A List of Nonfiction Classics

We talked last month about books that could be considered to be preeminent nonfiction classics here, and many members offered suggestions in the comments.

I’m a list maker, and I decided to compile a nice long list of nonfiction classics from books listed in our Big Book List and from suggestions made in the comments of last month’s post. I’ve also included a brief synopsis of the book, which I have borrowed from Wikipedia with potentially helpful links kept intact.

I welcome any thoughts/criticisms/amendments to/of/about the list, and I thank you all for your many suggestions.

Please feel free to offer additional suggestions/corrections in the comments.


Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle‘s best-known work on ethics.

Aubrey, John: Brief Lives. A collection of short biographies written by John Aubrey (1626–1697) in the last decades of the 17th century.

Auerbach, Erich: Mimesis. A book of literary criticism first published in 1946.

Augustine: Confessions. An autobiographical work, consisting of 13 books, by Saint Augustine of Hippo, written in Latin between AD 397 and 400.

Augustine: The City of God. A book of Christian philosophy written in Latin by Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century AD.

Barfield, Owen: History in English Words. Retells the history of Western civilization by exploring the change in meanings of various words.

Bernstein, Hilda: The World that Was Ours. Hilda Bernstein‘s personal account of life in Johannesburg under the oppressive surveillance of the apartheid regime.

Brittain, Vera: Testament of Youth. A memoir acclaimed for its description of the impact of World War I on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of Great Britain.

Brown, Dee: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. A 1970 book by American writer Dee Brown that covers the history of Native Americans in the American West in the late nineteenth century.

Burke, Edmund: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The first complete philosophical exposition for separating the beautiful and the sublime into their own respective rational categories.

Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood. Narrative nonfiction which details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas, first published in 1966.

Carson, Rachel: Silent Spring. A book published in 1962, documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, bringing environmental concerns to the American public.

Clark, William and Merriwether Lewis: The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Journals kept during the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States. 

Columbus, Christopher: The Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives. A narrative of the voyages of Columbus throughout the Caribbean and to the mainland of Central America.

Confucius: Analects. An ancient Chinese book composed of a large collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his contemporaries.

Darwin, Charles: The Origin of Species. A work of scientific literature by Charles Darwin which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.

de Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John: Letters from an American Farmer. A series of letters written by French American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, first published in 1782.

de Quincy, Thomas: Confessions of an English Opium Eater. An autobiographical account written by Thomas De Quincey, about his laudanum addiction and its effect on his life. 

de Tocqueville, Alexis: Democracy in America. Tocqueville spent nine months traveling the United States, studying the prisons, and collecting information on American society, including its religious, political, and economic character.

Descartes, Rene: Meditations on First Philosophy. The presentation of Descartes’ metaphysical system at its most detailed level and in the expanding of his philosophical system.

Dillman, Annie: Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. A 1974 nonfiction narrative book which details the author’s explorations near her home, and various contemplations on nature and life.

Dorr, David: Colored Man Round the World. A travel narrative of Dorr, a slave, when he accompanied the Louisiana plantation owner Cornelius Fellowes on a visit of the world’s major cities, published in 1858.

Douglas, Frederick: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Autobiographical narrative written by Frederick Douglass.

Durak, Mary: Kings in Grass Castles. The story of Durack’s pioneering family establishing its pastoral interests in the Australian outback during the 19th century.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo: Self-Reliance and Other Essays. Collection of essays written by American transcendentalist philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Equiano, Olaudah: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Autobiography of Equiano’s time spent in enslavement, and documents his attempts at becoming an independent man.

Frank, Anne: The Diary of Anne Frank. A book of the writings from the Dutch-language diary kept by Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

Frankl, Viktor: Man’s Search for Meaning. A 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method.

Franklin, Benjamin: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The unfinished record of his life written by Benjamin Franklin from 1771 to 1790.

Freud, Sigmund: The Interpretation of Dreams. The author introduces his theory of the unconscious with respect to dream interpretation, and discusses what would later become the theory of the Oedipus complex.

Gandhi, Mohatma: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. It covers the period from his birth (1869) to the year 1921, describing his childhood, his school days, his early marriage, his journeys abroad, his legal studies and practise.

