The best non-fiction books to read in 2021 packed with fascinating, real-life stories

The best non-fiction books detail real stories of heartbreak, hope, humor and happy endings

a collage image featuring eight of the books in w&h's best non-fiction books round up
(Image credit: Future/Amazon)

The best non-fiction books are just as compelling as our favorite fictional tales. While escaping into an imagined world can be fun, there is so much to be said for diving into a story (or stories) that are rooted in truth, and that share the realities of the human experience—from loss, to love, and so much more.

While we all love the best thriller books, the best historical fiction books, the best science fiction books, and the best romance books—we also want to hear real stories that can teach us real lesson—and that can be surprise us, challenge us, and comfort us in ways we know fictional stories can't. And this collection of the best non-fiction books—from the new and notable to the year-round classics—offers something for every reader. 

In this selection, there are books from famous icons—such as Stanley Tucci and David Attenborough—to stories from people just like you and I doing extraordinary things. Our round-up covers all manner of topics, with one pick examining the history of female oppression through art, while another unpicks the fascinating relationship between humans and their dogs, and another shares the story of one woman's solo 2,200-mile journey of discovery. All are entertaining, all have been skillfully crafted, and all will teach you a lesson you may not even have known you needed to learn. Now all you need to do is dig out your best eReader, download your favorite one, and dive in...

The best non-fiction books to read

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1. Unlost by Gail Muller

Told by doctors that she would be wheelchair-bound by the age of 40, Gail Muller decided to set herself a goal of tackling one of the toughest treks in the world. It was a quest that saw her, at the age of 41, take her first steps on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Gail documented every high and low of her adventure through the American wilderness, describing how she battled painful injuries and harsh elements, her euphoria at scaling mountains, and the joy she derived from the friendships she forged along the way. A testament to the determination of the human spirit.


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2. Listen by Kathryn Mannix

Subtitled: How to find the words for tender conversations, this pick (one of the best self-help books on our list) seeks to guide us through all the tricky-yet-important talks that may come up within our lifetime. Drawing on interviews, case studies, and her psychological experiences, author Mannix teaches us when to listen and speak, how to approach sensitive subjects such as illness, death or sexuality, and illustrates through her gentle brand of wisdom how we can improve existing relationships with those closest to us, simply by knowing what to say, how to say it, and when we should. A beautifully humane book that both comforts and reassures.


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3. Living Planet: The Web Of Life On Earth by David Attenborough

Life continues to find a way—and nobody knows that better than David Attenborough. In this reissued edition of Living Planet—which contains updated narrative chapters and 64 pages of new color photography—we meet all manner of creatures that have adapted in order to survive. There are flightless birds that graze, snakes that fly, fish that walk, and bears that grow hair on their paws, each evolving in whichever way is necessary. As well as the animals, Attenborough talks in broader terms about the planet, and the devastation it is facing in the wake of climate change and pollution.


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4. This Much Is True by Miriam Margolyes

As much-loved and gloriously unfiltered acting star Miriam Margolyes explains at the start of her long-awaited memoir, she had been meaning to write down her life story for some time. It was only when lockdown began, and she found herself stranded in Tuscany for eight months, that Miriam finally got around to it—which really does prove that old saying about every cloud… Starting with her conception during an air raid and charting her naughty school years, early (sweary) TV appearances, and various encounters with notable folk, it's a gloriously outrageous insight into the life of a true national treasure.


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5. Earthshot: How To Save Our Planet by Colin Butfield and Jonnie Hughes

According to the co-authors of this literary call to arms, we have ten years to change the fate of our planet's future. Beginning with an introduction from HRH Prince William, the book highlights the environmental issues that are most pressing, what is already being done around the world to combat them, and how each of us can go about affecting change in our everyday lives. Whether it's de-clogging our oceans of waste, protecting and restoring the natural world, or ensuring cleaner air for future generations, there is much to be done. Reading this book is a good place to start—it's one of the best books of 2021 for those keen to make a difference in the world.


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6. The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

An instant bestseller following its release, and one of the best autobiographies on our list, The Storyteller recounts the life and career to date of rock music legend Dave Grohl—and what a tale it is. As well as professional peaks as part of Nirvana and later Foo Fighters, Dave opens up about his childhood in Virginia, going on tour as a teen, jamming with Iggy Pop, performing at the Oscars, meeting the Beatles, and generally living the dreams he dared to believe would come true. Humorously written with an easy charisma that matches Dave's on-stage persona, you'll finish the book feeling more like his friend than a fan.


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7. Taste by Stanley Tucci

In a world of dieting books, it feels refreshing to discover a title written in passionate appreciation of food. Culinary enthusiast and actor Stanley Tucci has used the pages of this lively memoir to celebrate his life both in and out of the kitchen, touching not only on his family upbringing in New York but on his role as a husband and father, trying to create inspiring meals for his children. There are on-set tales from foodie films such as Julie & Julia, and even an anecdote about falling in love over dinner. You'll want to devour every morsel of it—and we reckon it's one of the best books to gift someone this Christmas too, especially the foodie in your life.


