A non-fiction reading list

(I first wrote this in January 2011 and am periodically updating the list)

Last Friday, I grabbed a blue basket and headed up the stairs to the non-fiction/reference floor of the library, which also includes the teen section (interestingly). But as I browsed the non-fiction shelves in the just awakening library, I was stumped – what should I read? Non-fiction is such a broad category and I just didn’t know where to begin! I ended up picking Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a book that has been on my radar for quite some time now. But as I headed downstairs to the fiction section, with just my one non-fiction selection (and three graphic novels from the teen section), I knew something had to change… I needed to rush home and make myself a non-fiction reading list! I’ve organised it according to Dewey Decimal number, in the hope that I’ll be able to read something from each section (and broaden my non-fiction reading). It’s currently favouring the 900-999 classification, so I hope to be able to add more to the other sections when I browse the shelves. It’s a pretty long list, and one which will likely be added to, so there isn’t a deadline for completing it – or even the need to complete it at all. Instead, it’s a reference for me so that I won’t be at a loss the next time I hit the library.
Here’s the link to my Google Docs version

000 – 099: Computer science, information & general works
Free for all : oddballs, geeks, and gangstas in the public library – Don Borchert
A history of reading – Alberto Manguel
Patience & fortitude : a roving chronicle of book people, book places, and book culture – Nicholas A. Basbanes
Library : an unquiet history – Matthew Battles
A mathematician reads the newspaper – John Allen Paulos
A gentle madness : bibliophiles, bibliomanes, and the eternal passion for books – Nicholas A. Basbanes
Al-Jazeera : the inside story of the Arab news channel that is challenging the West – Hugh Miles
Honeymoon in Tehran : two years of love and danger in Iran – Azadeh Moaveni

100 – 199: Philosophy and psychology
The consolations of philosophy – Alain de Botton
Watching the tree : a Chinese daughter reflects on happiness, tradition and spiritual wisdom – Adeline Yen Mah
Socrates café : a fresh taste of philosophy – Christopher Phillips
Wittgenstein’s poker : the story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers – David Edmonds and John Eidinow
The philosophical baby : what children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life – Alison Gopnik

200 -299: Religion
The religion of man : being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930- Rabrindranath Tagore
Beyond belief : Islamic excursions among the converted peoples – V.S. Naipaul
Memories of Muhammad : why the Prophet matters – Omid Safi
Coffinman : the journal of a Buddhist mortician – Shinman Aoki
A short history of myth – Karen Armstrong

300 -399: Social sciences

Country driving : a journey through China from farm to factory – Peter Hessler
A paradise built in hell : the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster – Rebecca Solnit
Chasing Goldman Sachs : how the masters of the universe melted Wall Street down– and why they’ll take us to the brink again Suzanne McGee
Garbage land : on the secret trail of trash – Elizabeth Royte
Queen of fashion : what Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution – Caroline Weber
A splendor of letters : the permanence of books in an impermanent world – Nicholas A. Basbanes
Why America’s children can’t think : creating independent minds for the 21st century – Peter Kline
Columbine – Dave Cullen
Hunger : an unnatural history – Sharman Apt Russell
Spell of the tiger : the man-eaters of Sundarbans –  Sy Montgomery
The reindeer people : living with animals and spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
The girls of Murder City : fame, lust, and the beautiful killers who inspired Chicago – Douglas Perry
Well-behaved women seldom make history – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Green metropolis : why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are the keys to sustainability – David Owen
The price of motherhood : why the most important job in the world is still the least valued – Ann Crittenden
Field notes on democracy : listening to grasshoppers – Arundhati Roy
Behind the veil in Arabia : women in Oman – Unni Wikan
Sisters in war : a story of love, family, and survival in the new Iraq – Christina Asquith
Inside Iran : women’s lives – Jane Howard

400- 499: Language

The meaning of everything : the story of the Oxford English dictionary – Simon Winchester
Our magnificent bastard tongue : the untold history of English – John McWhorter
The language instinct – Steven Pinker
Bastard tongues : a trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages – Derek Bickerton
Reading the OED : one man, one year, 21,730 pages – Ammon Shea
Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention – Stanislas Dehaene

