12 Eye-Opening Books That Make You Think (Fiction & Nonfiction Picks)

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These books that make you think may very well change the way you live, too. Some are controversial, others are subversive; all are thought-provoking reads. You’ll find fiction books that make you think, and nonfiction books that will make you smarter. Read to expand your mind and think about the meaning of life!

Collage with covers of twelve thought-provoking fiction and nonfiction books

Nonfiction and Fiction Books to Expand Your Mind and Make You Think Differently

Hi, I’m Megan, stopping by from my own literary blog, The Hungry Bookworm, to share a post with you today. In a typical weekly blog post, I pair a book review with a recipe inspired by it. On occasion, including at least one Tuesday a month, I participate in some book blog memes and create a list around the literary topic of the week.

This week, I wanted to share a list of books that make you think. I know most of us read as a means of escape from the real world (what a wonderful way to visit a different place, time or lifestyle!), and while I enjoy that part of reading, I also appreciate the ability to come away from a book with a different perspective. Hopefully the books on this list will allow you to do the same. As LBJ said, “A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.”

This list has been on my mind for some time, and I’ve spent a while cultivating it (with the help of my bookish friend Deanna). You’ll find a healthy mix of thought-provoking fiction and nonfiction on the list, covering a wide variety of topics. Thank you, Elsie, for allowing me to share it with all of your followers this week!

Fiction Books That Change the Way You Think About Life

Small Great Things book cover - red and white striped background

1. Small Great Things

Somehow, Jodi Picoult’s novel ends up on every bookish list I make. Why? Because, even though I only read it earlier this year, it has honestly had such a big impact on me. I love the fact that Small Great Things was inspired by true events. Picoult wrote it very thoughtfully (make sure to read the Author’s Note at the end!), and it tackles the issues of race, prejudice and privilege in a real yet relatable way. As a white woman who tries to be mindful of other cultures and appreciate the diversity around me, I found this novel to be incredibly eye-opening. I realized I still have so much more to learn, and our society on the whole, has much more work to do.

George Orwell book cover - white background with black and blue eye

2. 1984

If you didn’t read Orwell’s dystopian novel in high school, you’re probably one of the many who purchased it recently and caused it to sell out on Amazon. (I was in the latter camp.) I can’t say I loved it, but this list isn’t about my favorite books; it’s about books that made me think. This novel raises serious questions around privacy and technology. It also sheds light on how unlimited government and media can get if left unchecked. Arguably, 1984 is more relevant today than when it was first published, but regardless, it’s one of the classics everyone should read at least once.

Turtles All the Way Down book cover - bold black text on an orange spiral background

3. Turtles All the Way Down

John Green has written many young adult novels, including one of my favorites, The Fault in Our Stars. He has a unique way of tackling the everyday and the unexpected parts of the lives of teenagers. His latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, is no exception. The main character Aza lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder and an often crippling level of anxiety, much of which was drawn from Green’s own experiences.

His willingness to not only discuss his own mental health issues but to write about them too helps to make it something that’s okay to talk about. The existence of a likeable character that readers can connect to and empathize with can help teenagers (and adults) realize that mental health is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. In Green’s own words, “it’s important for people to hear from [those] who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.”

The Handmaid's Tale book cover - women in red robes walking beside brick wall

4. The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s dystopia also recently become topical again and regained popularity as a result. With the Hulu show premiering earlier this year, I decided to re-read it and, as it happens, I walked away with a new perspective. The interesting thing about Atwood’s novel is that everything she describes happening seems terrifying and impossible, but all of it has actually happened at some point in time, somewhere in the world. None of it was made up; it was just all culled down and combined to create an eerily realistic society built around the constraint of women.

I’m not sure how anyone could read this book and not have a lot of thoughts and opinions about it. Dystopias have a way of making you look at the world around you and wondering exactly how they got there (presumably from a world like our own) and how far are we from getting there ourselves.

Golden Boy book cover - black drawings of bicycles on a gold background

5. The Golden Boy

This dazzling debut by British author Abigail Tarttelin explores gender roles through a heartening coming-of-age story portraying a very common family in a very common town that also happens to include an intersex teenager. Like Middlesex before it and This Is How It Always Is more recently, it gives a voice to a commonly-overlooked minority and makes issues of identity and conformity within the LGBT community relatable.

The Book of Unknown Americans book cover - back view of Asian girl in pink with long braid

6. The Book of Unknown Americans

On the surface, this novel by Cristina Henriquez is a simple story about a family’s journey to find a better life. But underneath, this book has the power to dispel myths about what it means to be an immigrant in America. Although fiction, the challenges that face the Rivera family are indicative of those who come to this country everyday in search of something better. It confronts stereotypes and sheds light on the true meaning of the “American Dream” while highlighting the sacrifices we all make for those we love. After all, we are all more similar than we are different.

