I love nonfiction books that read like novels, especially when the story surprises me—or better yet—blows my mind by revealing a slice of history I never learned about in school.
These stories make for a page-turning reading experience because I’m eager to know what happened—or how it happened—and fit it into my previous knowledge of the event or time period.
Today I’m sharing 25 books that explore untold, overlooked, or erstwhile top-secret stories in a compelling narrative. The authors on this list have scoured declassified files for secrets that are now safe to bring to light. Or they’ve found the unsung heroes behind big historical events and placed their contributions front and center.
These books would make great holiday gifts for the history buff in your life (or for your nonfiction-loving self). With a mix of subjects including art, film, history, true crime, and more, there’s a title to satisfy nearly every curious reader on this list. I hope you find several new-to-you nonfiction favorites to read or to gift.
A fascinating true story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The project began in 1857, and took 70 years to complete, even with the help of thousands of contributors. One of the most prolific contributors, submitting nearly ten thousand entries over the course of 20 years, was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American Civil War veteran from Connecticut, who turned out to be an inmate at one of Britain’s harshest insane asylums. Years after reading it, I can’t stop recommending the audio version. More info →
The true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. During the Space Race era, these women were segregated from their white counterparts and were the object of ruthless discrimination, despite their important work calculating flight paths for space missions. They ultimately worked their way up to highly influential positions in science, physics, mathematics, and technology; this book highlights their triumphs and the struggles that came first. Shetterly touches on the culture of the United States at this time relating to the Space Race, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the women's rights movement. More info →
This sobering nonfiction read tells the story of more than two dozen women who made their living painting luminous watch faces in the early twentieth century. Many were charmed by the "shining substance"—radium—that gave the watch its glow, but as we now know, radium is deadly. Moore uncovers what happened next. This is a story with heroes and villains, and can be hard to read (because the truth of history is sometimes painful), but it's an incredibly researched, captivating read. More info →
This is the story of the American female code breakers who helped win World War II, but whose vital work has gone unsung for decades. 10,000 American women served the U.S. Army and Navy as cryptanalysts; their call to action came in the form of a letter that asked them two short questions: did they like crossword puzzles, and were they engaged to be married? Despite their critical role in protecting the Allies and exposing the plans of the Axis powers, their work in cryptanalysis was kept secret. Mundy conducted extensive research to capture their story, including interviews with surviving code girls. A fascinating, thoroughly researched, and well-told true account. More info →
Grann’s award-winning true crime story reads like a novel, and addresses a topic excluded from most history textbooks: the identity, heritage, and wealth of the Osage Indian nation. In 1920s Oklahoma, members were among the richest people in the world, thanks to the vast oil reserves that lay beneath their reservation. But during the period of 1921-1926, more than two dozen Osage died suspiciously in the “Reign of Terror,” and when corrupt local law enforcement repeatedly bungled their cases, J. Edgar Hoover came in, laying the groundwork for the FBI in the process. More info →
The relatively unknown story of thirteen women who underwent astronaut training at the legendary Lovelace Foundation, though they never had the opportunity to journey into space with their male counterparts, widely known as the the Mercury 7. The women underwent the same tests and rigorous programming, sometimes with higher scores than their male colleagues. Though never recognized, these women women nevertheless went on to do great things in a wide variety of fields. More info →
As an avid fan of monster movies, Mallory O'Meara was thrilled to discover that a woman designed the monster from one of her favorite films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But as O'Meara soon discovered, Millicent Patrick's design accomplishments were hidden from history, due to jealous male colleagues and pervasive sexism in the film industry. Following along with O'Meara's research process is just as delightful as learning all about Millicent. I got to chat with Mallory on Episode 176 of What Should I Read Next, and despite my total avoidance of the horror genre, we found some readerly common ground! I am pleased to report that Mallory's book is not-too-scary, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. More info →
Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich shares stories of women's experiences in WWII "on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories" in this oral history. A powerful collection of untold true stories of sacrifice, patriotism, and danger. Sensitive readers take note: these accounts include gruesome war stories and violence in detail. This would make an excellent pairing with Kate Quinn's The Alice Network or The Huntress. More info →