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8. Conversations On Love by Natasha Lunn

Several years ago, journalist Natasha Lunn was beginning to feel as if love was forever just out of her reach. In a bid to seek it out—and to discover how to keep hold of it when she did—Natasha began interviewing a series of high-profile writers, commentators and experts, eventually compiling all the wisdom she gleaned into this soothing and heartfelt tome. Within its chapters, Philippa Perry discusses falling in love slowly, Dolly Alderton opens up about vulnerability, Alain de Botton talks about the psychology of being alone, and author Candice Carty-Williams tackles friendship—and there are many more.


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9. Thin Places by Kerri ni Dochartaigh

Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021, Thin Places is a part-memoir, part-history book, and part ode to nature. The author was born in Derry, on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland, to one Protestant and one Catholic parent, and grew up at the height of the Troubles. The family were forced out of their home, had a petrol bomb thrown through the window, and were terrorized almost daily, yet Kerri found that turning to nature was what helped her first to cope and later to heal. Her story is one that deserves and needs to be heard.


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10. Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy's highly anticipated final installment in her self-titled 'living autobiography' series focuses on home— what it symbolizes, how possession of property links to the patriarchal control of women, and how her idea of a dream house changed from those she once viewed through the window of an estate agency to the crumbling apartment block she finds herself in today. Taking the reader with her to temporary residences in Greece, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Paris, and New York, Levy shares fascinating anecdotes alongside her wryly genius observations about life, and the result is a rich tapestry of imagination, insight, and entertainment.


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11. Life In Pieces by Dawn O’Porter

Penned during the tumultuous and quite frankly terrifying 2020, this collection of musings about a year that changed us all is every bit as honest, funny, and bright as you would expect from the gloriously warm and witty mind of TV presenter and writer Dawn O’Porter. Reflecting on everything from motherhood to grief to bad hair days to hiding in cupboards, Dawn shares her innermost thoughts and feelings in a way that feels both fresh and relatable. A corker of a book.


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12. All The Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks and Kevin Carr O'Leary  

If you watched, loved—and cried your eyes out—watching the deeply affecting Channel 4 series It’s A Sin, then it's likely you will find this remarkable true story every bit as moving. In 1986, young mom Ruth Corker Burks was visiting a friend in hospital when she noticed a door to one of the rooms had been painted red, and that the nurses on the ward seemed reluctant to enter. The man inside that room became the first of many that Ruth helped, supported, fed, cared for, educated, and loved as the AIDS crisis tore through her local community in the American South. It is a tale about prejudice, loss, and grief, but also one of hope, empathy, and humanity, which deserves to be read by all. An important book club book too, with plenty up for discussion. 


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13. Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

This is one of the best non-fiction books on the theme of identity. Nadia Owusu was two when her mother fled Tanzania, leaving her and her older sister behind, and just a teenager when her much-loved Ghanaian father died of cancer. From there, Nadia felt adrift—both literally and figuratively—and she moved from country to country, mastering new languages and forging new identities as she went. Torn between who she felt she should become and the girl she remembered from long ago, it was perhaps inevitable that Nadia would eventually crack. This is the extraordinary story of what happened when she did, how she has fought to overcome it, and the lessons she has learned about the world and her place in it. 


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14. Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

Palliative care nurse Rachel Clarke worked on Covid-19 wards during the first wave of the pandemic, caring for the gravely ill and acting as a conduit between those battling to survive and their anxious families. Breathtaking is her revealing and inspiring story of what it was really like to face a contagious killer from inside the UK's NHS, how staff coped with rising numbers of patients, rapidly depleting stocks of correct PPE, and the fears of those caught up in the crisis. It features testimony not only from hospital staff, but also the patients themselves, as well as their loved ones. And while it is devastating, there is also much here that speaks of hope, of enduring love, and of courage in the face of devastation. One of the best non-fiction books reflecting on the ongoing impact of the pandemic.


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15. Fall: The Mystery Of Robert Maxwell by John Preston

Former MP and media mogul Robert Maxwell was greeted by a fanfare when he docked his yacht in Manhattan Harbour with a promise to buy and overhaul the New York Daily News. Just 10 months later, he would be dead, his body discovered in the water surrounding the Canary Islands. Having escaped persecution by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and gone on to become a successful politician and businessman, Maxwell’s popularity was a given in the early days of his career, but somewhere along the line, things went wrong, and only after he died did the full extent of his debts and dodgy dealings come to light. This insightful book dives deep into the life and untimely demise of a man who went from hero to hated and attempts to draw out the reasons why.