500 – 599: Science

The age of wonder : how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science – Richard Holmes
Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality – Manjit Kumar
The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach
Wicked plants : the weed that killed Lincoln’s mother & other botanical atrocities – Amy Stewart
On thin ice : the changing world of the polar bear – Richard Ellis
The bone woman : a forensic anthropologist’s search for truth in the mass graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo – Clea Koff
The sound of a wild snail eating – Elisabeth Tova Bailey
Where the wild things were : life, death, and ecological wreckage in a land of vanishing predators – William Stolzenburg
Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages – Mark Abley

600 – 699: Technology and applied science

How doctors think – Jerome Groopman
Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality – Jonathan Weiner
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
The emperor of all maladies : a biography of cancer – Siddhartha Mukherjee
The United States of Arugula : how we became a gourmet nation –  David Kamp
The lobster chronicles : life on a very small island – Linda Greenlaw
Cheating death : the doctors and medical miracles that are saving lives against all odds – Sanjay Gupta
The checklist manifesto : how to get things right – Atul Gawande
Better : a surgeon’s notes on performance – Atul Gawande
Orchid fever : a horticultural tale of love, lust, and lunacy – Eric Hansen
Dead men do tell tales : the strange and fascinating cases of a forensic anthropologist – William R. Maples and Michael Browning
Every patient tells a story : medical mysteries and the art of diagnosis – Lisa Sanders

700 – 799: Arts
The lost painting – Jonathan Harr
Girls like us : Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon–and the journey of a generation – Sheila Weller
Seven days in the art world – Sarah Thornton
Sotheby’s : bidding for class – Robert Lacey
Heavy rotation : twenty writers on the albums that changed their lives – edited by Peter Terzian
Word freak : heartbreak, triumph, genius, and obsession in the world of competitive scrabble players – Stefan Fatsis
The secret lives of buildings : from the ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in thirteen stories – Edward Hollis

800 – 899: Literature

Yours ever : people and their letters -Thomas Mallon
Finding beauty in a broken world – Terry Tempest Williams
The Orientalist : solving the mystery of a strange and dangerous life – Tom Reiss
The genius of language : fifteen writers reflect on their mother tongues – edited and with an introduction by Wendy Lesser
Word : on being a [woman] writer –  edited by Jocelyn Burrell
Zen in the art of writing – Ray Bradbury
A jury of her peers : American women writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx – Elaine Showalter
Consider the lobster and other essays – David Foster Wallace
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales – Kate Bernheimer (ed)

900 – 999: History, geography, (& biography)