I recently recommended this among "a plethora of political(ish) book recs" on WSIRN. It's a story about Garfield, his assassin, the circumstances under which he was shot, and the medical care that killed him for ages. Millard devotes considerable space to Charles J. Guiteau, the man who thought he was doing a political rival a service by pulling the trigger, but I found this thread far less interesting than that of Garfield's political career and short presidency. I'm sure I learned some of the details of his nomination and subsequent electoral win in history class, but I had completely forgotten how reluctant he had been to assume office—and how scholars agree that he would have survived the bullet wound just fine if the doctors had only left him alone. I'm interested in reading more by Millard. More info →
An in-depth account of the devastating Chernobyl disaster and its reverberating effects. Higginbotham combines piles of research with interviews and firsthand accounts in this compulsively readable report. Starting at the beginning, in the nuclear power plant control room, the reader follows the tragedy from early mistakes, to government lies, to worldwide disaster response. The political, social, and scientific implications of this event are fascinating and terrifying. This is a must-read for any history-lover or nonfiction fan. More info →
Three women: a young mother, an aristocrat, and a resistance organizer work behind the scenes in order to set up a successful D-Day invasion. Among thirty-nine other recruited spies, part of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), these women planned careful attacks on the enemy, gathered essential intelligence, and played an important role in WWII. A testament to the power of female leadership and willpower, this well-research account is inspiring and educational. More info →
"She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." The spy in question? Virginia Hall, an American socialite and secret operative for the Allies. She worked her way onto Churchill’s exclusive “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and completed missions behind enemy lines, as a woman—with a prosthetic leg. She set up spy networks, escaped death more than once, and saved countless lives. This extraordinary account of her exploits is a must-read for fans of The Alice Network. More info →
My husband loved this book. During WWII, merchant ships carrying important supplies became prime targets for German U-boat attacks. The captains of these merchant ships faced harsh conditions at sea and wartime dangers with bravery and skill. Eisenhower said, "there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine." Among those deserving more credit were seven brothers from Matthews, County VA fought those dangers down the United States coast. This is their untold story of heroism and of the community who supported them. More info →
Russian agent Oleg Gordievsky came from KGB parents and attended the best Soviet institutions in the country, but he turned against his country and became a double agent. Partnering with British intelligence, Gordievsky exposed agents, disrupted plots, and helped the West against the KBG for a decade. Macintyre's account of his exploits covers everything from tensions and gamesmanship between MI6 and the CIA to a harrowing escape from a Moscow. For fans of The Americans TV show or The Secrets We Kept by Laura Prescott. More info →
Who are the animators behind our favorite classic Disney movies? Often, the artists and animators receive little recognition compared to the writers and voice actors. Holt shares stories from interviews and Disney archives to put an influential group of women in the spotlight. These women created stunning artwork and utilized brand new technology in order to create the stories we know and love, all while facing sexist harassment and abuse. Connecting these women to present day achievements in animated filmmaking, this book is a must-read for Disney fans or film history buffs. Reviews say that the audiobook version is excellent, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld. More info →
The founders of huge tech companies like Google, Facebook, or Apple often come to mind when we think of the people behind today's internet, but we owe much of our online technological achievements to women who rarely get credit for their contributions. Going all the way back to the 1800s with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter and an incredible mathematician, and up through WWII and the 1980s, Evans share stories of the female pioneers who broke conventions to be "database poets, information-wranglers, hypertext dreamers, and glass ceiling-shattering dot com-era entrepreneurs." More info →
In 2009, 53 U.S. troops battled 400 Taliban fighters in what was one of the deadliest battles of the war in Afghanistan. Stationed at Combat Outpost Keating in the valley of three mountains, the American soldiers were completely vulnerable to attack. A Pentagon investigation later revealed that they never should have been placed in such a dangerous position. With expert investigative reporting, Jake Tapper follows the troops from 2006 when they were first stationed at the outpost to 2009 when the battle was heroically, but desperately fought. He highlights two soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions. This is a heartbreaking read that focuses on one small piece of the war in Afghanistan but illuminates a larger picture of deadly mistakes and mismanagement. More info →