The Age of Miracles book cover - yellow dot text on a blue background

7. The Age of Miracles

In this thought-provoking young adult novel, the world changes suddenly when Earth experiences a “slowing” and time as we know it begins to shift. I’ve read this book twice now, and each time I’ve come away with something new to ponder. It is almost overwhelming to think about the concept of time, and in Karen Thompson Walker’s story, we discover how it governs not only our daily lives but society on the whole (and what can happen when time begins to breakdown). It brings up the significance of schedules and time expectations and the necessity of both to function as part of a larger society.

Nonfiction Books That Make You Think

Over-Dressed book cover - black, cheap high-heeled shoe with broken heel.

1. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I read this nonfiction book by Elizabeth L. Cline a few years ago, and I still think of it often – usually when I’m out shopping for clothes. Prior to writing Overdressed, Cline considered herself a shopaholic, and like many of us these days, was a slave to fast fashion. Everyone loves finding a good deal (myself included), but this book shines a light on why, when it comes to clothing, that’s not always the best reason to buy.

When you think about it, cheap clothes are lower in quality, don’t fit as well and are usually trendy, meaning they’re considered “out of style” after only a season or two. More importantly, and this is the meat of the book, fast fashion exploits workers and produces a lot of waste. I found it to be a fascinating dive into something that each of us is affected by every single day – the clothing on our backs.

Omnivore's Dilemma book cover - black backdrop with still-life style photograph of grapes, egg, meat bone, and mushroom

2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Many people have heard of Michael Pollan, author of several food nonfiction books, including In Defense of Food, Cooked, and of course, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. When I picked up this book, I was admittedly hesitant. I love eating and cooking, and I didn’t want anything that would make me feel guilty about my love of food. In fact, I found Pollan’s book to be quite the opposite; it was rich in detail and full of interesting information I probably never would’ve learned otherwise. It made me appreciate the food I eat and provided insight on how to make better food decisions.

Same Difference book cover - red and green apples on a white background

3. Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs

I was assigned this book in my Women’s Studies class during my sophomore year of college. Over 10 years later, it still comes to mind whenever a study is cited in the news about the inherent differences between men and women. Authors Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers did an excellent job diving into many of the theories that pervade popular culture, including that women are naturally more nurturing than men. The real message here is that it is most often power and not gender itself that makes the greatest difference in society, and often it’s our beliefs and perceived iniquities that hold us back rather than any actual biological limitations.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover - vintage photograph of Black woman on an orange and pink background

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Prior to reading this nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot, I gave little thought to what powered scientific breakthroughs and what human consequences they may have. The story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells (known as HeLa) is very well-researched but it is also full of heart and often reads like fiction. Throughout the narrative, Skloot expertly weaves in issues of ethics in medicine, experimentation on African Americans and the legalities of medical research.

I appreciated that she made everything not only easy to understand but interesting as well, so that it stuck with me well after I was finished.

The Tipping Point book cover - single match on a white background

5. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

By now, Malcolm Gladwell is well known for his books about the surprising ways in which social sciences play out in the real world. The Tipping Point, as his first such book, still sticks out to me as the most memorable and interesting of them all. In it, he explains how ideas spread and how things change – at first slowly and then all at once. He cites a wide range of everyday life examples, from crime and illness to children’s television programs and what makes shoes cool. The overarching question of how things get to be the way they are is an immensely interesting one. This will book will both answer that question and prompt even more.

Reading glasses in front of an open book

If you enjoyed this post, I’d love to have you stop by The Hungry Bookworm for more book lists, book reviews and some deliciously literary recipes. Again, thank you to Elsie for having me as a guest on The Tea and Ink Society today – it’s been a pleasure! 🙂

Note from Elsie: Megan, thank you for curating this list! I’ve heard of most of these books…but haven’t read any! Your insightful reviews have got my interest piqued, and I know many other Society members will be adding these to their reading lists as well!

Want to get back into a reading habit so you can discover more books that change your life? Here are my best tips for getting back into reading. And here are 12 ways to improve your reading life, whether you’re a lifelong book lover or an aspiring bookworm. For more reading lists of thought-provoking books, explore this list of classic African-American novels, or these 12 books to inspire wanderlust.

For the ultimate list of books that make you think, check out these 101 worthwhile classic books to read before you die.

12 Eye-Opening Books That Make You Think (Fiction & Nonfiction Picks)
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