Gibbon, Edward: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A six-volume work by the English historian Edward Gibbon. It traces Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium.

Gordon, Lucie Duff: Letters from Egypt. Collection of letters written by Lucie Duff Gordon to her family, in which she gave vivid descriptions of Eastern life and many details of domestic manners and customs.

Grant, Ulysses S.: The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. An autobiography by Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, focused mainly on his military career during the Mexican–American War and the American Civil War, and completed as he was dying of throat cancer in 1885.

Hamilton, Edith: Mythology. Collection of stories of GreekRoman, and Norse mythology drawn from a variety of sources.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. A 1964 memoir by American author Ernest Hemingway about his years as a struggling expat journalist and writer in Paris during the 1920s. 

Hume, David: A Treatise of Human Nature. A book by Scottish philosopher David Hume, considered by many to be Hume’s most important work and one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy, a classic statement of philosophical empiricismskepticism, and naturalism.

Jacobs, Harriet Ann (Linda Brent): Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. An autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, a mother and fugitive slave, published in 1861.

James, William: Varieties of Religious Experience. A compilation of lectures concerned the psychological study of individual private religious experiences and mysticism.

Johnson, Samuel: Dictionary of the English Language. Among the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Keller, Helen: The Story of My Life. Helen Keller‘s autobiography detailing her early life.

Kempe, Margery: The Book of Margery Kempe. A medieval text attributed to Margery Kempe, an English Christian mystic and pilgrim who lived at the turn of the fifteenth century. 

Lawrence, T. E.: Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The autobiographical account of the experiences of British soldier T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), while serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks of 1916 to 1918.

Levi, Primo: If This Is A Man. A memoir by Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi, first published in 1947, describing his arrest as a member of the Italian anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War, and his incarceration in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Locke, John: Second Treatise of Government. A work of political philosophy published anonymously in 1689 by John Locke.

Malcolm X: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The result of a collaboration between human rights activist Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley. Haley coauthored the autobiography based on a series of in-depth interviews he conducted between 1963 and Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. A series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels: The Communist Manifesto. An 1848 political document by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Mill, John Stuart: Utilitarianism. A classic exposition and defence of utilitarianism in ethics. 

Montaigne, Michel de: Selected Essays. Montaigne’s stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record “some traits of my character and of my humours.”

Muir, John: Writings about Nature. Various works aimed protecting and preserving wild and natural environments.

Nietzsche, Friedrich: Beyond Good and Evil. Book by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche, Friedrich: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Book by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

Orwell, George: Down and Out in Paris and London. A memoir in two parts on the theme of poverty in the two cities.

Paine, Thomas: Common Sense. A pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–1776 advocating independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies.

Parkman, Francis: France and England in North America. A multi-volume history of the European colonization of North America, published between 1865 and 1892, which highlights the military struggles between France and Great Britain.

Pascal, Blaise: Pensées. A collection of fragments written by the French 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal.

Pepys, Samuel: Diary of Samuel Pepys. A detailed private diary kept from 1660 until 1669 which provides a combination of personal revelation and eyewitness accounts of great events, such as the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London.

Plato: The Apology. A Socratic dialogue of the speech of legal self-defense which Socrates spoke at his trial for impiety and corruption in 399 BCE.

Plato: The Republic. Plato’s most famous work is the Republic, which details a wise society run by a philosopher.

Plato: The Symposium. A philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It depicts a friendly contest of extemporaneous speeches given by a group of notable men attending a banquet.

Plutarch: Parallel Lives. A series of 48 biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD.

Proust, Marcel: Days of Reading. Essays about why we read.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: On the Social Contract. A 1762 book in which Rousseau theorized about the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. A collection of 124 letters that Seneca the Younger wrote at the end of his life, during his retirement, after he had worked for the Emperor Nero for more than ten years.

Shonagon, Sei: The Pillow Book. A book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: The Gulag Archipelago. A three-volume non-fiction text written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, first published in 1973, covering life in what is often known as the Gulag, the Soviet forced labour camp system, through a narrative constructed from various sources including reports, interviews, statements, diaries, legal documents, and Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a Gulag prisoner.

