Nerdy nonfiction for readers who love to learn

Embrace your inner nerd and find a new niche interest with these 10 nonfiction books.

Readers, I didn’t know I wanted to know about the history of indigo dye or the science behind a perfect wine pairing—until a few fellow readers recommended the right books. After a few pages of captivating research and pithy prose, I couldn’t stop reading!

Many of you share my love of learning and embrace unlikely topics in your quest for knowledge. No matter your niche interest (in my case: urban planning), reading is the perfect way to nourish an investigative mind with new and fascinating information.

In today’s collection of delightfully nerdy nonfiction, you’ll find expert writing, engaging stories, and easy-to-absorb details about topics you never thought you wanted to learn about.

You don’t need to be an avid nonfiction reader to enjoy the titles on today’s list. Many readers suggest listening to these selections in their audiobook format, making the listening experience as podcast-like as possible. Or, if you’re feeling especially nerdy, go ahead and pretend you’ve been assigned reading for class; the author becomes your instructor. (For better or worse, you’ll have to assign your own homework.)

No matter how you approach nonfiction in your reading life, I hope you find your next nerdy read on this list—and we can’t wait to hear your favorite topics to learn about in the comments!

Find a new niche interest in these 10 nerdy nonfiction books

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Author:
Well-known for her popular science nonfiction and unique storytelling voice, Mary Roach somehow manages to make the mundane—and the outrageous—feel accessible and fascinating. In this 2010 release, she explores how humans survive in space. To decide how to handle basic bodily functions and wild what-ifs, space engineers and scientists devise all sorts of detailed tests to bring intergalactic conditions to earth. Roach takes us behind the scenes of these bizarre experiments to answer questions about gravity, bodies, and daily life in space. If you’ve read The Martian by Andy Weir and wondered just how much of it is based on facts, this book holds the answers. More info →
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Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Author:
If you’ve been a blog reader for a while, you may know that my particular nerdy niche is urban planning. I love reading about how seemingly simple infrastructure like sidewalks, city parks, and even intersections affect our daily lives in big ways. This is one of my go-to urban planning recommendations. Speck is a bit of a contrarian: at its heart, the book isn't about walking at all. Instead, Speck aims to show how we can deliberately plan urban spaces to be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. At a deeper level, Speck reveals how our spaces shape our behavior, whether or not we're aware of it. Pragmatic, relevant, and completely fascinating. More info →
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Salt: A World History

Salt: A World History

Author:
How does one take a look at their dining room table, find the most common item on it and think “I’d like to write a book about that?” I marvel at the inquisitive minds and research capabilities of authors like Mark Kurlanksy, who’s written about oysters, paper, milk, and salt—common items that have shaped history. Salt seems basic and downright cheap today, but it once served as a valuable item in trades, inadvertently launched entire cities, funded wars, and shaped society as we know it. From world history to culinary techniques to cultural traditions, salt's influence is surprising and vast—and Kurlansky shapes it into an enjoyable read with incredible storytelling and journalism. More info →
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Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

Author:
You don’t need to be a wine drinker or an aspiring sommelier to enjoy this book. After my husband read it, he put this in my hands and said, "read this so we can talk about it." (A surefire way to hook me into picking up a book!) The author quit her job as a journalist and dove headlong into the wine industry, giving herself a year to become a master sommelier. I appreciated the nice mix of science, story, and humor here, and understand the comparisons to Mary Roach and Anthony Bourdain. Fun and funny, plus it inspired us to step out of our comfort zone at the local wine shop. More info →
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Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Author:
What could we possibly learn about the body’s most intuitive, essential function? A lot, as I was surprised to find out. Journalist James Nestor argues that going back to the essentials of active, intentional breathing can help us feel and move better through our day to day lives. Nestor traveled the world to collect stories and practices to help us reconnect to our breath, from ancient yoga breath work to local choir school exercises. Combining these stories with scientific research from pulmonology, biochemistry, and physiology, Nestor crafts a compelling case for paying closer attention to our breath and adding corrective measures. I've already noticed better posture at my desk and better timing on my runs from putting some of these tips into practice. More info →
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Oranges

Oranges

Author:
Our Book Club community manager and nonfiction lover Ginger found this title among James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. In this slim volume, McPhee shares everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about oranges. The seemingly ubiquitous fruit is rich with history and its importance in the realms of climate, geography, economics, and nutrition will surprise you. McPhee’s engaging voice will make you feel like you took an exciting class field trip to the Florida orchards. You’ll never look at an orange the same way again. More info →
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Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Author:
What Should I Read Next producer Brenna described this as “compulsively readable” and finished it in 24 hours because she kept wanting more. Montell is both a linguist and a passionate nerd about words and language. Here she investigates why people join and stay in cults—not through mind control but through the power of language. In addition to shaping dangerous cults worthy of documentaries, “cultish” language has infiltrated our everyday lives in start-up culture, exercise programs, and modern marketing. Montell narrates the audiobook, creating a podcast-like experience perfect for fans of The Allusionist. More info →
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The Secret Lives of Color