I've been slowly working my way through this 900 page tome for the last few years. It's fascinating—I've just been picking up other nonfiction reads in between chapters. You don't have to be an art expert to appreciate the way Gabriel weaves the stories of five groundbreaking women artists into a powerful narrative. At a time when women were mainly muses or collectors in the art scene, these artists entered the male-dominated world of abstract art and opened the art world to a new generation of women. Gabriel connects their stories to the larger cultural shifts of post-war America and shares inspiring accounts of what happens when you're brave enough to break all the rules. More info →
Shomari Wills shares the stories of six Black millionaires who made their fortunes prior to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. One woman put her Gold Rush money behind abolitionist causes. Another built and empire in Harlem with money from her lover. Savvy and inventive, a Mississippi schoolteacher developed land in Tulsa, OK that eventually came to be known as "Black Wall Street." With straightforward storytelling, Wills shares the triumphs and the trials of America's first Black millionaires, offering a glimpse at unforgettable, but overlooked, titans. More info →
When George Washington moved to Philadelphia to serve as President, he brought nine enslaved people with him from Mount Vernon. At the time, Pennsylvania stated that after six months of residency, all enslaved people must be set free. Rather than comply, Washington sent his household down to the south every six months, just when freedom was within grasp. Ona Judge couldn't ignore the taste of freedom she had in Pennsylvania, so one day, she escaped to New England. Washington used all of this resources for a manhunt to capture Ona Judge and return her as his property. A well-researched account of a woman who risked everything for freedom. More info →
I recommended this one in WSIRN Episode 20: Southern classics, sweeping sagas, and spunky women with Sarah Russell Giglio. Abbott brings four little-known stories to life—four women who were spies in the Civil War. Confederate spy Belle Boyd used her southern charms to seduce men into telling their secrets. Emma Edmonds went undercover as a male enlisted soldier. Rose O’Neale Greenhow used her connections and status as a prominent widow to gather intelligence, and abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew covered an entire espionage ring, tricking rebel soldiers with her proper manners. Well-known characters enter the narrative, like Walt Whitman, Pinkerton, and the Lincolns as Abbott takes you inside the war and undercover with these incredibly bold women. More info →
Months before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat, a young teenager named Claudette Colvin did the very same thing—but her story is not well-known or celebrated. On March 2, 1955, Colvin, fed up with a system that placed daily injustices in her path, fought to keep her seat. However, young and pregnant Colvin was shunned and overlooked instead of heralded. Her story didn't end there. One year later, she served as a key plaintiff in Browder vs. Gayle and helped to strike down segregation laws. Combining interviews with Colvin herself and detailed historical research, Hoose gives Colvin much-deserved credit for her important role in shaping history. This award-winning middle grade book is not just for young readers. It's an excellent account of Colvin's story and the Civil Rights Movement. More info →
From the author of Code Name Verity, a middle grade nonfiction account of women flying combat planes in WWII. Led by Marina Raskova, three Soviet regiments allowed female pilots to enter combat. Known as "the night witches," these women, many of them young teens, deployed as pilots, mechanics, and navigators. They faced the harsh conditions of war and played a pivotal role in their country's war efforts. My daughter read this a few years ago and enjoyed learning about this lesser-known part of history. More info →
I haven't read this, but my son really enjoyed it. I picked it up at Square Books in Oxford; when I described my son's reading preferences they instantly reached for this book. This is the true story of how the Leningrad Symphony played a surprising role on the path to allied victory. From 1941-1944, Hitler's Wermacht surrounded Leningrad, laying siege to the city and preventing supplies from getting in or out. Those three years saw utter destruction, over a million deaths, and horrifying poverty. Trapped yet inspired by his countrymen, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the Leningrad Symphony. Audiobook listeners: this one includes snippets of the music as you listen, providing a layered experience. More info →
Traci Thomas of The Stacks Podcast recommended this book on Episode 162 and Episode 212 of What Should I Read Next. Traci knows her nonfiction and says that this book is an excellent account of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. A charismatic preacher, Jones drew people into his congregation with sermons on social justice. When his sermons grew darker, and his behavior more unpredictable, it got harder and harder for people to leave his community. Eventually, the U.S. government got involved, but it was far too late. Julia Scheeres' haunting account focuses on the people who lived in Jonestown, based on declassified FBI documents, interviews, and rare video footage. More info →
What titles look good to you? What would you add to the list?