Steinbeck, John: Travels With Charley. A 1962 travelogue written by American author John Steinbeck, depicting a 1960 road trip around the United States made by Steinbeck, in the company of his standard poodle Charley. 

Stevenson, Robert Louis: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Recounts Stevenson’s 12-day, 200-kilometre (120 mi) solo hiking journey through the sparsely populated and impoverished areas of the Cévennes mountains in south-central France in 1878.

Stewart, Elinore Pruitt: Letters of a Woman Homesteader. A collection of letters written between 1909 and 1914 by a woman homesteading in Wyoming.

Strachey, Lytton: Eminent Victorians.  Biographies of four leading figures from the Victorian era, first published in 1918.

Strachey, Lytton: Queen Victoria. Biography of the Queen of Great Britain from 1837 until her death.

Thoreau, Henry David: Civil Disobedience. An essay by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849.

Thoreau, Henry David: Walden. A book by American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings.

Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War. A historical account of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), which was fought between the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) and the Delian League (led by Athens).

Truth, Sojourner: Narrative of Sojourner Truth. A partial autobiography of the woman who became a pioneer in the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Tuchman, Barbara: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. A narrative history book by the American historian Barbara Tuchman, first published in 1978.

Tzu, Sun: The Art of War. A book composed of 13 chapters each devoted to an aspect of warfare and how it applies to military strategy and tactics, first written in the 5th century BC.

Wharton, Edith: A Backward Glance: Autobiography. The reflections of the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Wiesel, Elie: Night. A 1960 book by Elie Wiesel about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust toward the end of the Second World War

Wollstonecraft, Mary: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. One of the earliest works of feminist philosophy.

Woolf, Virginia: A Room of One’s Own. An extended essay arguing for both a literal and figurative space for women’s writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.


28 thoughts on “A List of Nonfiction Classics

  1. I love the idea of nonfiction classics! I’ve never thought about it, but of course there are classics within this genre as well. As far as I could count, I’ve only read 7 from your list, which isn’t impressive, but lots of great inspiration!


  2. Great list Deb!
    Given all the bookish events happening this month, I look forward to the classic novella list next 🙂

    Just wondering if Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring is old enough now to be considered a non-fiction classic?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some suggestions: Gandhi (I think it’s titled My Autobiography?), The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Stewart, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Jacobs.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s such an interesting list. I’ve had Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on my classics list for ages. What about Vera Brittain’s Testament of Experience and Everybody’s Boswell (the life of Samuel Johnson abridged from James Boswell’s complete text and from the Tour to the Hebrides.) or just the Tour to the Hebrides?

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  4. Haven’t read many- don’t know if I did, but there might have been a time where I read Anne Frank as required book

    I am not the biggest fan of nonfiction, but every so often come across one that I like

    Liked by 1 person

          1. Actually, I think I can do 50 books in 5 years- I actually think more.

            I am including Hans Christian Anderson and A Christmas Treasury filled with Holiday classics. Right now- the finished works is 20- due to Hans Christian Anderson

            I think I might need to review the Hans Christian Anderson together- kinda of hard to review individually


  5. A very nice list! This will definitely help my next classics club list.

    I thought of some more, of course. That’s the problem with this sort of thing… 😉 If you’ve got Aristotle, then you’ve got to have Plato, right? (“Can’t have one without the other…”) I’d say, The Symposium or the Apology. Then if you’re adding the ancients, Thucydides’ History should probably be on there, too.

    I’ll just also say, since I’m partly responsible for the Lytton Strachey, that, while Eminent Victorians is the famous one, and it’s hilarious, I thought Queen Victoria was just as good, and possibly even better.

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  6. Wow, I’ve read only three of those books, Anne Frank, Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and have Frederick Douglass on my TBR pile. However, my non-fiction book for November is by an author from your list: The Capital by Karl Marx. I hope that counts. 😉

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    1. I created this list from suggestions from others. One of the nice things, in my opinion, about the Classics Club is that each of us decides for ourselves what books are classics and which of the classics we want to read.


      1. That is definitely one of the great things. For me, a classic is generally one that is about a hundred years old or older though I know more people consider books as classics about half that time and that’s alright, too. I love classics, they bring history closer.

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