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16. The Mirror And The Palette: Rebellion, Resolution and Resilience: 500 Years Of Women’s Self-Portraits by Jennifer Higgie

Art critic Jennifer Higgie has created a masterpiece of her own within the pages of this rich, celebratory tome, which examines a cross-section of female artists spanning back across the past 500 years. Through a series of self-portraits, the reader is introduced to women who were brave enough to defy convention, those who pushed the boundaries of creativity, and others for whom art meant adventure or led to tragedy. Illuminating and captivating, this is a sumptuous and vital read, and one of the best non-fiction books for all lovers of art. 


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17. House Of Glass by Hadley Freeman

House Of Glass begins with its author Hadley Freeman discovering a shoebox full of secrets in the back of her French grandmother’s closet. What follows is a decade-long hunt for the truth about Sala Glass and her siblings, Henri, Jacques, and Alex, which took Freeman from Paris to a remote farmhouse in Auvergne, to Long Island and Auschwitz, as she pieces together the clues left behind in photographs, letters, and an unpublished memoir. 


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18. The Old Man And The Sand Eel by Will Millard 

TV presenter and adventurer Will Millard grew up in the Cambridgeshire fens and spent much of his childhood fishing the rivers with his grandfather. Taught to appreciate the simple pleasure of sitting serenely by water with a line in hand, Will nonetheless found himself hooked by the urge to catch bigger and more showy fish—a decision that eventually led him away from the banksides of his youth. Until one day, when he let a rare sand eel slip, quite literally, through his fingers and realized he had lost sight of what mattered. Part-memoir, part-ode to the beauty of the wild British Isles, this book is one of the best non-fiction books and a joyful testament to Millard’s talent as a storyteller.


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19. Together by Luke Adam Hawker

Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse was one of the bestselling books of recent years, and this new illustrated tome is every bit as poignant and thought-provoking, which is why it makes a worthy entry on our best non-fiction books list. It follows a man and his dog as they navigate a storm, tackling danger, separation, and their fears to tell a tale of courage, self-acceptance, and survival. A charming addition to any coffee table, that would also make a wonderful gift for a friend.


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20. One: Pot, Pan, Planet by Anna Jones

Subtitled: ‘A greener way to cook for yourself, your family and the planet’, this cookery book is chef Anna Jones’s fifth since the ground-breaking A Modern Way To Eat, and it does not disappoint, which is why it also made our selection of the best cookbooks. With her firm goal in mind to minimize waste and maximize taste, Anna has concocted over 200 simple-to-make vegan and vegetarian recipes inspired by cuisine from all across the globe. The great thing about this cookbook is not simply the recipes—which are delicious and nutritious—but the ease with which everything can be prepared, be it in a single tray, pot, or skillet. A bookish treat to self that you can feel genuinely good about, and one of the best non-fiction book centered around food on our list.


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21. Dog’s Best Friend by Simon Garfield

The relationship between people and dogs can be traced through history about as far back as it’s possible to go—and that is exactly what author Simon Garfield has done here, as he attempts to unpick why and how canines have become our most loyal and treasured companions. Starting with ancient cave paintings and taking the reader on a journey from Buckingham Palace to the Soviet space program before heading into the genome lab, the book invites testimony from breeders, psychoanalysts, and pooch lovers the world over in its quest to work out the secrets behind the astonishing human-and-beast bond. A joy—and one of the best non-fiction books for dog fans out there. In fact, we'd say it's also one of the best Christmas gifts for dog lovers, too.


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22. Spring Cannot Be Cancelled: David Hockney In Normandy by Martin Gayford and David Hockney

Renowned painter David Hockney was practicing the art of social distancing long before the global pandemic came along. Upon turning 80, he had swapped the bustle of urban life for an altogether quieter pace at La Grande Cour, a rustic Normandy farmhouse surrounded by a lush, verdant landscape, where he set out to paint the arrival of spring. Talking here to his long-time friend and collaborator Martin Gayford, Hockney shares examples of his new work alongside musings about his life, his passions, and what he has learned about the importance of returning to nature for inspiration.


Isabelle Broom is the author of eight escapist fiction novels. She won the Romantic Novelist’s Association Best Contemporary Romance Novel award in 2019 and The Great British Write Off short story competition in 2015, with her winning entry, The Wedding Speech, later being adapted into a short film. 


Following a degree in Media Arts from the University of West London, she spent an eventful summer working in a bar on a Greek island, became an avid traveller, and vowed to one day write stories set in all her favourite locations around the world. Before this dream became a reality, Isabelle spent a gloriously fun 11 years working at heat magazine, 


As well as heading off on adventures abroad—a pastime she now gets to call ‘research’—Isabelle is lucky enough to write book reviews and travel features on a freelance basis. To find out more about her novels—and her mildly chaotic Suffolk-based life—you can visit isabellebroom.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@isabelle_broom) or search for Isabelle Broom Author on Facebook.