12 Ideas For Reading + Enjoying Nonfiction Books!

Want to weave more personal + professional development books into your reading life? Here are 12 ideas to help!
Christi Hegstad April 10th, 2024

While chatting with a friend, our conversation – unsurprisingly – veered toward books. She looked at all the page flags in my most recent read, listened as I gushed excitedly about my current book, and realized that I had been to multiple bookstores and libraries (note the plural) in the past week.

“You are such a nerd!” she (lovingly) said.

Believe me, this is not the first time I’ve been called a nerd. I am a proud book nerd, word nerd, nerd in general. It’s even declared in the About page of my website! I wear this label with delight.

In addition to frequently being called a nerd, I am also frequently asked how I read so much – particularly nonfiction. I tend to read about 100 books a year, and while I haven’t crunched the numbers, I suspect about 40% of them are nonfiction. I’m starting off this year with more nonfiction, however: Of the 26 books I’ve read so far, 15 have been nonfiction, with several five-star reads among them (hooray!).

If you’d like to weave more nonfiction into your life, I’ve generated a dozen ideas to help, along with some book suggestions as well. Let’s see if one of these resonates with you!

1. Think about your why. 

If you’re familiar with me or my work, this first idea will come as no surprise – I suggest considering the purpose behind nearly any endeavor or action. In terms of reading, when you think about why you’re picking up a particular book, it can help you engage with it more fully as well as hopefully gain what you need from it. 

Whether you’re reading to learn something new, to advance in your work, to gain tips for organizing your kitchen, or to feel inspired, reflecting on this in advance can help you read through that lens.

2. Choose what you love.

What lights you up? If you select a nonfiction book that matches an interest, passion, or goal, you may find yourself picking it up more easily and frequently. 

A couple years ago I set a mileage goal for walking/running. Often while out on the trail, I would listen to audiobooks like The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal or Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton. Not only did this make my miles super enjoyable, I often went further than planned simply so I could continue listening!

3. Explore something new.

What’s a topic you know very little about? What niche subject intrigues you? Reading about something brand new to you, or of which you have little background knowledge, can be a fun exploration into nonfiction. I am currently reading The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie and find it fascinating, in part because I’ve never really thought deeply about how the Oxford English Dictionary came to fruition – and now I am learning from an expert! 

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, and finding out can be a thrill.

4. Discuss the book with others.

This is why Your Best Self and many other book clubs exist: to bring a community of people together to chat about what we’re reading and learning. One of my favorite aspects of a group conversation is discovering how everyone picks up on different things from the same text. We all have unique life experiences, so different highlights and takeaways will stand out for each of us.

In addition to the book club environment, finding a reading partner can be another way to enjoy a nonfiction pick. Maybe you and a friend decide to read a chapter a week and check in with each other via text or over coffee every Friday. This can add richness to the experience and keep you motivated, too.

5. Look at the reference section, or back cover blurbs, of a book you enjoyed.

Well-researched nonfiction will typically include a list of other books, articles, and resources in the back. If you finish one book and want more, turn to the references and see what stands out for you. Years ago, I saw the book Mindset by Carol Dweck cited so frequently that I simply had to read it; it is now one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books!

Our second quarter pick for Your Best Self book club is Slow Productivity by Cal Newport, which has about a dozen pages of reference notes in the back to prompt further reading. The back cover can also be a source for finding authors you enjoy; Slow Productivity includes blurbs by Oliver Burkeman, Johann Hari, and others, for example.

6. Try different formats.

If you’ve tried nonfiction in print form before and haven’t felt satisfied, consider trying it on audio, or vice versa. Shaking up the method of reading can change the entire experience.

In addition to experimenting between print, audio, and ebook, consider different writing formats as well. A few years ago I read Good Talk by Mira Jacob; prior to that, I don’t believe I had ever read a graphic memoir. It was such a unique way to read someone’s life experience!

7. Look into the fiction authors you love.

You might be surprised to discover that some of your favorite fiction writers have also published memoirs, essay collections, or other nonfiction works as well. This can provide an excellent starting point for nonfiction, since you’ve already enjoyed something by the writer.

Years ago, after reading excellent novels by Barbara Kingsolver, I found myself equally engrossed in her memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Likewise, last year – I believe for the first time ever – I had an author on both my top ten fiction and nonfiction lists of the year! (If you’re curious, it was Ann Patchett, and I enjoyed both These Precious Days [nonfiction] and Tom Lake [fiction] in the same year.)

8. Pick an essay collection or anthology.

Collections are a wonderful entry into nonfiction for a number of reasons: You might more easily dip in and out of them; they are often perfect for dividing into consistent reading experiences, such as one essay per day or week; they can introduce you to a variety of authors and/or perspectives within a particular topic of interest.

In recent years I’ve read some wonderful collections that also taught me a great deal. Two that stand out in my mind are Disability Visibility, edited by Alice Wong, and It’s Not About The Burqa, edited by Mariam Khan.

9. Designate certain times for nonfiction.

I know a number of people, myself included, who choose an inspirational text to read while sipping their morning beverage. A few pages each morning can start your day off on a positive note, plus over time those few pages a day equal an entire book completed.

I typically have a fiction and a nonfiction book going at any given time, and I will often read the nonfiction during pockets of availability throughout the workday (over lunch or while waiting for an appointment, for instance) and then savor some fiction in the evening or before bed. It helps me keep both books moving forward but can also prevent me from spending any precious reading time wondering what to read!

10. Create your own ‘curriculum’ or project.

What topic would you love to expand your learning around? Try curating a list of book possibilities, perhaps with the help of a bookseller and/or librarian, and setting up your own private learning curriculum. Depending on how you like to plan, you might even structure it like a syllabus with timelines and so on. (If that makes you cringe, though, no problem – you might prefer having a selection of themed books that you can move back and forth between.)

There are a number of project-style books that could provide inspiration in this regard, too. Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project comes to mind, as does Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes

11. Read about people you admire.

Memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies can all provide insight into the lives of people you admire. Historical figures, present-day leaders, business owners, actors, scientists, comedians, activists … the list of possibilities goes on. 

Make a list of people from or about whom you’d love to learn more, or simply search through a list of memoirs and see which one sounds intriguing. Audiobook memoirs are often narrated by the author, which can add a bit of extra impact to the reading experience. 

12. Let yourself be surprised.

While putting thought and intention into your nonfiction reading choices can provide excellent value, allow yourself to be swept away by something that – for whatever reason, or perhaps for seemingly no reason whatsoever – just piques your interest. Sometimes entering a book with no expectations can lead to a remarkable read!

I have found this to be true many times over. Two years ago, I heard about Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and, although I knew very little about it, I decided to pick it up. Spoiler alert: it showed up on my top ten list later that year! I currently have another of her books, Gathering Moss, on hold and am hopeful for a similar experience.

I hope this sparks ideas for you as you venture into, or further into, the world of nonfiction! What other ideas would you add? And what nonfiction book stands out in your mind? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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