15 Best General-Interest Nonfiction Books You Dare Not Overlook For Your 2024 Reading List

For the past three years, I’ve come out with my top 15 selections for nonfiction books. The rules while writing my top 15 nonfiction lists are simple.

I have to have read the book in the past 12 months. Audio books, while great in many respects, don’t count. For instance, Tegan and Sara’s best-selling memoir, “High School,” is particularly good as an audio book given that it is about music. Yet, since listening isn’t reading, it’s not on this list.

Nonfiction only — I occasionally read novels, I just don’t write about them. Of course, these 15 nonfiction books, while in no particular order, have to be better in my own esteemed opinion than any of the others I read during the preceding year.

Though I do read a handful of new releases in any given year, I try harder to focus on books that may have been overlooked by readers like you. Perhaps you missed them the first time around. Perhaps the authors were too obscure to initially break through to you. Or, in a few instances, perhaps you were not born yet to know of a book’s existence when it first came out. You can find out about all these sorts of titles and more right here.

So, look through 15 of the best nonfiction books I read in 2023. Pick a few to add to your list for 2024, and get reading in the New Year.

Escape from Colditz by P.R. Reid

During World War II, a German castle dating to the Middle Ages was repurposed to hold particularly troublesome Allied prisoners of war. Legendarily impregnable, Colditz Castle became a clandestine training ground for its residents, who shared their skills with one another and developed many ingenious methods of escape (along with quite a few ludicrous ones). The title really tells you what you need to know, and it’s all written from the perspective of one of the few Colditz prisoners to successfully make it out to freedom.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly, twin brother to Arizona Senator Mark Kelly (also a former astronaut), wrote a technically detailed, yet nonetheless touching, memoir about his year on the International Space Station and his life leading up to it. Learning how much more difficult day-to-day tasks are in a zero-gravity environment was, of course, a highlight. Surprisingly for a book about space, you might also find yourself moved by Kelly’s prose. For instance, he wrote eloquently about the breakdown of his marriage.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple

This is a difficult read. But it should be required reading for libertarian tech bros. We already have a pretty good idea of what completely unfettered capitalism in the hands of private enterprise looks like, and it isn’t pretty.

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen

Think we puny humans are destroying the earth? Think again. Our sad indifference to the health of our own planet is nothing compared to the massive destruction wrought again, and again, and again by nature itself. While never discounting the urgency with which we need to act to save our own species today, this phenomenal book will take you on a captivating journey into deep time and the many horrid apocalypses life has (barely) weathered before.

A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo by Todd Melby

If you like the Coen Brothers, you’ll definitely like this, although any ’90s film aficionado will get a lot from Melby’s fast-paced portrayal of Hollywood magic brought to the desolate north. Modern studio execs, take note: less generic Marvel slop, more modern classics filmed in Minnesota and North Dakota.

The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World by David K. Randall

Humankind’s trepidatious steps into accepting that the world was once ruled by giant reptiles are always of interest. It is fascinating to learn more about the men and women throughout history who found themselves almost pathologically compelled to dig.

Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History by Hampton Sides

In more recent history, we have the tragic story of James Earl Ray’s successful attempt on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s sad, gripping, and yet another reminder of the many strange ways in which lonely men with guns have reshaped American history.

Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris

Should you need a break from world-breaking disasters, ancient monsters, and assassinations, you can’t go wrong with the latest from David Sedaris. He’s unparalleled as a humorist, and he wrote, “She was trash,” in my copy after I explained why I was sitting in the front row of his sold-out show next to an empty seat. He’s OK in my book.

Getting Out of Saigon: How a 27-Year-Old Banker Saved 113 Vietnamese Civilians by Ralph White

Hey, the banker is the hero! That’s a twist. In my not-so-humble opinion, the real villain in this book was not the Viet Cong or even American adventurism abroad, but the unbending, pointless rigidity of the administrative state. White somehow fought his way through it, and provided many little Easter eggs too for those of us who’ve spent some time in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History by Karl Jacoby

Grappling with the problematic parts of our history is just as important as celebrating the triumphs. The satisfying complexity of the developing American Southwest outlined herein is almost enough to make you overlook the horrid crimes which accompanied it — almost.

Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Still, sometimes you do simply need to wallow in patriotic fervor. This volume — the first of a three-book series — could get you there. A fine, factual, insightful account of the early days of the American Revolution.

Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

I purchased this book as a Christmas gift for my oldest nephew. After looking at it sitting on my coffee table for many months leading up to Christmas, I eventually made up an excuse to read it myself, namely that I should make sure it was OK before placing it in the hands of a 12-year-old. Boy am I glad I did. It hits with the impact of an uncontrolled fission reaction. Don’t let that it is marketed as being perfect for middle grade readers deter you: you don’t have time for “American Prometheus,” and will probably have more fun with “Bomb” anyway.

The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Healthy, Happy Self by Michael Easter

Michael Easter has written here something approaching a religious text, albeit one filled with a lot of scientific data. I’ve instinctually swum against the cultural current that pushes comfort at any cost for years, and it turns out there might be something to that. If you’re like me, this read will sharpen your focus and articulate the worldview you’ve been circling. Even if you’re not like me (especially if you’re not), it will give you a whole lot to think about.

Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough by Michael Easter

Normally I avoid reading two books by the same author in a given year, but made a worthwhile exception for “Scarcity Brain.” It’s got the je ne sais quoi of a self-help book, presumably due to our old friend marketing. Yet it is not a self-help book: it’s better than a self-help book.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

It is very gratifying these days to read about a truly great president. Theodore Roosevelt lived an extraordinary life, and you’ll feel like you’re living some of it along with him. The first in a three-book series, this volume covers Roosevelt pre-presidency. It would be a serviceable adventure novel except for the fact that everything in it actually happened.

There you have it: 15 excellent nonfiction books. Pick a few that sound best to you, and head to your local library or bookstore. Something tells me we’re all going to need a few good books to escape into during 2024.

Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at [email protected].

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