The Best Narrative Nonfiction Books, recommended by Samira Shackle

Narrative nonfiction is a style of writing that takes the facts and dramatises them to create novelistic retellings of real life events. Samira Shackle, author of Karachi Vice, a book that offers vivid insight into the lives of five of the city’s residents, recommends five books that have inspired her—and explains how a writer might begin to carve ‘plot’ and ‘characters’ from reams of research material.

The best books on Immersive Nonfiction, recommended by Will Storr

A good writer must always aim to write the truth – a more complex narrative than one of heroes and villains. But to find the truth, sometimes you’ve got to get up and go there yourself, says Will Storr, journalist and author of Selfie. Here he selects five books that have inspired his own immersive approach to nonfiction.

The Best Narrative Nonfiction, recommended by Peter Hessler

Writer and journalist Peter Hessler selects five books, from Haight Ashbury to a fifth grade classroom, which show how nonfiction can bring true stories to life through literary techniques. He chooses the best of narrative nonfiction.

The Best Memoirs: The 2022 NBCC Autobiography Shortlist, recommended by Marion Winik

Autobiography is evolving; increasingly we find the field dominated by ‘genre-fluid’ books that plait memoir together with strands of cultural criticism, history, journalism or even poetry. Here, Marion Winik, the memoirist and critic, talks us through the five books that have been shortlisted in the National Book Critic’s Circle autobiography category—and describes the face of memoir in 2022.

The Best New Celebrity Memoirs, recommended by Sharon Marcus

While it’s easy to dismiss celebrity memoirs as offering cheap, voyeuristic thrills into the lives of famous people we like the look of, when they’re done well, they can give insight into challenges we all grapple with as human beings. They can also be very funny. Sharon Marcus, professor of literature at Columbia University and author of The Drama of Celebrity, recommends the best new celebrity memoirs.

The best books on Islands, recommended by Gavin Francis

Generations of writers, explorers and armchair travellers have found a focal point of fascination in the idea of the remote island. Why so? Gavin Francis, the award-winning writer, explains the everlasting appeal of the lonely isle – and why the fantasy is at least as powerful as the salt-sprayed reality – as he selects five of the best books on islands.

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award, recommended by Adam Gopnik

Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author’s entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik, writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.

Presidential memoirs (and biographies) as audiobooks, recommended by Robin Whitten

When you listen to presidential memoirs as audiobooks, you can hear an American president telling you their own story—at least when it comes to recent presidents. Going further back in time, biographies may be more useful. Veteran audiobook reviewer Robin Whitten, editor of Audiofile magazine, recommends the best audiobooks about US presidents, and explains the crucial role of professional narrators in bringing big books to life.

The best books on Abandoned Places, recommended by Cal Flyn

Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn selects five of the best books on abandoned places, including a cultural history of ruins, an account of natural recovery in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, plus two unsettling works of science fiction. Her own book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, is out now.

The Best Nature Books of 2020, recommended by Charles Foster

Charles Foster—the barrister, ethicist and bestselling author of Being a Beast—selects five brilliant nature books that reflect a new boom in nature writing in 2020, many of which ask us to examine more closely the interconnectedness of all things.

The best books on Forensic Science, recommended by Jim Fraser

Jim Fraser, veteran forensic investigator and author of Murder Under the Microscope, selects five of the best books about forensic science. Forget what you think you know about the subject from crime fiction and television dramas, and bring a healthy scepticism: this line of work can be as much a craft as a science.

The Best Addiction Memoirs, recommended by Matt Rowland Hill

The author and recovering addict Matt Rowland Hill dissects the ‘addiction memoir’—its literary potential, its formal conventions and its offer of hope and catharsis—as he recommends five books that exemplify the form, from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater to Mary Karr’s bestselling Lit.

The Best Books on the Philosophy of Travel, recommended by Emily Thomas

At its best, travel broadens our minds, expands our horizons and allows us to see the world we live in differently. But it has also played an important role in the history of philosophy. Emily Thomas, author of The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, explores the connections between her two passions—philosophy and travel—at a moment when most of us are unable to leave our houses: perhaps the perfect moment to reflect on travel’s significance for human beings.

The Best of Memoir: the 2020 NBCC Autobiography Shortlist, recommended by Mark Athitakis

From a brave account by the Stanford rape case survivor Chanel Miller to New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow’s gripping tale of investigating the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s been a golden year for autobiography. Veteran critic Mark Athitakis talks us through the memoirs that made this year’s National Book Critics Circle autobiography shortlist.

Editors’ Picks: Notable Books of 2019, recommended by Cal Flyn

Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn reflects on a year of spectacularly rich literary output, highlighting notable new books from Mary Gaitskill and Robert Macfarlane, as well as sparkling debuts that mark the arrival of exciting new literary voices in 2019.

The Best of Nature Writing 2019, recommended by Charles Foster

What do we talk about when we talk about nature? Almost everything, says the academic and bestselling author of Being a Beast, Charles Foster. Here he selects five of the best works of nature writing in 2019; books that seek to connect us more deeply with the non-human world.

The Best Nonfiction Books of 2019, recommended by Stig Abell

Every year, the Baillie Gifford Prize judges seek to identify the very best nonfiction books published in the last year. Here, the chair of this year’s judging panel Stig Abell talks us through the 2019 shortlist: a thrilling line-up of books that are as notable for their literary prowess as for their weight and significance.

The best books on True Crime, recommended by Cara Robertson

Why do women kill? What does violence tell us about human nature? How do the methods of the criminal justice system speak to an era? Cara Robertson—a lawyer, author and expert on the famous Lizzie Borden case—picks five true crime books that deal in murder, individual psychology, public trials and justice.

