Top 10 Non-Fiction Books To Expand Your Mind

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“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

The value of non-fiction books is so often overlooked in favour of other, more instant sources of knowledge (cough…internet…cough), but sometimes there is nothing so beautiful and thought provoking as a non-fiction book. In no particular order, here are my top ten non-fiction books for expanding your mind. Get learning!

1. A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

A history of the world in 100 objects neil macgregor

Beautifully presented, easy to read, and we learn about the civilisations of the world, from ancient history to modern day. The objects are intimate, strange and tell such wonderful stories about our predecessors.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

2. Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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Explains statistics in laymans terms and somehow, amazingly, makes them exciting, interesting and endlessly entertaining. An excellent way to learn about how statistics are used both correctly and incorrectly.

Freakonomics

3. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson

Silent spring Rachel carson

Although outdated now, this book should be read by all- it led to the understanding most of us have about the effect we as a species has on our planet. Particularly pertinent due to high profile climate change deniers!

Silent Spring (Penguin Modern Classics)

4. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

Stephen hawking a brief history of time

After I had read this, I felt like my brain had doubled in size. I just understood so much more. Incredible facts and theories about the universe we live in.

A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes

5. The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

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In our modern society, we often look back on Nazi Germany and wonder how it happened, because we wouldn’t vote for that. This important book, written just after WW2 highlights some disquieting similarities to our world now.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

6. The Story of Art – E. H. Gombrich

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A beautiful book which will give you a background to the most admired works of art in the world. Make sure you get a recent edition which will include some modern art too.

The Story of Art

7. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

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‘Feminism’ is so often seen, ridiculously, as a dirty word. Read A Room of One’s Own to see why it is necessary. A quick read, but an important one.

A Room of One’s Own (Penguin Modern Classics)

8. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

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Widely dubbed as the first ever true-crime book, Truman Capote meticulously picks apart and examines the lives of a murdered family, and looks into the motivation behind the horrific crime.

In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (Penguin Modern Classics)

9. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Sacks recounts the tales of patients with neurological disorders. Endlessly fascinating and desperately human stories.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

10. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Christopher McDougall

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An amazing eye opener about the capabilities of the human body! If you want to learn what your body can do, this book is a brilliant place to start. Truly inspiring.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Enjoyed this? Why not have a look at 30 books to read before you’re 30.

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Engleby – Sebastian Faulks

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“Lonely’s like any other organism; competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself.”

Everyone knows Sebastian Faulks; Birdsong is an immensely popular novel (with good reason, it was impeccably researched and written with precision). I’m not sure if Engleby is as well known. I have no idea if people like it. I’ve never heard anyone talking about it.

But, to me, Engleby is one of Faulks’ best novels. There is less of a cinematic quality to it, and I prefer that – it is instead a story of a killer, written from his point of view.

We are taken on a journey into the mind of Engleby, a strange character. At first, he seems perhaps shy and anti-social; as the story moves on, his way of thinking becomes more and more disturbing and we start to realise that all is not as it seems.

Whether or not Engleby actually committed these crimes, I’ll let you decide. And as to the question of whether Engleby is ill or – more chillingly – evil and taking the reader for a ride too, well, I have drawn my own conclusions and you’ll have to draw yours.

An entertaining and readable book from beginning to end.

8/10

Engleby

The Sense Of An Ending – Julian Barnes

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“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

This book’s synopsis immediately drew me to it. It is a study of human memory, and whether the past as we recall it is actually what happened – and if it’s not, whether anyone can say what happened with any accuracy.

The first part of the novel is a recount of a friendship the main character, Tony, had with a childhood friend called Adrian who killed himself. The second part of the novel, following receipt of a bequest, leads Tony to reconsider all he had previously recounted. Evidence comes to light revealing the frailty of Tony’s memories of his past – but his friends’ memories prove corrigible too.

On this level, the story was interesting to me and led me to reflect on my own memories and whether those involved would tell those stories differently.

However, the novel also made me deeply sad. Tony’s desperate delving into his past made it seem as though he had nothing in his future. Tony is not near death, but his lack of close friendships (the vulnerability of even secure friendships is another theme running through the novel) or loving family relationships made it seem, to me, as though he considered his life was practically over.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the study of memory. I finished the book desperately hoping that I do not end up with a similarly unfulfilling life as Tony has when I reach his age.

