stories and essays I’ve already read in other books.

    Does The Alchemist qualify as nonfiction? I read it as a work of fiction, though it was many years ago! (And certainly life-changing.)

  5. Emma says:

    These are such great recommendations and I can’t wait to dive into the ones I haven’t read yet! The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch is another good, quick non-fiction read if you haven’t read it!

  6. Corby says:

    My book for this category was The Sorrow Proper by Lindsay Drager. Interesting little fiction book about the closing and changing of a library and the intersecting of two library patrons. I’ll admit the story was hard to get into but the writing was beautiful.

    I always keep about 5 copies of Gift from the Sea on hand. I love to give them away to people as a “just because” gift. So much in that book to love. Always makes me want to go rent a tiny bungalow on the beach for a just me vacation.

  7. Dana says:

    I have read a number of these:

    Pray, Write Grow
    The Getaway Car ( twice) Loved it! Ann Patchett is a favorite of mine.
    Zen and The Art of Writing. Very good.( want to read again)
    Help Thanks Wow
    War of Art. ( As soon as I finished this, I started back over
    with a pen and highlighter in hand) Marvelous.

    Several of the others look intriguing.

    I have a book by Jeff Goins of Tribe Writers in my TBR pile which I will use for this challenge. It is called
    You Are a Writer: So Start Acting Like One.

    I just read The Red Notebook in a day. It is fiction, but it is definitely a fun quick, read. Highly recommend it.

  8. Danae says:

    Last year, I read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff in an afternoon and loved it. I can’t wait to read a number of the ones you mentioned on this list!

  9. kirsten says:

    The Reason I Jump is very quick and palatable, but you get so much out of it. I bought copies to give to my in-laws, my parents, and one to keep and loan out, to help understand our kiddo with autism.

  10. Kate says:

    I read Approaching the Natural by Sid Garza-Hillman a couple years ago and it really changed how I think about things–so much common sense! It sounds like The Kaizen Way might be similar. I would also add Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer, even though it has already received so much love on this blog 🙂

  11. Andrea ( aka rokinrev) Stoeckel says:

    As a retired minister, not only have I read most of these, I’ve met about half the authors. These books are wonderful

  12. Addie says:

    I would add “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness to this list… its a ya book, and at first I thought it was really geared toward an even younger audience, but its just perfect and even made me cry…. and they are making a movie of it, which I imagine is going to be pretty fantastic

  13. Jim says:

    Thank you for your inspiring reading challenge. I’ve never seen one such as this, and my wife and I have taken it up with enthusiasm. My choice for a book to read in a day is fiction: Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. I loved the movie with Peter Sellers, so thought I would try the book.

  14. Having a graduate degree in English Literature from Stanford University, I really enjoyed your selection of short books to be read in a day. Some of my favorite on you list are Anne Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea, Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s own and Annie Lamott’s Help Thank Now. I’m looking forward to picking up those that I haven’t read and devouring them. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    I did this category in January because I had a mostly free Saturday and felt like spending it reading (any I hadn’t picked most of my other selections yet…). I read a Nero Wolfe mystery, “The Mother Hunt.” I forget how griping and quick-reading a mystery can be on a lazy Saturday! I am far from a fast reader, so I was nervous about this category…another reason I conquered it first. Life’s easier when you just eat that frog.
    Thank you for these great recommendations! “Gifts from the Sea” is so lovely! My m-i-l loaned it to me last year, then gave it to me for Christmas so I am considering rereading it soon.

  16. Megan says:

    I’m not a fast reader & was finding this category daunting, so thank you for the recommendations! The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is another to add to this list.

  17. Deborah says:

    I read the short novel “Our Souls at Night” by Kent Haruf, 2015, for this category. It’s a bittersweet love story between adults at an “advanced age.”
    I found it inspirational.

  18. Josh B says:

    I absolutely love to read memoirs from interesting and extraordinary people.
    Recently I read a really beautiful one from Tom Gallagher called Tara’s Halls.
    If you haven’t yet checked this book out, I strongly recommend reading some of the reviews on amazon and giving it a shot. Similar to Angela’s Ashes from Frank McCourt but I found it ultimately more inspirational and uplifting.
    Awesome book that’s worth taking a moment to discover.


  19. Julia says:

    I’m glad you’re recommending Jacobs’ little book about reading. So many books about books fall prey to snobbery (ahem, Adler, Bloom, etc.), but I like Jacobs’ advice to read “at Whim” while still reading “upward” in taste. Plus, it’s full of great quotes.

  20. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this list. I want to read more and this helps me feel more accomplished in that area. I got The Lake House from the library but, because it was a new book, I could only keep it two weeks. That may seem like a long time, but for me it is not. I actually skipped to the end after a while to see what happened because I couldn’t make it through the entire book. But then I just read The Long Walk to Water and I felt so accomplished that I could finish it in about two days. It made me want more good books like that. You answered that wish. Thank you!