The Secret Lives of Color

Lucy Knisley described this as “a wonderful stress read” on What Should I Read Next Episode 270. Kassia St. Clair presents colors we encounter in our clothing, in our floral arrangements, and in famous paintings and uncovers information I wouldn’t even think to inquire about. Part essay collection, part detailed history, each chapter features a vivid picture of a color, then explains where and how it originated: when people started using it, how they were using it, and how they created it in the first place. A mesmerizing read that will have you seeing the world a little differently. More info →
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Almost Perfect: The Heartbreaking Pursuit of Pitching’s Holy Grail

Almost Perfect: The Heartbreaking Pursuit of Pitching’s Holy Grail

Author:
This recommendation comes from devoted White Sox fan Leigh Kramer. Without her endorsement of this book, I never would have known just how many major league pitchers came close to throwing a perfect game—or that a perfect game is even possible! Cox profiles the pitchers who missed a perfect game by mere inches and technicalities. Sports fans will fall in love with their stories of the heart, hard work, and twists of fate—and nerdy readers will delight in these human stories full of little known facts and statistics. More info →
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The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

Author:
German forester Peter Wohlleben writes with such adoration for his topic. Plants are living things—I know this because many of them live in my house and thrive in the same conditions I enjoy with plenty of food, water, and sunlight—but Wohlleben reveals how trees are like real, living families. They grow in families, communicate their needs to one another, and lead long, healthy lives because of their support systems. I’m a reader who loves metaphors, and I can sense this book is full of lessons to be applied to my own family life. If you’re a lover of long walks through the forest, fresh air, and ecological literature, this informative book is for you. More info →
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What nerdy nonfiction topic do you love to read about? Please share it along with your book recommendations in the comments!

P.S. Learn something new with 12 narrative nonfiction books to satisfy your sense of adventure or 15 absorbing nonfiction books to inspire your inner scientist.

Nerdy nonfiction for readers who love to learn

63 comments

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  1. Parker says:

    Anne, this is completely random but since you’re so in the loop with the book world and ebook deals I thought you might have some insight into this…

    I was browsing my ebook wish list on Barnes & Noble earlier and was absolutely gobsmacked that overnight the prices of so many books on my wishlist have more than doubled!

    For example, Maybe in Another Life: A Novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid has consistenly been $10.99 for weeks and now it is $24.99!!! The Help by Kathryn Stockett is $27.50!! There are so many like this that I could go on and on.

    When I cross-referenced to Amazon their prices have remained the same.

    Any ideas??????

    • Ruth says:

      Hi Parker, B&N Nook/ebook prices haven’t increased, but the company website has changed recently as they began to promote their audio book subscription service. B&N.com listings include a pull down menu of formats, typically beginning with the hardcover edition, then paperback, Nook edition, etc.
      I’ve found the best route is to search their website through the Nook store. That will feature ebook editions and prices up front.

      • Parker says:

        Well whatever B&N did to their website to promote audio books it’s an epic fail since it’s affecting prices on my wishlists.

        My wishlists are exclusively for ebooks, when I added books to the list I added the ebook version.

        I visit my wishlists each day to see if there are price drops. I did notice that if I visit the official nook book page for a book on my wishlist that the price is what it should be, it’s not all crazy jacked up high. Still, that being said, I do not have the time to visit each nook book’s page to check for price drops, that’s what my wish list is for.

        I want to love B&N but it’s hard sometimes.

  2. Anna says:

    Thanks for including Breath by James Nestor. I listened to him narrate the audiobook and it’s fascinating. His self-conducted research on nose vs mouth breathing hit the spot for making me both squirm and contemplate the thing we do thousands of times every day! His backstory to writing this book is also really interesting. Such a good memoir of vulnerability, healing and education. It was also my first audiobook and I look forward to a relisten soon!

    • Guest says:

      Thank you for your comment because it sparked my memory that I had an audiobook credit and this sounds like a great one. I already know I do not take deep enough breaths and have a tendency to mouth breathe. Sigh.

    • Laura says:

      I read the first half of Breath and was amazed, but by the second half grew skeptical. I couldn’t find any research to back up his (extraordinary) claims, which ultimately made me angry that it has been so widely praised.

      • ruth says:

        Laura, a friend just gave me this book as a gift and I inwardly cringed. I haven’t read it for exactly the reasons you mention – or the ‘woo factor’ as another friend put it. Sadly, this is the world we live in these days. Science-ish is close enough. 🙁

  3. Suzy Bennett says:

    The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is a fascinating book about how important checklists are and how they evolved.

