Besides the history books you read in school, historical nonfiction is so much more than what you learn about in class. A well-researched story is just as interesting as a piece of fiction. It’s even more difficult to put down these historical nonfiction books because all of this really did happen.
The books below are some of the best books in the genre. If you want to find your next favorite historical nonfiction book, I’ve broken them down into different groups. It’s up to you: general historical nonfiction or general historical biography. You can also read historical memoirs, microhistories, graphic novels about history, or even history of true crime.
Historical Nonfiction Books
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Adam Higginbotham’s book is a page-turner about the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine that exploded in April 1986. It tells the story of how the plant went down. Higginbotham’s book is based on a lot of interviews that he did. As a result, the author also talked about letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently declassified archives. An accident that was caused by people, and the lies and secrecy that kept the truth hidden for so long.
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
In this book, you will learn about Britain’s long and complicated history with the people of Africa. David Olusoga, a British historian, says that Black British history has been a part of the country’s cultural and economic history for a long time. Olusoga uses genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony, and interviews with people today to show how Black British history has shaped the United Kingdom over the years. In this book, you will learn about Roman Britain, Shakespeare’s Othello, the Battle of Trafalgar, the World Wars, and a whole lot more.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
This is the true story of Genghis Khan, written by an anthropologist named Jack Weatherford, and it tells how he lived. This book talks about Khan’s rise through the culture of the Mongol tribes and how he waged wars. Even so, the thing that makes Weatherford’s book so interesting about Khan is that it focuses on how the leader changed our way of life. Genghis Khan’s victories led to the rise of the Mongol Empire and the way we live today.
American Rebels by Nina Sankovitch
In her book, American Rebels, author and historian Nina Sankovitch tells the story of the people who tried to change the country. Sankovitch does a lot of research and writes in an interesting way about the lives of John Hancock, John Adams, Josiah Quincy Jr., Abigail Smith Adams, and Dorothy Quincy Hancock, all of whom played important roles in the American Revolution.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
When there were two world wars, London’s Mecklenburgh Square became a place for students, struggling artists, and revolutionaries to live in the middle of the city. Modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf were some of the people who made their home there, as well as five other women writers. This time in history saw a lot of change, and these writers were at the heart of that change. Francesca Wade wrote a biography about five important women writers who lived at this time and this place in their lives.
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
It’s not a coincidence that Stamped from the Beginning has been on a lot of bestseller lists in the last few months. if you want to learn about Black history and racism in the United States in a clear and comprehensive way, Ibram X. Kendi’s book is the one to read. Kendi looks back on the history of the United States through the eyes of five “tour guides.” People like Cotton Mather and Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, a civil rights activist called Angela Davis are some of the people who help them figure out what to do and what to say. Kendi tells the stories of these American intellectuals to show how racism has changed over time and why we are not living in a post-racial world.
For All Humankind by Tanya Harrison
It was a big deal for the United States when they walked on the moon. This was a big deal for a lot of countries. Dr. Tanya Harrison tells the stories that were never told before about the moon landing. She wants to find out how people outside of the United States saw astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon on July 20, 1969. She talks to people from all over the world to find out. What did having a “man on the moon” mean to the rest of the world?
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman
History books that focus more on the lives of Black women should read this one. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, by Saidiya Hartman, is about young Black women and how their lives changed in Philadelphia and New York in the early 1900s. Hartman talks about these changes and how they affected the lives of these women. This was a time when free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relationships, and single motherhood became more common. This was a time when these things were more common. Hartman’s book looks at how these changes impacted the Black community and Black families in general.
Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen ZIa
Some of the best historical nonfiction talks about things that we still have to deal with today. Among other things, you’ll see a lot of similarities between Zia’s book, “Last Boat Out of Shanghai,” and the way Zia talks about immigration today. Helen Zia tells the true stories of four young people who were caught up in the mass exodus of Shanghai after China’s 1949 Communist revolution. She did a lot of research and used beautiful language to do it.
Rivers of Power by Laurence C. Smith
Geographer Laurence C. Smith is the author of Rivers of Power, a book that looks at the natural history of places like rivers and lakes. Smith looks at how and why rivers have been able to shape civilization and our history, present, and future as a whole in this book. Rivers, of course, provide water, transportation, and sanitation, but they also set borders and force countries to work together. Rivers play a role in wars and politics. History of rivers is also a story about how humans have been living on Earth. We just can’t get away from people, it seems.
England’s Other Countrymen: Blackness in Tudor Society by Onyeka Nubia
The Tudor era has always been a favorite subject for people who like reading about history. The Tudor period was a time when most people thought about white people living in a mostly white country and living in mostly white homes. People of African descent lived in Tudor England, but historian Onyeka Nubia points out that there were a lot of people of African descent in the country. Even though we think Tudors were racist, Nubia says that this idea isn’t true at all. This time period had a lot more complicated ideas about race than we think. Nubia’s book not only places race in the Tudor era, but it also makes people think about race and racism in a new way.
You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe
This book isn’t like any other biography of a president you’ll ever read. It’s very different. Alexis Coe wrote a book called You Never Forget Your First about George Washington, the first president of the United States. Even if many other biographies have already done this, Coe isn’t going to do that. He wants to look at the whole history of Washington’s life in a different way. Rather, she looks at the mythology surrounding Washington and gets to the heart of who America’s first president was, even though we’re taught a lot of the same things in school. This biography is both educational and fun. And Coe also adds a healthy dose of humor to the mix
American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson
This book tells the story of Edward Oscar Heinrich, who has been called “the American Sherlock Holmes,” and he is the subject of this book. His 40-year career was filled with at least 2,000 cases that were solved in that time. He also made forensic science the way we know it today. People started looking into crimes in the 20th century when they started looking into people who had done bad things. Kate Winkler Dawson’s book is interesting, well-researched, and full of never-before-seen primary source materials.