  21. yettie says:

    I’m reading Maya Angelou’s Letter to my daughter BUT instead of reading it in one day, I’m keeping it in my car and reading in 30-45 minute spurts during my kids skating/swimming practices

  22. Sarah A says:

    My book for this category is The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, by Timothy Keller. It’s only 46 pages long (if you include the thoughts for reflection and end notes) but it packs a punch. Keller is a Presbyterian minister, and the book is essentially a sermon about a section of one of Paul’s letters. That being said, I think anyone – Christian or not – would find this book quite interesting, if not life-changing. It falls into the latter category for me. I tried to read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and became so depressed and frustrated I had to stop. (His story is amazing, but to dissect why I couldn’t handle the book would turn this comment into a blog post, hah!) I began reading Keller’s book after and was immediately comforted and challenged. Keller talks about the general fragility of the ego, how we seek to protect or buffet it as a result, and the importance and practicality of getting out of the everyday courtroom trial of our lives so we can ultimately “forget” ourselves and focus on fulfilling our purpose in life. It’s a book I anticipate reading over and over again. Thanks for all the other recommendations – my library list just got a LOT longer!

  23. Kimi says:

    I read Night by Elie Wiesel earlier this week for the MMD reading challenge in this category. My main issue is while the book is short, it packs such an emotional punch that I found I needed to take breaks and process what I had just read. Yes, I could’ve finished it in a day, but in a way, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be finished processing the words and thoughts.
    I also read it following The Giver, which was another short one that drained me emotionally and mentally.
    I think that is what I’ve found with so many shorter books. The content often is so powerful and strongly stated with an intensity that would overwhelm me if longer.

  24. Lindsey Back says:

    Have you ever read 84 Charing Cross Road? A story build around letters between a small book seller and an American woman…..really really good and quick to read.It is written by Helene Hanff.

  25. Tina says:

    Glad to see Gift from the Sea made the list. Another one that I would’ve added is Who Moved My Cheese? Definitely a life-changing nonfiction read for me.

  26. Maryk says:

    Coehlo’s book, no way in a day for me. Looking forward to some of the others. Would add Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story.

  27. Michelle says:

    Animal Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver changed the way I look at food. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande has changed the way I look at death and dying.

  28. Corey Bojko says:

    We were given as a gift one called “The Legend of the Monk and the Merchant” by Terry Felber that I read in a day and found very challenging.

    • Corey Bojko says:

      Though once I published my reply, I realized this is a NONfiction list, which the title above I believe is fiction. Still worth the day to read it, though.

  29. Meghan says:

    I loved 84, Charing Cross Road! As well as Ray Bradbury’s Zen. I’m interested in several of these I haven’t read — thanks for the list!
    Some other great nonfiction short reads are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks journals (there are four), Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and The Fringe Hours by Jessica Turner. Also Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, but I’m not sure if it’s an all-in-a-day book.

  30. Krista Mays says:

    LOVE that you included As a Man thinketh on this list. It is a profound little book that has greatly influenced my life. I’d also recommend The Game of Life & How to Play it by Florence Shovel Shinn and Mister God, this is Ana by Fynn- both are non-fiction.

  31. Nancy B. says:

    The most significant NF book I’ve read this year is Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. It’s a series of essays/memoirs from her life growing up fat in Seattle. It’s alternatingly laugh-out-loud and angst filled. It’s refreshing to read about a woman who speaks her mind (honestly and articulately) even when its uncomfortable to do so. It’s a treatise against fat-shaming, intentional and otherwise. It’s ownership of the word “fat” in a nonjudgmental way. It’s an easy, and mostly fun, read that could be read in a day. And it will change how you see other people who have a different appearance from the Hollywood norm. And, as a precaution, know that there are parts of it that are definitely “adult” in theme.

  32. Isabel says:

    Not this year but in a previous year I read and was blown away by “Reply to a Letter from Helga” by Icelandic author Bergsveinn Birgisson. Short but breathtaking.

  33. Kendra says:

    It’s not a short non-fiction, but an amazing one that has definitely changed my life for the better. The Life-changing Magic of Tidying up by Marie Kondo has become my most beloved book of all time.

  34. Sabine Bretzke says:

    Dear Anne,
    I was not yet following you when this post was published, but was so happy to find it recently. I tried to find your book on Amazon (German Site), but couldn’t. How can I get hands on it? I love your new book and would really like to read your first.
    Thanks for a hint and best regards from Germany

  35. Maria says:

    I can’t even!
    I love this list so so so so so much!

    May I make a suggestion?
    Can we please get the webgurus to add a link to lists similar to these allowing us to add these to our Goodreads accounts? Its rather cumbersome to remember the names or open separate tabs to add these one at a time.


  36. Lizabeth Snell says:

    Heating & Cooling; 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
    tiny gems.. the kind of book I wish I’d written.

  37. Kim Padan says:

    I tried the link for Ann Patchett’s “The Getaway Car,” but it is nowhere to be found on Amazon. I do have “The War of Art” on my shelf. Time to pick it up and read!

  38. Jennifer Geisler says:

    Do not miss Why Won’t You Apologize? by Harriet Lerner. Slightly less than 200 pages, an easy read with good personal examples to make her points, and wisdom on every page, this is a book that begs to be re-read and to be discussed. I discovered it one month ago and have already purchased and mailed several copies of gifts to people I love.

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