  4. Grames says:

    I really enjoyed Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a World of Specialists by David Epstein. Gives lots of hope to those of us (and maybe our kids) who haven’t found that one specific thing yet. Really good on audio.

  5. Kara says:

    I’m always fascinated by the psychology of color! I just put in a request for The Secret Lives of Color at my library. Thanks for the recommendation.

    I enjoy nonfiction books, but I always find it hard not to slip into “student mode” when reading them. It’s like I’m studying for a non-existent test!

    Do other readers have the same issue? How do you deal with it?

  6. Libby Gorman says:

    Sleep!
    I loved Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall (NOT to be confused with Dreamland by Sarah Dessen about an abusive relationship or Dreamland by Sam Quinones about the opioid epidemic!).

  7. Nichole says:

    This is my favorite kind of book list! Nerdy reader for life! I have somehow only read Cork Dork from this list, but my husband read Salt a few years ago and would not stop talking about it!

  8. Jaia says:

    I love micro histories! Recently, I’ve loved a couple bookish ones:

    Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan
    A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders

  9. April says:

    These are some of my favorite kinds of books and I’ve read most of the ones on your list! One random title I recently read and adored was Threads of Life: A history of the world through the eye of a needle by Clare Hunter. The back cover copy calls it “an eloquent blend of history and memoir…about the need we all have to tell our story.” It is a romp through needlework as protest, propaganda, legacy, lament, and respite – and I found it fascinating and moving.

  10. Sandy Hoenecke says:

    I recently finished ‘Stoned’ by Aja Raden. It’s not the subject you might think.☺️ It’s the history of jewelry: ‘the want, the take, the have’ as the author states. It describes, for example, the purchase of Manhattan, the process of cultured pearls, and the fall of political regimes. I googled many of the pieces described and there is also a section of pictures included. It is so good I am ordering copies for family and friends. The author has a sense of humour too which was a bonus. As well, the sections are formatted in readable chunks. I highly recommend it.

  11. Gina says:

    I loved Girly Drinks by Mallory O’Meara on audio. Lots of great history from a woman’s perspective. I keep thinking about it and pushing it on people!

  12. Gladys says:

    Hi, I’ve added to my tbr The secret lives of colour, sounds like an interesting and educational read.
    I’d recommend Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury, for anyone interested in the craft of writing short fiction.
    Thanks for these recommendations, Anne!:)

  13. Jessica says:

    John McPhee is an absolute TREASURE and I will read anything he writes. Geology of the American west? Yup. Fishes and shad in general? Yes, please! He can literally write about anything and make it utterly fascinating. I strive to be a McPhee completist.

    • Emily in Milwaukee says:

      I was just coming here to say this – John McPhee’s writing is amazing, and I am glad Anne added him to this list so another generation has him on their radar. My husband and I read most of his books when they came out in the 80’s and 90’s. I hope these books don’t go out of print!

  14. Liz Blackwell says:

    One of my favorite educational + entertaining books is “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat,” by Bee Wilsom. So many great anecdotes about kitchen items that we take for granted. As I was reading, I kept calling out to my family, “You won’t believe this part about whisks!” until it even became a bit of a joke 🙂

    • Amanda says:

      We posted about the same book at the same time! Your enthusiasm for Consider the Fork is equal to mine for An Edible History of Humanity. 🙂

  15. Amanda says:

    I have not read Salt, but it is in the same genre as one of my favorite nonfiction books that I recommend to everyone. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage is exactly that — a look at human evolution through our food. It is fascinating. I could go on and on about it. Another book is the genre is Consider the Fork: a History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson.

  16. Mary Anne says:

    Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books about inequality in our country from the Black perspective. My other love is stories that require the maximum from individuals–Shackleton, Into Thin Air–and stories about remote places–Rick Bass’ Road to Yaak.

  17. Kate says:

    My favorite non-fiction book is The Sediments of Time by Mary Leakey (daughter-in-law of Louis Leakey). It is a fascinating dive into the ancestors of modern humans through fossil records. I completely nerded out on this book.

  18. Janet says:

    My husband still teases me about reading “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky, and I read it many years ago. Salt is also good, and I love Mary Roach! Can’t wait to get this one!

  19. Mary K says:

    This may not be a nerdy book, but I had pre-ordered it and it came yesterday. It is “cookbook” that everyone needs. “Salad Freak” by Jess Damuck. I spent the whole evening last night just going through and marking with posty notes Salads I want to try, the photos are awesome and her details are very detailed, can’t wait to start trying many of these different salads!

