10 Favorite Nonfiction Novellas from My Shelves

What do I mean by a nonfiction novella? I’m not claiming a new genre like Truman Capote did for the nonfiction novel (so unless they’re talking about In Cold Blood or something very similar, yes, I can and do judge people who refer to a memoir as a “nonfiction novel”!); I’m referring literally to any works of nonfiction shorter than 200 pages. Many of my selections even come well under 100 pages.

I’m kicking off this nonfiction-focused week of Novellas in November with a rundown of 10 of my favorite short nonfiction works. Maybe you’ll find inspiration by seeing the wide range of subjects covered here: bereavement, social and racial justice, hospitality, cancer, nature, politics, poverty, food and mountaineering. I’d reviewed all but one of them on the blog, half of them as part of Novellas in November in various years.

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt [137 pages]: In March 2015 Aidt got word that her son Carl Emil was dead. The 25-year-old jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window after taking some mushrooms. The text is a collage of fragments: memories, dreams, dictionary definitions, journal entries, and quotations. The playful disregard for chronology and the variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are a way of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin [89 pages]: A hard-hitting book composed of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter addressed to his nephew and namesake on the 100th anniversary of emancipation; and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which first appeared in the New Yorker and tells of a crisis of faith that hit Baldwin when he was a teenager and started to question to what extent Christianity of all stripes was upholding white privilege. This feels completely relevant, and eminently quotable, nearly 60 years later.

Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil [117 pages]: A thought-provoking essay that reaches into many different topics. Part of an Indian family that has lived in Kenya and England, Basil is used to culinary abundance. However, living in Berlin increased her awareness of the suffering of the Other – hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU to be met with hostility. Yet the Sikh tradition she grew up in teaches kindness to strangers. She asks how we can all cultivate a spirit of generosity.

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman [83 pages]: Hoffman wrote this 15 years after her own experience of breast cancer to encourage anyone going through a crisis. Each chapter title begins with the word “Choose” – a reminder that, even when you can’t choose your circumstances, you can choose your response. This has been beautifully put together with blue-tinted watercolor-effect photographs and an overall yellow and blue theme (along with deckle edge pages – a personal favorite book trait). It’s a sweet little memoir with a self-help note.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold [92 pages]: Few know how much of our current philosophy of wilderness and the human impact on the world is indebted to Aldo Leopold. This was published in 1949, but so much rings true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [70 pages]: Maybe you, like me, had always assumed this was an impenetrable tome of hundreds of pages? But, as I discovered when I read it on the train to Manchester some years ago, it’s very compact. That’s not to say it’s an easy read; I’ve never been politically or economically minded, so I struggled to follow the argument at times. Mostly what I appreciated was the language. Like The Origin of Species, it has many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell [189 pages]: Orwell’s first book, published when he was 30, is an excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. He works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week and has to pawn his clothes to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. Even as he’s conveying the harsh reality of exhaustion and indignity, Orwell takes a Dickensian delight in people and their eccentricities.

Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles [85 pages]: This lovely pamphlet of food-themed essays arose from a blog Powles kept while in Shanghai on a one-year scholarship to learn Mandarin. From one winter to another, she explores the city’s culinary offerings and muses on the ways in which food is bound up with her memories of people and places. This is about how food can help you be at home. I loved how she used the senses – not just taste, but also smell and sight – to recreate important places in her life.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd [108 pages]: This is something of a lost nature classic. Composed during the later years of World War II but only published in 1977, it’s Shepherd’s tribute to her beloved Cairngorms, a mountain region of Scotland. But it’s not a travel or nature book in the way you might usually think of those genres. It’s a subtle, meditative, even mystical look at the forces of nature, which are majestic but also menacing. Shepherd dwells on the senses, the mountain flora and fauna, and the special quality of time and existence (what we’d today call mindfulness) achieved in a place of natural splendor and solitude.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit [143 pages]: Solnit believes in the power of purposeful individuals working towards social justice, even in the face of dispiriting evidence (e.g. the largest protests the world had seen didn’t stop the Iraq War). Instead of perfectionism, she advises flexibility and resilience; things could be even worse had we not acted. Her strong and stirring writing is a reminder that, though injustice is always with us, so is everyday heroism.


Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any suitably short nonfiction on your shelves?

