I love non-fiction. That’s no surprise to anyone. I often get asked what my favourite kind of non-fiction books are, and it’s a surprisingly easy question to answer: as with fiction, I like my non-fiction to make me feel something. Be that sadness and injustice, or beauty and inspiration, my favourite books are those that grab my heartstrings and tug until the very last page.
I’ve compiled a list of five non-fiction books that read like fiction and are sure to get you right in the feels.
5. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
We all know about North Korea, I mean, you’d have to pointedly ignore all forms and sources of news to be unaware of it. But it’s hard to imagine exactly what life in North Korea is like, especially what life leaving it is like.
In Order to Live is a heartbreaking story of young Yeonmi and her family’s life in North Korea and ultimate defection. It follows as they struggle across the border into China, and face hardship after hardship fighting for their freedom.
Throughout it all, Yeonmi’s grace and character shine through and make this an un-putdownable read.
Human rights activist Park, who fled North Korea with her mother in 2007 at age 13 and eventually made it to South Korea two years later after a harrowing ordeal, recognized that in order to be “completely free,” she had to confront the truth of her past. It is an ugly, shameful story of being sold with her mother into slave marriages by Chinese brokers, and although she at first tried to hide the painful details when blending into South Korean society, she realized how her survival story could inspire others. Moreover, her sister had also escaped earlier and had vanished into China for years, prompting the author to go public with her story in the hope of finding her sister.
4. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay
Jam-packed with that blunt medical humour so familiar to me after studying science, This Is Going to Hurt takes a brittle, sometimes cynical, and always real approach to telling the trails that face a Junior Doctor in the UK.
It’s an eye-opener and a half, but be warned, the medical sense of humour is definitely not for everyone.
I giggled, and cringed my way through the first half, and cried my way through the ending.
A definite favourite of mine, for the hard-hitting, lively way it’s told. I’ll definitely be revisiting this one again.
Adam Kay was a junior doctor from 2004 until 2010, before a devastating experience on a ward caused him to reconsider his future. He kept a diary throughout his training, and This Is Going to Hurt intersperses tales from the front line of the NHS with reflections on the current crisis. The result is a first-hand account of life as a junior doctor in all its joy, pain, sacrifice and maddening bureaucracy, and a love letter to those who might at any moment be holding our lives in their hands.
3. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
by Carlo Rovelli
I talk about this book all the time because it is one of my absolute favourite non-fiction books I’ve ever read. You might be wondering why, because it’s a physics book, but trust me, reader, it is written like poetry.
Covering basic principles in physics and the history of their discovery, Seven Brief Lessons takes you on a journey through time, marvelling both at the incredible human minds that came to understand fragments of our baffling universe, but also marvelling at the beauty of the universe itself.
If Seven Brief Lessons doesn’t make you fall in love with this paradoxical, unfathomable vast expanse of sheer cosmic awesomeness that we’ve found ourselves in, then I don’t know what will. Read it, please.
In seven brief lessons, Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli guides readers with admirable clarity through the most transformative physics breakthroughs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This playful, entertaining and mind-bending introduction to modern physics, already a major bestseller in Italy, explains general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, and the role of humans in the strange world Rovelli describes. This is a book about the joy of discovery. It takes readers to the frontiers of our knowledge: to the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, back to the origins of the cosmos, and into the workings of our minds. “Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world,” Rovelli writes. “And it’s breathtaking.”
2. When Breath Becomes Air
The second book written by a doctor that features on my list, When Breath Becomes Air takes a more philosophical and less humorous take on the lives and times of doctors.
Dr Kalanithi deals with human mortality every day, but he’s forced to come to terms with his far before his time. When Breath Becomes Air is a heartbreaking, and humbling look into what makes us human, and what makes our lives worth living.
My heart hurt with this one from the very beginning, and I loved every minute of it, though I was reduced to a sobbing mess. Despite the sadness of the events, When Breath Becomes Air has an incredible tone of hope to it, for even when death comes knocking prematurely at one’s door, life must go on.
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.'” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
1. Tuesdays With Morrie
I have read this book a total of two times. Both at incredibly important times of my life.
The first was in my final term of high school, as I was preparing to enter university as a pre-med major with a particular interest in Motor Neuron Disease. It was required reading for our class, and I’m sure I was the only person who liked it, but I couldn’t fathom why.
Morrie spoke to my heart.
In particular, I’m rather fond of the story about the little wave, happily bobbing along one day until he sees the waves ahead of him crashing into shore. He grows upset thinking that soon he will end until another wave comes along to tell him not to worry, for he is not a wave – he is part of the ocean.
My heart always swells at that.
The second time I read Tuesdays with Morrie was not long after I’d graduated university. It was just as heartwarming the second time around. Morrie dies with such grace, such joy, and such hope, I couldn’t help but find it infectious. I do find, however, that I read this book for Morrie, and I often skim over the Mitch parts. But that’s just me, reader.
I hope you love it too.
Maybe it was a grandparent, or a teacher or a colleague. Someone older, patient and wise, who understood you when you were young and searching, and gave you sound advice to help you make your way through it. For Mitch Albom, that person was Morrie Schwartz, his college professor from nearly twenty years ago.
Maybe, like Mitch, you lost track of this mentor as you made your way, and the insights faded. Wouldn’t you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you?
Mitch Albom had that second chance. He rediscovered Morrie in the last months of the older man’s life. Knowing he was dying of ALS – or motor neurone disease – Mitch visited Morrie in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college. Their rekindled relationship turned into one final ‘class’: lessons in how to live.
Drop me a comment with your favourite non-fiction reads!