8/10

 The Sense of an Ending

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

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“I assumed everything bad in the world could happen, because everything bad in the world already did happen.”

I bought this book for two reasons. Firstly, when I’d mentioned that I enjoyed American Psycho to a friend, they recommended this to me and secondly, the big red sticker on the front which says ‘from the author of Gone Girl’.

I have not actually read Gone Girl yet (is it good? Let me know!) but I have seen the film and thought it was entertaining.

This book was actually a real slog to read. I was reading a few pages  every evening and not really enjoying it. Whereas American Psycho is a clever slasher novel where you are constantly left questioning what has come before, Dark Places is very different in style. There is plenty of slashing, don’t get me wrong, but the plot is nowhere near as clever. The twists and red herrings were not placed gently, they were shoe horned in with a heavy touch.

I was disappointed. I had such high hopes, but I couldn’t warm to the main character (although I don’t think you are supposed to) and although the story feels real, it also feels grimy in a way.

I realised what the issue was. I had enjoyed the glamour of American Psycho. There is no glamour in Dark Places. Quite the opposite.

Perhaps if you begin the novel with different expectations to the ones I had, you may enjoy it more.

5.5/10

 Dark Places

Better Than Before – Gretchen Rubin

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“There’s a great satisfaction in knowing that we’ve made good use of our days, that we’ve lived up to our expectations of ourselves.”

When I bought this book, struggling with the stresses of full-time work and study, I wanted a magical fix. I thought it would be easier to clean the house if I made a habit of certain aspects of housework (like emptying the dishwasher or hoovering). Everything would take less time, I would have a tidier house and less distraction from working.

As well as this, I wanted to make a habit of exercise – I never feel like I do enough. I was finding it hard to fit it in after work, so I thought I’d get up ten minutes earlier and go for a run then.

So, I was excited to start reading and become a new me. I immediately found Gretchen a little condescending – she comes from the approach of being Very Good at creating habits, so it doesn’t feel as though you are going through the process with the author, rather you are being lectured at.

Nevertheless, the advice was fair and I began the process of building these habits. I would be so cross with myself when I didn’t do them. That’s when I took a step back, and realised that the book had had the opposite effect – these habits weren’t making me happier or better, instead they were making me miserable and cross with myself.

When I looked at it a little deeper, I realised that I already have a lot of good habits – having a smoothie for breakfast every day, doing the food shop every Friday evening, doing a yoga session once a week.

Perhaps many of us need to congratulate ourselves for the things we’re doing well, rather than beat ourselves up for the things we think we’re not doing right. This is why I chose the quote at the top – perhaps our expectations of ourselves are actually the problem all along.

5.5/10

Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits _ to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life

La Bête humaine (The Beast Within) – Zola

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“As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.”

If you haven’t read any Zola, you must! His characters are always flawed, gritty and real, forcing their way through life with the odds against them. Rather than focusing on the privileged and rich, Zola’s lens is on the underbelly of society – the poor, the ones whose struggles are more desperate and difficult.

In La Bete Humaine, Zola offers a character with a hereditary madness – at many points during the book, Lantier heads out with the intention of murdering a woman. Zola perfectly depicts the all consuming desire Lantier feels.

This is not all, though – Lantier, filled with rage and passion, is not the only character with a ‘beast within’; he is far from the only one in the book with murderous intentions. The other characters, rather than being ‘mad’, are selfish, jealous and grasping, trampling over others to achieve their goals.

This is not a cheerful story. None of Zola’s are. But it is a work of art; passionate and brutal.

9/10

 La Bete Humaine (Penguin Classics)

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

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“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then-who knows?-maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.”

There are surely not many now who haven’t read this book or seen the film with Keira Knightly. Regardless, I won’t give away the plot because one of the key moments when I truly understood the power of literature was reading this book and discovering the horrific twist.

The film is heartbreaking too, but if you haven’t read the book or seen the film yet, do read the book first – you’ll form a much closer bond with the characters.

The characters are what makes this book. They are straightforward, real; we follow them from childhood, grow up with them, discover the shocking truth with them. They feel like people you know, and that is the power of this book.

We are left with questions about the value of life, the value of love and our own humanity. We are, at heart, selfish beings, but I’m sure we’d all like to believe nothing like the plot in Never Let Me Go could ever happen. I’m not so sure. It is easy to distance ourselves from the things which sicken us.

10/10

 Never Let Me Go