When you spend as much time on #Bookstagram as I do, you’ll see a lot of non-fiction slander. I think too many readers have been traumatised by rubbish self-help and dense textbooks for school to appreciate the mastery of a true story well-told. Far be it for me to tell anyone what to read, but if you ever find yourself wanting to give non-fiction another go, here are eighteen award-winning non-fiction books that will grip you just as tightly as the best-written mystery or romance.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith really can do it all: fiction, non-fiction, whatever takes her fancy. Feel Free is her “thoroughly resplendent” essay collection, which won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. In five sections (“In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free”), she explores the concept of freedom as it applies to language and thought and how we experience the world. Smith was praised for the range, with vignettes, profiles, and reviews on subjects as varied as Jay-Z and J.G. Ballard. In her acceptance speech, Smith extended her thanks to her husband, Nick Laird, and apologised for stealing the title for her collection from one of his poetry books.
The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
The Princess Diarist is one of the most bitter-sweet award-winning non-fiction books. Carrie Fisher bared all in her account of filming the first Star Wars film, exposing a long-suspected affair she had with her married co-star Harrison Ford, going so far as to include love letters she wrote to him as a wonder-struck 19-year-old. It was the last book Fisher published before her death in 2016. The following year, she was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for her narration of the audiobook, beating out fellow nominees Bruce Springsteen, Bernie Sanders, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Read my full review of The Princess Diarist here.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
If there’s any non-fiction book that’s worthy of winning all the awards, it’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot explores the hidden contributions of a woman whose name the world barely knew, contributions that made most of modern medicine possible. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! For her efforts, Skloot was awarded the National Academies Communication Award (for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine), the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction, a Salon Book Award, and the book was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.
The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Anyone who’s lost anyone unexpectedly and turned to literature has undoubtedly encountered The Year Of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion’s memoir (and, later, play) describing her experience of the loss of her husband became an instant classic account of mourning and grief. The New York Times Book Review described it as “exhilarating”, with Didion’s journey through grief making a kind of adventure story for the reader, traversing the terrain of her emotional life. Didion was then awarded the 2005 National Book Award For Non-Fiction, with judges calling it “a masterpiece in two genres” (memoir and journalism) and “a stunning book of electric honesty and passion”.
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill
Anyone who’s ever heard about a domestic abuse situation and wondered “why didn’t she leave?” needs to read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. It’s a deeply disturbing and incredibly illuminating exploration into the causes of domestic abuse, and our collective role in preventing and mitigating the harm it causes. Hill was already an award-winning journalist prior to its release (having taken home Our Watch awards, Walkley Awards, and Amnesty International Australian Media awards for her reporting on domestic violence and the Family Court), but I’d imagine the 2020 Stella Prize for this brilliant book takes pride of place on the trophy shelf.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air is every bit as devastating as the most well-written tragedy, and there isn’t even hope for a fictional happily-ever-after. Shortly after finding his footing in the medical profession, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. This terminal diagnosis, and the transition from doctor to patient, is the subject of his memoir. It’s a meditation on mortality that resonated with readers, as demonstrated by the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara was one of the original true-crime obsessives, detailing her private investigation into the Golden State Killer (a moniker she actually coined) on her blog TrueCrimeDiary. She was about two-thirds of the way into adapting her blog posts into a book when she sadly died unexpectedly in 2016. It took two years for her colleagues and husband to finish her work, and the book was published in its final form, as I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, in 2018. Just two months later, the Golden State Killer was caught. It’s a story as wild as the book itself, one that captured enough public attention to win the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Non-Fiction. Read my full review of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark here.
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History Of Nearly Everything is an ambitious non-fiction book, to say the least. Bill Bryson attempts to provide an overview of the entire history of the whole world, from the Big Bang to biology to subatomic particles. It’s a tough call, especially when you factor in that Bryson – by his own admission – knew very little about science when he began, and he wanted to write a book that was accessible to the every-person, without too much scientific jargon. That it went on to become an award-winning non-fiction book is nothing short of extraordinary: the EU Descartes Prize for science communication, and The Aventis Prize for Best General Science Book. (Bonus points: Bryson donated the prize money to a children’s hospital.) Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.
Tracker by Alexis Wright
Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders. For her work, she was awarded the Stella Prize in 2018. Read my full review of Tracker here.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Non-fiction books win awards when they shine a light on aspects of culture and history that make us think about our world in a different way. Well, that’s the case with The Five, anyway. It’s a book about challenging long-held assumptions, specifically about the victims of Jack the Ripper. The serial killer’s name is known the world over, but the names of his victims (Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, for the record) not so much. They’re often reduced to markers in a crime scene, misremembered as sex workers and addicts, when in fact their lives were real and whole and complex. It’s an essential contribution to the historical record and the genre of true crime, for which Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize valued at £50,000. Read my full review of The Five here.
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Bri Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is perhaps the main reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths. Despite overwhelming internal and external obstacles, Lee shows extraordinary bravery in describing her experiences working as a judge’s associate, and how it led her to report and prosecute her own abuser. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.
Murder In Mississippi by John Safran
John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. In Murder In Mississippi (alternative title God’ll Cut You Down), he jets off to the U.S. to investigate the murder of a white supremacist by a Black man. He thinks he’ll EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort comes to pass. It becomes a book about writing a true crime book, more than a book about the crime itself – but Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for True Crime, nonetheless. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated, which makes it all the more surprising that Becoming went on to become an award-winning best-seller. Michelle Obama describes her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her courtship with and marriage to Barack, and her time as First Lady living at the world’s most famous address. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the content or format, and yet it captured the public’s attention in a way that not many political memoirs seem to do. The book won the NCAAP Image Award for Biography/Autobiography, and the audiobook, narrated by the author herself, won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Read my full review of Becoming here.
Educated by Tara Westover
When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling. She won a list of awards and accolades as long as your arm, among them: the ALA’s Alex Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and the Goodreads Choice Award for Autobiogaphy. Read my full review of Educated here.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
The world knew Chanel Miller’s story long before we knew her name – which is why she chose to reclaim it in her memoir, titled (of course) Know My Name. As “Jane Doe”, Miller made headlines for her incisive and moving victim impact statement, describing the after-effects of a disgusting sexual assault perpetrated by “promising young man” Brock Turner. By coming forward and identifying herself, Miller has connected her name to her attacker’s in perpetuity, but she has also won the Ridenhour Book Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Non-Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Read my full review of Know My Name here.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Not all award-winning non-fiction books are doom and gloom! Me Talk Pretty One Day will have you howling with laughter, in the hands of master storyteller and humourist David Sedaris. In this essay collection, he aligns and contrasts his childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fumbling attempts to integrate as an adult living the ex-pat life in Normandy, France. Making one’s own linguistic shortcomings the butt of the joke doesn’t sting so much, we can assume, when you take home the Lambda Literary Award For Humor, the Puddly Award for Humor, and the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed discovered, after the publication of her memoir Wild, that rags-to-riches stories don’t play out as quickly as you might think. She was $85,000 in debt when she sold the book, and the advance she received was barely enough to stay afloat. Even when the awards came rolling in – the Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography, the Readers Choice Award at the Oregon Book Awards, and the Puddly Award For Non-Fiction – she still had some financial demons to wrangle. Luckily, she has huge reserves of fortitude and inner strength, as evidenced by her 1,100 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail described in the book in question. Read my full review of Wild here.
Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Or, maybe you’ve read Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning non-fiction book about their exploitation of loopholes in pharmaceutical regulation and their central role in the American opioid epidemic. He, quite rightly, won massive acclaim for his investigative journalism, including the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction and the Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.