of All Time
Some writers have a gift for turning facts—whether
rooted in history, science, or their life—into epic literature
and compelling listens. Discover the much-acclaimed
best-selling works of 10 truly gifted nonfiction authors.
By Vanessa Diaz
01. James Baldwin
Though iconic writer James Baldwin spent much of his adult life living abroad, his work primarily reflected on the Black American experience. Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is about a 14-year-old Harlem boy contemplating race and religion and was loosely autobiographical in nature. Giovanni’s Room and Another Country tackled then-taboo subjects—interracial relationships and homosexuality—with unapologetic candor, so much so that publishers told Baldwin to burn Giovanni’s Room rather than alienate his readers. Good thing he paid them no mind!
Popular essay collections such as Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name tackled racial tension with unflinching honesty, but The Fire Next Time is by far Baldwin’s most incendiary work on racial identity and inequality. It was the first book of essays to spend 41 weeks in the top five of the New York Times best seller list and remains one of the most important pieces of writing in the civil rights movement. Actor Jesse L. Martin’s narration of this classic is exactly what it needs to be: clear, expressive, but without much flair, allowing Baldwin’s powerful words to speak for themselves.
02. Truman Capote
Truman Capote was still a teenager when he took a job at The New Yorker, a brief stint during which he tried to get his own work published—and failed. He wrote full-time after his departure and first gained recognition for the short story
Miriam, a piece published in Mademoiselle that won him an O. Henry Award. The success of this and subsequent short stories led to the publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, a title with mixed reviews but solid sales. His other works of fiction include The Grass Harp and a little something you may have heard of called Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It was the controversial work of nonfiction In Cold Blood that catapulted Capote to next-level literary fame. This groundbreaking
nonfiction novel about the senseless murder of a Kansas family was the first of its kind, blending tight, fact-based reporting with literary panache that reads like a suspenseful work of fiction. It provided a sort of blueprint for this style of narrative nonfiction, paving the way for works like Helter Skelter and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. The audiobook narration by Scott Brick is understated in a way that this sort of book commands; the story is thoroughly chilling all on its own and requires no narrative flair.
03. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s storied life was certainly not an easy one; in her childhood alone, she was abandoned by her mother, assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, and then went mute for years after her confession of the assault led to her attacker’s beating and death. So much of Angelou’s journey was a fight for survival; as we learn in her writing, it was also a determination to thrive.
Angelou wrote about her experience as a Black woman coming of age in a series of autobiographical works. Her now-famous debut memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first in this series and is the work for which Angelou is best known today. She also wrote several collections of poetry, including the classic And Still I Rise. Her later work includes Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, a book of meditations, and Letter to My Daughter, a book of advice for women. Dr. Angelou narrates all of these audiobooks herself, an intimate treat for listeners with her regal and beautiful tone.
04. Joan Didion
It’s hard to believe that novelist and essayist Joan Didion’s first collection of essays was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the acclaimed and important portrait of 1960s America and Californian counterculture. It transports readers to the heyday of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and is fantastic on audio, narrated by the one and only Diane Keaton, who is equal parts brilliance and delight.
Didion’s catalog includes additional works of essays and works of fiction, most of which delve into moral ambiguity and the erosion of traditional values. The White Album is a look at mass culture, covering everyone from Charles Manson to the Black Panthers. Among the most controversial of her nonfiction is Miami, a look at the city’s intricate politics, cultural dynamics, and influx of Cuban exiles. The Year of Magical Thinking is one of her later works and widely considered a classic of mourning and coping with loss. A heartbreaking but hopeful meditation on grief, it recounts Didion’s experience losing her husband and daughter very suddenly over a short period of time.
05. Michelle Obama
When a former first lady writes a memoir, it’s going to sell. When Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama writes a memoir, it’s going to sell a lot. It may feel a bit soon to add Michelle Obama to a list of all-time best-selling nonfiction authors, but the 10 million copies sold worldwide (so far) have earned her a spot. I doubt even Obama herself saw those numbers coming, numbers that are shattering records and eclipsing sales of her husband’s two books (Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope) combined. Not that anyone is counting…
The only thing better than reading the first lady’s words on paper is hearing her tell the story aloud. Narrated by Obama, Becoming feels like a conversation with an old friend. Warm, candid, revealing, and hopeful, it’s a portrait of an extraordinary woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances, but also going through a set of very ordinary and relatable struggles.
