Readers, you may have noticed that this year’s Summer Reading Guide is 100% nonfiction-free. I truly didn’t intend to avoid nonfiction—in fact, I actively sought it out—but several memoirs I loved were pushed for Fall publication, and the remaining summer nonfiction releases just didn’t have the right combination of story and staying power I was looking for.
But I know that we have avid nonfiction readers around here, and their autobiographies, self-help books, and true crime novels belong on the beach just as much as our fiction-heavy Summer Reading Guide picks.
When I’m choosing a nonfiction beach read, I’m on the lookout for compelling stories, vivid details, and strong narrative voice. Ideally, when I open a nonfiction book in the summertime I won’t want to put it down, and I’ll keep thinking about it long after the final page.
Today’s list is for you, nonfiction readers. It features page-turning books with themes that stick. I still think of these books often, and I can’t stop recommending them to my fellow nonfiction readers. Some of these titles are on the lighter side, full of humor or juicy behind-the-scenes details. Others are heavy but hopeful, full of painful truths and deeper themes. All of the books on this list contain absorbing stories that I couldn’t put down—or have added to my TBR because readers with great taste have told me they couldn’t.
Goodwin brings history to life in the 916 pages (or 42 audiobook hours) of this historical narrative. Those who hang with it will be rewarded. I had no idea how much I didn't know about Lincoln and the Civil War, and I'm grateful for my new deeper, richer appreciation of the near-miraculous Lincoln administration and the unspeakable tragedy of his assassination. I cried like a baby at the end: for the man, for his family, for the South, for our country—because Goodwin posits that Johnson's disastrous presidency, including his commitment to withholding civil and political rights from Blacks, set the nation down a road we are still struggling to find our way back from. Her stirring conclusion left me wondering what might have been, had Lincoln lived a little longer. Goodwin excels at revealing history with story-driven writing and vivid detail. More info →
I was hesitant to pick this one up in the summertime because I feared it would be heavy and heartbreaking. It is those things, but it's also incredibly hopeful. Stevenson's story-driven account describes his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal organization he founded, and closely follows the story of Walter, a man sentenced to Alabama's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Moving and beautifully written, this is a must-read. And then watch the movie, which is currently free on several streaming platforms. More info →
In this collection of coming-of-age essays about his South African childhood, The Daily Show star does a masterful job of alternating the deathly serious with the laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes even combining the two. His mischievous childhood and unconventional youth provide wonderful fodder for not-quite-polite but always entertaining stories. Trevor Noah narrates the audiobook, which I highly recommend listening to while gardening, driving, or strolling the park this summer. More info →
Psychotherapist Gottlieb gets to the heart of what matters in life: how do we grow, how do we change, how do we connect with each other—and how can we do it all more effectively? I love the structure of this book. First, Gottlieb introduces us to four of her patients, taking us inside the room to show us what happens in their sessions. But Gottlieb is also in therapy herself, thanks to a sudden breakup, and through her eyes, we get the patient's perspective as well. I so enjoyed getting to know the people in these pages, session by session, and rooted hard for them as they worked through the process. Part memoir, part educational glimpse into the profession: if you like to learn something from the books you read, and you enjoy a good story, well-told, add this to your list. 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 →
This is a fascinating deep-dive into the unbelievable history of Wonder Woman, an iconic superhero whose real life origins are completely bonkers. A complicated family story lies beneath the history of the famous comic book character, and it all starts with the invention of the lie-detector machine. I don't want to give away any more than that—just know that the surprising backstory is full of twists, turns, and shocking connections across history and culture. Lepore's reporting is engaging and detailed. More info →
A completely engrossing read. Carreyrou covers the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes’ multi-billion dollar startup, Theranos, with thriller-like investigative journalism. Backed by impressive investors and promising faster and easier blood tests, Holmes and her associates seemed poised to take over the healthcare world. As Holmes becomes Silicon Valley’s rising star, her employees grow more and more concerned with their tense workplace environment and faulty technology. When Carreyrou steps in to investigate, the cover-ups, threats, and lies continue. Despite knowing how the story ended, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see how it all happened and who would be affected. More info →
If you love heartfelt, thoughtful memoirs that also make you laugh, then you must pick up this collection of essays by pop-culture critic R. Eric Thomas. Eric shares stories from childhood to adulthood, detailing his coming-of-age with hilarious honesty. He writes about discovering his identity, feeling like an outsider, and finding his voice, all the while injecting hilarious pop culture references, bits of wisdom, and his signature wit. I highly recommend the audiobook version, narrated by the author, for full humorous effect. These hopeful stories will stick with you. More info →
Despite enjoying the occasional celebrity memoir, I’m still slightly skeptical about this one, but several trusted friends and booksellers have told me it’s really good. With just the right mix of juicy celebrity gossip and honest personal stories, Simpson writes about coming-of-age as a pop star in Hollywood. She offers behind the scenes details about relationships, movie sets, and concerts. But where this book shines is her candidness about alcohol addiction, motherhood, and body shaming. If you’re a fan of celebrity memoirs, add this to your library holds list and tell me what you think—perhaps I'll be convinced to pick it up. More info →
A powerful read. In 2016, Buzzfeed published the victim impact statement of Emily Doe, shortly after a Stanford swimmer was sentenced to just six months of jail for sexually assaulting her on campus. Emily Doe was Chanel Miller, and in her stunning memoir, Miller reclaims her identity, tells her story, and challenges a system that oppresses victims. I loved this book and think about it often, not only because of Miller’s courage, but also because of her incredible, compelling voice. She is able to weave hope and trauma and healing and humor together in such beautiful ways. Her transformative storytelling made this an unforgettable reading experience. More info →