  20. Nanette says:

    I’m currently listening to Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro. It’s a fascinating analysis of different eras in American history as reflected in Shakespeare productions going on at the time. For example, a major NYC riot broke out in the 1840s at the Aster Opera House caused, in part, by two productions of MacBeth (one starring an American actor, and one a British actor). And did you know that in the mid-1800s, Romeo was generally played by a woman because he was considered too effeminate for manly men to play him? I’m only halfway through and love it!

  21. Elisabeth says:

    Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt is one I read years ago and still think about almost daily. Such a fantastic history about something so ubiquitous to our society!!

    A recent favorite nonfic read was Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, by Ingrid Fetell Lee. I really found myself in those pages. I think I may have learned about it on here, but can’t remember (I’m a librarian and follow a crazy number of book blogs).

  22. Teresa says:

    A recent happy find is “Strong Towns” by Charles L Marohn, Jr. It does an excellent job of explaining how our cities got into the messes they are in. I kept thinking, “This makes so much sense!”

  23. Nicholette Anand says:

    I love this list, thank you! And I would possibly add these 3 books:
    -The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
    -The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates
    -The Icepick Surgeon by Sam Kean.

    I also find I learn a lot from autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs, be they about travel, politics, history, or certain professions. “So many books to read, so little time!” 😃

    • Peggy says:

      I love Bill Bryson! I also love to read memoirs on hiking although I’ve yet to hike more than 5 miles at one time!

    • Laura T says:

      Both Sam Kean and Bill Bryson are excellent! I especially love Disappearing Spoon and a Brief History of Nearly Everything by the respective authors.

  24. Danell says:

    The Disappearing Spoon is the ultimate nerd read- a book about the periodic table that is interesting and funny. I learned so must about the history of the periodic table ind it’s contributors!

    • Laura T says:

      I’ll second the Disappearing Spoon recommendation. It is excellent and any book by Sam Kean (Icepick Surgeon was mentioned elsewhere) is a great recommendation for a science read.

  25. Lee Ann says:

    I’ve been reading The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade by A. E. Rooks. It’s well-written and fascinating. The ship, a former pirate ship, was captured by the British and used to combat slavery.

    I’ve also started The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. It’s interesting to see how racism affects us all.

  26. I love this list as I’m a nerd at heart. I would also recommend Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I feel like anyone who has aging parents or is going through a health crisis should read this book. It helped me have conversations with my parents about end-of-life care. I also loved The Body by Bill Bryson. If you want to learn about Space, Endurance: My Year in Space by Mark Kelly was fascinating about his year on the ISS.

  27. Lori H says:

    Perhaps not hard-core nerdy, but I would add Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.

    • ruth says:

      Oh, I loved the Everlasting Meal! Thank you for the reminder – I need to revive my interest in food/cooking and this will help. 🙂

  28. Marcia says:

    Last night I talked about THE BARBIZON by Paulina Bren. I found the rules/lives of women and how they had changed fascinating. This was a page turner for me.

  29. Kelly says:

    Fonts! Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
    Olive Oil! Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller

  30. I am often puzzled by friends who read only fiction, or maybe just memoirs for nonfiction. Consider the Soul of an Octopus or Mauve or Stephen Johnson’s work. Such terrific stories

  31. D Burke says:

    I love when people in difficult experiences share with us. These three have stayed with me:

    Bring Mortal by Atul Gawande
    When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
    Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

    Ok. 4…
    Taste by Stanley Tucci. 😊

  32. Katie says:

    Owls! I read this great book review in the NYT and it made me pick up Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght, which is about rare fish owls in far eastern Russia. I couldn’t put it down and I talked about it for months afterwards – my husband still teases me about it. I’m not particularly a science or animal person, but I am interested in other parts of the world, and that plus the author’s incredible descriptions of the owls got me hooked.

  33. Christine says:

    I especially love evolutionary biology and natural history, a topic that you can come at through biography, memoir, or well written non-fiction. Some of my favorites:
    The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. By Andrea Wulf

    Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller

    At the Water’s Edge: fish with fingers, whales with legs, and how life came ashore but then went back to the sea. By Carl Zimmer

    Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

  34. Hillery says:

    I would highly recommend The Beak of the Finch by Johnathan Weiner. It won the Pulitzer Prize in the 90s. I read it over 20 years ago and still think about it. This non-science girl totally nerded out learning about the research on evolution.

  35. Rada Foote says:

    Thank you for the recs on salt and oranges. It’s been my thing lately to understand the cultural significance of different ingredients. A book that I enjoyed reading that does this well is Right Flavors:The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

  36. Jen says:

    I’ve recently discovered author, Erik Larson. I especially loved The Splendid and the Vile. The book toggles between the events in Britain and Germany, and Churchill and Hitler, as those countries and their leaders escalated toward war. I also enjoyed The Plantagenets and The War of the Roses, both by Dan Jones. I proudly embrace my nerdiness!

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