06. Yuval Noah Harari
It takes a certain kind of writer to tackle the scope of subjects like the history of humankind or the future of humanity. Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari is just that kind of writer, with a restlessly intelligent mind, a passion for history, and a PhD from Oxford to prove it. It’s no wonder he’s sold 12 million copies of his books worldwide.
Harari’s first book and international best seller, Sapiens is a compelling deep-dive into creation, evolution, and humanity as we perceive it. It’s remarkably thorough, while still remaining readable for the non-PhD crowd, asking tough questions about our role in our ecosystem and what it means for the future of our species. Homo Deus ups the ante on the hard-questions game, asking what challenges will replace famine and plague now that they’re no longer the greatest threats to our existence. These audiobooks make perfect gifts for history and science buffs, and they're the kinds of listens you want to savor and ponder deeply over time.
07. Bill Bryson
Des Moines native Bill Bryson was 21 and backpacking through Europe when he first visited England in the early 1970s. He liked it so much that he moved there the following year, a time he would later document in Neither Here nor There. He worked as a journalist well into the 1980s before establishing himself as a beloved writer of travel, science, and the English language.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is Bryson’s most popular science writing, an example of his knack for distilling massive, potentially boring subjects into accessible and readable text. Bryson’s travel writing is where his wit and humor really shine; the way he imparts thoughtful reflections on the act of travel sandwiched between hilarious personal anecdotes is chef’s-kiss good. Notes From a Small Island and In a Sunburned Country are fan favorites, and he narrates the audio versions hilariously—in his part American, part English accent. His is the kind of writing that’ll having you packing your bags as you’re laughing through appreciative tears.
08. Stephen Hawking
At just 22 years of age, world-renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and given a few years to live. The degenerative disease left him in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life—a life that beat the odds by lasting another five decades.
Hawking reshaped the field of theoretical physics (hello, Hawking radiation!) and then became an acclaimed author in 1988. A Brief History of Time made complex scientific theories accessible to us regular folk, selling well over 13 million copies worldwide. He published several other books following the success of Brief History, including The Theory of Everything and A Briefer History of Time. His last published work, Brief Answers to the Big Questions is a collection of musings from Hawking’s personal archives. A quick listen at less than five hours, the audiobook is a refreshing reminder of Hawking’s significant legacy.
09. Eckhart Tolle
Lovers of self-help and spirituality have undoubtedly heard of Eckhart Tolle, the German-born author and renowned spiritual teacher. His own struggles with depression and his transformative journey have inspired much of his work, which aims to empower and embolden readers into living richer and more fearless lives.
Tolle’s first book, The Power of Now is a guidebook for achieving inner peace. It enjoyed moderate success when it was published in 1997, then saw a giant boost a few years later when Oprah recommended the title in O Magazine. Building upon the concepts of The Power of Now, A New Earth explores what Tolle calls our ego-based consciousness and how to move beyond that state to become your truest self. Tolle narrates the audiobooks of his works, creating as personal an experience for conveying his teachings as he can.
10. Oliver Sacks
A brain scientist and healer with a rare gift for storytelling, Oliver Sacks, MD, was born in London and spent nearly 50 years working in New York City as a neurologist. A keen observer of human behavior, he wrote several best-selling books about the strange neurological predicaments and creative coping strategies of his patients, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, and Hallucinations. Combining luminous prose and infectious wonder with compassion, his collections of case studies inspired adaptations from a play by Harold Pinter to the Oscar-nominated film Awakenings.
Dubbed by The New York Times as
the poet laureate of medicine, Sacks received honors from the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Royal College of Physicians, among numerous awards. His essays on life and perplexing neurological conditions not only touched many hearts, but also changed the way many doctors, patients, and caregivers think about Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other brain-based disorders. Beyond neurology, Sacks wrote about his passions for swimming, weight-lifting, and ferns. His memoir, On the Move, was published shortly before his death in August 2015. Chronically curious listeners will enjoy his final collection of essays, Everything in Its Place, released in 2019.
and a graduate of the University of Southern California.
In between consuming large quantities of tea and spreading the gospel of Agatha Christie,
Vanessa is a Book Riot Contributing Editor.
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