The Fires Of Vesuvius : Pompeii Lost And Found – Mary Beard
Agent Zigzag : a true story of Nazi espionage, love, and betrayal – Ben MacIntyre
Temptations of the West : how to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond Pankaj Mishra
Dancing in the dark : a cultural history of the Great Depression – Morris Dickstein
The irregulars : Roald Dahl and the British spy ring in wartime – Washington Jennet Conant
The Victorians – A.N. Wilson
After the Victorians : the decline of Britain in the world – A.N. Wilson
The ice museum : in search of the lost land of Thule – Joanna Kavenna
King Leopold’s ghost : a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa – Adam Hochschild
Finders keepers : a tale of archaeological plunder and obsession – Craig Childs
China witness : voices from a silent generation – Xinran
Red dust : a path through China – Ma Jian
West with the night – Beryl Markham
The last empress : Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the birth of modern China – Hannah Pakula
Jane Goodall : the woman who redefined man – Dale Peterson
Blue arabesque : a search for the sublime – Patricia Hampl
Matisse the master : a life of Henri Matisse, the conquest of colour, 1909-1954  – Hilary Spurling
James Tiptree, Jr. : the double life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips
Brother, I’m dying – Edwidge Danticat
Nothing to be frightened of – Julian Barnes
Motoring with Mohammed : journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea – Eric Hansen
Among the white moon faces : an Asian-American memoir of homelands – Shirley Geok-lin Lim
A crack in the edge of the world : America and the great California earthquake of 1906 – Simon Winchester
Well-behaved women seldom make history – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife – Francine Prose
The prince of the marshes : and other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq – Rory Stewart
The man who loved books too much : the true story of a thief, a detective, and a world of literary obsession – Allison Hoover Bartlett
The soloist : a lost dream, an unlikely friendship, and the redemptive power of music – Steve Lopez
Head above water -Buchi Emecheta
Chasing the sea : being the narrative of a journey through Uzbekistan, including descriptions of life therein, culminating with an arrival at the Aral Sea, the world’s worst man-made ecological catastrophe : in one volume – Tom Bissell
Apples are from Kazakhstan : the land that disappeared – Christopher Robbins
The lemon tree : an Arab, a Jew, and the heart of the Middle East – Sandy Tolan
The media relations department of Hizbollah wishes you a happy birthday : unexpected encounters in the changing Middle East – Neil MacFarquhar
Tea with Hezbollah : sitting at the enemies’ table, our journey through the Middle East – Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis
Growing up Palestinian : Israeli occupation and the Intifada generation – Laetitia Bucaille
The story of a life – Aharon Appelfeld
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate : coming of age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 – Kai Bird
The White Nile- Alan Moorehead
Sisters in war : a story of love, family, and survival in the new Iraq – Christina Asquith
Memories of a lost Egypt : a memoir with recipes – Colette Rossant
Cleopatra : last queen of Egypt -Joyce Tyldesley
Beneath the sands of Egypt : adventures of an unconventional archaeologist – Donald P. Ryan
The new Turkey : the quiet revolution on the edge of Europe – Chris Morris
A short walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby
Kabul in winter : life without peace in Afghanistan – Ann Jones
The silenced cry : one woman’s diary of a journey to Afghanistan – Ana Tortajada
Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron
Finding George Orwell in Burma-Emma Larkin.
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe
A river’s tale : a year on the Mekong – Edward A. Gargan
The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
First they killed my father : a daughter of Cambodia remembers- Loung Ung
Lucky child : a daughter of Cambodia reunites with the sister she left behind – Loung Ung
Vanished kingdoms : a woman explorer in Tibet, China, & Mongolia 1921-1925 – Mabel H. Cabot
The secret history of the Mongol queens : how the daughters of Genghis Khan rescued his empire – Jack Weatherford
Seven years in Tibet – Heinrich Harrer
Born in Lhasa – Namgyal Lhamo Taklha
Japan : a reinterpretation – Patrick Smith
China underground – Zachary Mexico
The man who loved China : the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom – Simon Winchester
The English governess at the Siamese court : being recollections of six years in the royal palace at Bangkok – Anna Harriette Leonowens
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer


  1. What a fantastic list, full of so many tempting titles! I usually hang out in the 900s since I adore histories and biographies/memoirs but, like you, I do want to branch out a bit more. The 700s are the most difficult for me since I’m not naturally drawn to them. Can’t wait to see what future trips to the library yield with this as your guide!


    1. For me the hardest ones to take a dip into are the sections on religion and philosophy. Hopefully the books I’ve picked will make me change my mind!


  2. OMG. the only thing i’ve read on this list is… karen armstrong’s “a short history of myth”, which i liked.


  3. From your list, I really enjoyed Word Freak. Some good non-fic I’ve read over the last few years:

    Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages – Mark Abley
    Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays – David Foster Wallace
    Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape – Josee Johnston & Shyon Baumann
    Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture – Ariel Levy

    Will add more if I think of any!


    1. Thanks! The only one on your list that I’ve read is Female Chauvinist Pigs, which I did remember enjoying. Will have to add the others to my list!


  4. What fun! I hope you have more Dewey lists as you continue to explore the non-fiction shelves: very inspiring! I’ve been trying to wander them as frequently and casually as I wander the fiction, but it’s still a fledgling effort.


    1. It is quite tricky wandering the non-fiction shelves, especially those that I have little interest in, but sometimes they can surprise you. Telling True Stories was one of those surprises for me this recent library trip.


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