I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fiction
I have a deep love for narrative nonfiction, the kind of story that seems to leap off the pages in a way that makes you think “hey, this can’t be true.” Except that it is. While part of the appeal is learning about interesting parts of history that seem too crazy to be true, what really draws me to narrative nonfiction is the readability and great writing that make me feel like I’m immersed in a novel, when really I’m just getting to relive a fascinating part of history. Narrative nonfiction books especially draw me in when they cover some lesser-known historical moment, something that seems like a minute dot on the historical timeline but a dot that contains an immersing story, with a cast of characters that seem to jump straight off the pages of a novel.
With that, here are a few of my favorite narrative nonfiction books . . .
1. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Erik Larson’s book is easily the most famous and most-read on this list (and you’ve probably seen it everywhere), but I’m going to recommend it anyways but it really is that good. The Devil in the White City tells the stories of two men—Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the construction of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer (sometimes called America’s First Serial Killer) who is believed to have been responsible for dozens of murders that occurred around the time of the fair. Larson’s story is a sort of dual narrative, delving deeply into the details of what it took to imagine and build the famous White City of the World’s Fair and the fair’s success, as well as Dr. Holmes’s equally, but more sinisterly, successful World’s Fair Hotel and the ways in which he lured victims to their deaths. It is a deliciously creepy read, even creepier because it’s a true story.
2. The Floor of Heaven by Howard Blum
Ah, the Gold Rush. Blum’s book tells an absolutely fascinating tale from the Klondike era, exploring the frontier and the Klondicitis-induced dreams of the thousands that rushed northward to snag a piece of the gold rush from the Yukon. The Floor of Heaven follows the tales of three men: Charlie Siringo, a sharp-shooting cowboy who becomes one of the top Pinkerton Detectives; George Carmack, a California-born Marine adopted by an Indian tribe who makes the discovery that starts the Gold Rush; and Soapy Smith, a conman at the head of a vast criminal empire who preys on newcomers. At the heart of the story is a mystery—just who stole a fortune in gold bars from the Treadwell Mine in Alaska? The book is both a fascinating look into the Yukon Gold Rush and an extremely compelling, true-life whodunnit.
3. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester tells an incredibly odd, but absolutely fascinating, story in The Professor and the Madman. From the synopsis on Goodreads, the book is “an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—and literary history.” Everybody knows what the OED is, but surely few know the remarkable story behind its creation. Winchester’s book is a sort of dual narrative, similar to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, in which he tells both the story of the creation of the dictionary itself, and the story of one man whose contributions to the OED were voluminous and invaluable to its creation. But it turns out that that one man was an American Civil War veteran, who also just so happened to be an inmate at an asylum in England for the criminally insane. The book starts out, as one would never expect a book about the history of a dictionary to do, with a murder. And it only gets better from there.
4. The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins
The Murder of the Century is the story of, you guessed it: a murder. Specifically, the Guldensuppe murder. A particularly grisly one in which two boys playing at a pond on the Lower East Side of Manhattan discover a floating human torso, blueberry pickers in Harlem find neatly severed limbs in a ditch, and a Long Island farmer finds a duck pond full of blood. The clues to a horrible crime keep popping up all over New York, but there are no witnesses, no motives, no suspects, no ideas about what the heck happened. And also no head. But this is not just a story about a murder; it is also the story of the tabloid wars that followed it and and a rich evocation of Gilded Age New York. It’s the story of the publicity circus created by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the aftermath of the discovery, with reporters playing detective and everybody racing to solve the crime. It’s the story of a sensational trial, full of circumstantial evidence, love triangles, and media frenzy. The Murder of the Century takes true crime and crosses it with a story of good old American ingenuity, and the end result is a heck of a ride.
A Note: Erik Larson, Howard Blum, Simon Winchester, and Paul Collins have all written several more narrative nonfiction books, so if you enjoy any of the four listed above, check out the rest of their books!
5. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
This was the first Dave Eggers book I read, and I absolutely loved it. Zeitoun is the true story of the Zeitoun family at the intersection of two important parts of recent American history—Hurricane Katrina and the War on Terror. The Zeitouns ran a painting business in New Orleans and when Hurricane Katrina was approaching the city, Kathy Zeitoun left with her kids, leaving husband Abdulrahman behind to watch over their business and house. What follows is an immersive story of how Zeitoun traveled the city by canoe, feeding abandoned animals and helping neighbors, only to be arrested by police officers a few days later and held as an alleged terrorist for weeks without a hearing. There has been some controversy over whether Dave Eggers perhaps got it wrong, since it later came out that Zeitoun was allegedly abusive towards his wife and in 2012 he was charged with soliciting the murder of his (now ex-)wife, her son, and another man. He was later found not guilty of the charges. Regardless of the later events, however, Zeitoun remains a riveting read.