The Best Books by Adventurers, recommended by Alastair Humphreys

One morning in early June, Laurie Lee said goodbye to his mum at the garden gate and went off on an adventure. Is now the moment for you to do the same? Bestselling author and adventurer Alastair Humphreys recommends five books written by adventurers that can’t fail but inspire you to ‘go simple, go solo, go now.’

The Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, recommended by Fiammetta Rocco

It’s a difficult task: to identify the very best nonfiction books of the year. But the Baillie Gifford Prize aims to do just that. The chair of the prize’s 2018 judging panel Fiammetta Rocco talks to us about the six fascinating titles that made the shortlist.

The best books on Charles de Gaulle, recommended by Julian Jackson

Charles de Gaulle had ‘a certain idea of France’ which even he didn’t manage to articulate clearly. De Gaulle biographer and one of Britain’s leading historians of modern France, Julian Jackson, talks us through some key books to get a sense of France’s wartime leader and president, Charles de Gaulle.

The Best of Prison Literature, recommended by David Coogan

Prison literature can make difficult reading but is often incredibly touching, testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. David Coogan, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who runs a creative writing workshop at Richmond City Jail, introduces ‘prison literature.’

David Russell on The Victorian Essay

With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the Spectator were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.

The Best Books by Muriel Spark, recommended by Alan Taylor

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the novelist, poet and essayist Muriel Spark, a singular voice of 20th century literature. Her 22 novels are slim and entertaining says Alan Taylor, author of Appointment in Arezzo, but beneath the jeux d’esprit lies a fearsome intellect. Here he selects five of her key works.

The Best Samuel Taylor Coleridge Books, recommended by Seamus Perry

The reputation of Romantic poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge has long been overshadowed by William Wordsworth, his friend and Lyrical Ballads co-author. Oxford professor Seamus Perry talks us through the books that showcase Coleridge’s idiosyncratic brilliance.  

Enrique Vila-Matas on Books that Shaped Him

‘I like to show some restraint when it comes to making things up…’ The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas discusses the role of risk in writing, the ‘crisis of the novel’, and five books that have shaped his own work. (You can also read this interview in the original Spanish.)

Forgotten Classics, recommended by Scott Pack

Ninety per cent of the books we hear about are new, which means we are missing out on countless masterpieces already out there. Scott Pack, co-founder of the Abandoned Bookshop, a digital publisher that specialises in finding forgotten and neglected books, picks five forgotten classics, for lovers not of the new but of the different…

The Best George Eliot Books, recommended by Philip Davis

George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’

Margo Jefferson on Cultural Memoirs

The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic celebrates a form in constant flight from definition, that finds expression in hybrid texts and plays-within-plays, and that is as at home in high art as in pop culture.

The best books on The Lives of Artists, recommended by Maria Loh

We live in an age obsessed with self-image. Technology has made the ‘selfie’ a ubiquitous form of social currency. Renaissance means may have been very different, but celebrity artists in Medici Florence dealt with many of the issues relating to identity and authorship that we grapple with today. Maria Loh, author of Still Lives: Death, Desire, and the Portrait of the Old Master, talks to Five Books about the curated self.

The Best True Crime Books, recommended by David Grann

True crime books can be all too easily chalked up as a genre of grisly murders and cheap, voyeuristic thrills—but to do so would be to overlook compelling evidence to the contrary. David Grann, whose true crime book revisits long-forgotten, or concealed, crimes in the Osage community of Oklahoma, raises the bar with examples of true crime books rich in historical discovery, literary merit and the kind of political inquiry these murky times are calling for

The best books on D H Lawrence, recommended by Catherine Brown

Although less flamboyantly experimental than his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf, D H Lawrence was a modernist, says literary scholar Catherine Brown. Here, she selects five books that make the case for this most contradictory, and often divisive, of writers—a man whose fictions and ‘philosophicalish’ works were by turns brilliant and bewildering, sublime and ridiculous

Yiyun Li on the ‘Anti-memoir’

Yiyun Li, author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, on the sheer messiness of life, the irrelevance of ‘I’, and why brutal honesty is often the truest way to capture the people we love the most

The Best Charles Dickens Books, recommended by Jenny Hartley

He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about Charles Dickens and discusses Dickens the phenomenon, past and present.

The Best H G Wells Books, recommended by Roger Luckhurst

Often described as the ‘father of science fiction’, H G Wells was a man of extraordinary charisma and vivid imagination. Yet he suffered terribly from class anxiety and subscribed to political beliefs we now find abhorrent, says the editor and author Roger Luckhurst. He recommends the best books to learn more about the life and work of the British writer H G Wells.

The best books on Marx and Marxism, recommended by Terrell Carver

Few people have had their ideas reinvented as many times as the German intellectual and political activist, Karl Marx. Professor of political theory, Terrell Carver, takes us through the most influential books, in English, about Marx, Marxism and his friend, publicist and financial backer, Friedrich Engels.

The best books on Hong Kong, recommended by Jason Ng

In 2014 Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Protests’ made news around the world. But will continuing protests in Hong Kong lead to advances in democracy or crackdowns by Beijing? Jason Ng, lawyer and author of Umbrellas in Bloom, chooses five of the best books for understanding China’s ‘foster child’ city.

The Best Virginia Woolf Books, recommended by Hermione Lee

Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the best Virginia Woolf books, novels and essays, and diaries, of Virginia Woolf.

The Best Books by Wilkie Collins, recommended by Jason Hall

Wilkie Collins, the sensationalist author and inventor of the detective novel, knew precisely how to “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait”. Jason Hall, Victorian literature expert and editor of a new edition of Jezebel’s Daughter, chooses the five best books from Collins’s extensive oeuvre – and considers the voracious appetites and unorthodox lifestyle of this intriguing Englishman.