9 Nonfiction Books That Will Teach You Something

by Corinna Fabre

Students aren’t the only ones who suffer from the age old “summer slide,” when our brains let go of what we’ve gleaned during the less-sunny (more studious) months. With an abundance of pulse-quickening beach reads to choose from, it can be easy to crack open our favorite guilty pleasures and mindlessly read away the hours. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned page-turner — and I promise there will be plenty of time to get your fill — but these smart and entertaining nonfiction books will keep those brain cells firing in tip-top condition and will give you a little something extra to talk about at the next pool party.

Even better, each of these nonfiction books is written by a woman who not only moves the needle in her field but can craft a nonfiction book that rivals even the pulpiest novel — we’re not talking endless periodic tables or obscure math theorems here (unless that’s your thing, of course). From the oncoming wave of global extinctions to how to be a (bad) feminist, the history of rain, and more, there’s something for everyone to learn from in this list of nine great non-fiction reads.

Because no one ever said your favorite beach read couldn’t be educational as well.

Stiff by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of the all time great nonfiction writers. She has explored everything from the afterlife to the science of sex, the nitty gritty of space travel, and inner bodily workings (I, for one, am glad someone finally answered, "How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? — now that's real talk) with the kind of writing that leaves you eager to learn more.

From her opening line in Stiff — “The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back” — you know you’re in for a witty yet informative tale. Exploring everything from head transplants on puppies to car crash testing using cadavers and organ harvesting, this book definitely is not for the faint of heart.

Rain by Cynthia Barnett

If you’re a rain lover — that is to say, if you long for the grizzly, gray days that make for the best reading accompanied by a cup of tea and some cookies — this book is for you. In Rain, Barnett explores the religious manifestations, cultural implications, and historical stories of rain across the globe. What is a true testament to the book is the fact that you will actually remember a lot of the facts you read in it — for example, how the witch trials in America pale in comparison to the trials in Europe. Yeah, rain is to thank for a lot of that.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Can you tell I'm into this topic? A thoughtful and inquisitive look at death, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a book for anyone interested in the traditional practices of our death culture; how things have been, how they are now, and how they might be in the future (cadaver compost, anyone?). Doughty brings together practical industry knowledge as well as anecdotal stories to introduce us to the inevitability of death and give us a historical peek into how our views have shifted from obsession to outright avoidance.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Instead of what could have easily been a lecture, Bad Feminist reads more like a conversation with your older sister; the one that sits you down to have the uncomfortable conversation and says "This is gross, but this is what's happening. Have any questions?" This essay collection is readable and entertaining — but you'll definitely think about pop culture in a different way after you finish it.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

If you are part of the 1/3 of people who are introverts out there, you will love this book. If you are of the 2/3 who knows even a single person who is an introvert, you will also love this book. Quiet is an exploration not only of our culture’s recent recognition and under-utilization of introverts, but also a look at the stories of introverted people who have harnessed the power of their personality and found ways to flourish.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Word nerds, I’m looking at you. After more than three decades in the copy department at The New Yorker, Mary Norris brings her years of experience, incredibly high standards, and sense of humor to Between You & Me. This definitely isn’t your typical style guide; Mary explores common grammatical problems alongside examples from some of our history’s best writers and well-known television shows. She even takes to the street to hunt down answers to questions like, “Who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick?”

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

After half a billion years and five mass extinctions, Kolbert explores humanity’s most devastating legacy yet — the current and coming sixth extinction. Through accounts of the disappearances we are already experiencing and the extent of devastation that is to come, you will be forced to wonder what it means to be human and what can we do to save the future of our environment.

Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs by Eleanor Mills

Women are redefining the world of journalism and, according to Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs, it’s nothing new. This is a collection of some of the most impactful pieces of journalism by women from the last century. Pieces like Emma 'Red' Goldman’s commentary on birth control in 1916 still course through the veins of our culture, proving that the struggle to break ground both in and out of the newsroom is alive and well.

Oil on the Brain by Lisa Margonelli

There are so many industries we take for granted as we hand over our debit card — milk, tomatoes, coffee, and, yes, gas. Oil on the Brain forces you to take a step back and learn more about the pipeline between where your gas comes from and how it gets to you. You'll have something smart to talk about on your next road trip, that's for sure.

Images: Giphy; Mario-Mancuso/Flickr