An Essential Nonfiction Reading List for High School and Beyond

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Recently, we took in a fascinating article entitled “What Should Children Read?” over at the Times‘ Opinionator. In it, Sara Mosle briefly outlines elements of the new Common Core State Standards, contentious national curriculum guidelines which will begin to be implemented in public schools in 2014, and takes a look at some of the arguments over the new standards, suggesting that part of the problem is that high school English curriculums are often lacking in good narrative nonfiction that appeals to teenagers. Inspired by this question of what high school kids should be reading, we’ve put together an essential reading list of narrative nonfiction and memoir, from the canonic to the contemporary, that we think would benefit anyone under (and let’s face it, over) the age of 18. Click through to see our picks, and since every high schooler, past or present, should read way more than ten nonfiction books in their lives, be sure to add your own favorites to our list in the comments.

Maus I & II, Art Spiegelman

You can keep your Anne Franks and your Nights — while those are excellent and canonical Holocaust texts, nothing brought the horror to life for us as teenagers better than Spiegelman’s postmodern graphic novel, which was, rather appropriately, the first graphic novel ever to win a Pulitzer prize. Part of the story’s power is that it isn’t limited to Nazi aggression and World War II, but focuses on the way families relate, Spiegelman’s relationship with his father in particular, showing trauma on both a minor and maximalist scale.

The Devil in the White City , Erik Larson

Want kids to pay attention to lessons about the turn of the century and the 1893 World’s Fair? Throw a serial killer in there — and don’t worry, he was there already. Larson’s acclaimed and highly novelistic book follows the lives of Daniel H. Burnham, the fair’s architect, and H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who used it as his playground, with special appearances from folks like Susan B. Anthony and Thomas Edison. In our experience, it is un-put-downable.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , Maya Angelou

This is already a classic work of nonfiction in high school classrooms, so we thought we’d just reinforce the idea here — everyone should read Angelou’s beautiful, heartbreaking coming of age story, whether you need a little push towards self-actualization and inner strength (as teenagers often do) or not.

Into the Wild , Jon Krakauer

This book may have slightly less impact on those not living in snowy climes themselves, but we recommend it anyway. Krakauer is a master of the general interest narrative nonfiction style, and this book is our favorite of his oeuvre, following the story of Chris McCandless as he abandoned everything he knew to hike in Alaska, surviving on almost nothing for months until he finally succumbed to the winter. This book has a special quality for teenagers — or at least it did for us when we were among them — dealing as it does with the urge for separation from society, independence, and the fearsome capabilities of a young person on a mission.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X , Malcolm X

An incredibly important part of American history, one of the most classic American autobiographies of all time, and a fascinating and gripping story to boot, this 1965 book still holds up today. Though the book may not have the same effect on contemporary teenagers as it did on young readers in the ’60s with demonstrations on their minds, it is still a powerful story of change and strength that will help any American understand their country’s legacy.

Persepolis , Marjane Satrapi

Yes, another graphic memoir — but can you blame us? Satrapi’s memoir/bildungsroman of growing up as a young girl during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war is luminous, inspiring, and perfect for any teenager disinclined to hide their band t-shirts from their teachers. Which, as far as we can tell, is just about all teenagers.

A Room of One’s Own , Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s famous and oft-referenced extended essay, originally published in 1929, should still be required reading today, considering how the arguments over “women’s fiction” and the attention given to female writers versus their male counterparts rage on. But even if that were not the case, student could read this as a source text for learning about feminism, or read it simply for its beauty.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Joan Didion

Didion’s first collection of non-fiction, published back in 1968, is still one of our favorites, filled as it is with smart reportage mixed with the skeptical, open-eyed musings and incisive criticism that have made her one of the most important writers of all time. Of particular interest to California kids and the children of ex-hippies, we would imagine, but essential for everyone.

Friday Night Lights , H.G. Bissinger

How do you get today’s TV-addicted, bored young men to read narrative nonfiction? Give them the excellent book that spawned their favorite football-based television show, which follows the Permian Panthers of Odessa as they carry an entire town on their backs. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bissinger after spending a year in 1988 in Permian, the view isn’t always pretty, but it is truly fascinating, in all its dusty glory and anti-glory.

The Whole Shebang , Timothy Ferris

They don’t call Timothy Ferris “the greatest science writer in the world” for nothing. This volume, cheekily subtitled “A State of the Universe(s) Report,” seeks to answer some of the unanswerable questions, explaining the many views of the universe — its structure, its shape, its basic geometry — in lucid, welcoming prose. Science nerds and curious teenage stargazers alike will likely fall under its spell.