28 responses

  1. I’mglad you started with a definition as I’ve been puzzling about what might be a non-fiction novella since I saw the term. I’d ceratinly agree that there’s an arguement that all forms of memoir have a varying element of fiction, either because of memory or self-presentation. And I loved Be My Guest which I reviewed last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m referring more to people who think that the word “novel” is just a synonym for “book.” (I’ve seen When Breath Becomes Air and The Salt Path referred to as “nonfiction novels,” by people who should know better.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I happened to read one yesterday. The excellent, thought provoking yet written with a light, amusing touch ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’ by Richard Holloway. I’ve reached the stage in life where reflections on life and death seem appropriate, and this is a book I’ll read again,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed that one very much, too: https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/waiting-for-the-last-bus-by-richard-holloway/

      I admire Holloway and find him well worth reading. I think his work is suitable for people who don’t consider themselves religious, too. His memoir, Leaving Alexandria, is exquisite.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for that. I’ll certainly look out for more of his work. I’m not religious (though brought up strict Cof E) but his thoughts would have resonance with many, I think.

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  3. I just finished the Nan Shepherd – haven’t posted on it yet (been busy). I struggled to get into it until the final three or four sections, then it fell into place. One of my recent posts was on a collection of nature-ish essays by Kathleen Jamie: Findings – another Scot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love Kathleen Jamie. I’ve read all her essays and some of her poetry, too. Findings would be one for me to reread.

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  4. What a great list of books! Here’s my remembrances of reading Sand County Almanac. It’s a masterpiece. To this day, I don’t dare read another word Aldo Leopold wrote unless I’m actually in the American Midwest proper, and specifically Wisconsin, if I can help it. His writing would just make me yearn to be there.
    http://empty-nest-expat.blogspot.com/2012/07/book-that-made-me-crazy-with.html

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    1. Thank you! I’m so pleased you stopped by. I’ve never been to Wisconsin, but I have family in Indiana and Michigan, so it’s not inconceivable that I’d go there some day.

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  5. Ah! I have The Sand County Almanac – maybe I should try to fit it in. I’m all for short non-fiction and there aer some great titles on that pile!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s only under 200 pages if you leave out the “Sketches Here and There” 😉 But it’s an exceptional work if you can fit it in.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really like the sound of the Priya Basil book – great list Rebecca!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a hard one to categorize as it touches on so many fields, but it felt very relevant. Susan’s review is here: https://alifeinbooks.co.uk/2019/11/be-my-guest-by-priya-basil-reflections-on-food-community-and-the-meaning-of-generosity/.

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  7. […] selection of favourite Non-Fiction Novellas from Rebecca at Bookish […]

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  8. […] 10 Favorite Nonfiction Novellas from My Shelves […]

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  9. Some interesting books in your list. Reminds me I really ought to read the Orwell. I’ve currently got Paula from V&Q (a memoir) and Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series on the go for #NovNov.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fun! I love that nominative determinism of Pyne/Pine. Any I’ve read from that series have felt slight; I hope this one is stronger.

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  10. I like the idea of a non-fiction novella! I think I’d prefer them to the fiction variety. I’ve been meaning to read The Fire Next Time and The Living Mountain for ages, and it helps to know they are so short!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I stockpile short books all through the year, but I’m especially delighted to find nonfiction ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Impressive list. I got the weeks mixed up! I’ll have to change my post for tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries! Feel free to post whatever you have atany time and we’ll add to the master list.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It will go up on Thursday, I hope. I already have a post for tomorrow. I do want to get it in this week.

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  12. For some reason all the nonfiction on my shelves are Big! Which is strange, because for a fiction reader, a short nonfiction book makes more sense. Maybe I’d read more nonfiction…
    Be My Guest sounds good, and it is so pretty! I also like the sound of George Orwell’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like books of all lengths (obviously), but I do get a little frisson of excitement when I find something of novella length. I tend to hoard them so that I have lots to choose from every November. I think you’d love Be My Guest.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This is a great list. Weirdly, I just don’t seem to have short books on my non-fiction shelves. I wonder why!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My first ‘nonfiction novellas’ were probably coincidental additions to my shelves a few years ago … now I seek them out!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Like Naomi, I find that most of the NF on my shelves is longer rather than shorter, but I enjoyed reading through your recommendations. I’d never heard of (or didn’t recall) Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac until I read L.G. Cullens’ coming-of-age novel Togwotee Passage about dysfunctional family life and living in balance with nature, set in Wyoming, earlier this year (his main character is affected by it strongly). The only copy I could find of it in the library was in a massive tome of collected works, which I’ll likely borrow when I’ve got my library loans tidier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Leopold was ahead of his time and so influential on the environmental movement. Well worth reading.

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