The best “truth is stranger than fiction” books

The Books I Picked & Why

The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem

By Stacy Schiff

Book cover of The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem

Why this book?

For me, Stacy Schiff’s masterpiece is the end-all, be-all resource when it comes to the history of early America’s witchcraft trials—which, it turns out, extended far beyond the village of Salem. The seed for my own novel came from one tiny line in the book’s “Cast of Characters” index: “Herrick, George, well-born, handsome Salem deputy sheriff in his thirties…Spends 1692 rounding up and transporting witches.”


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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson

Book cover of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Why this book?

The 1893 World’s Fair. A serial killer. Wonderous and magical inventions. And every crazy word of it is true! (One example: No one thought the enormous and strange contraption known as the “Ferris Wheel” would withstand its first turn—no one but the inventor’s supportive wife, that is. Margaret Ferris insisted on being the first to take a ride!) Erik Larson does a brilliant job of combining historical facts with the sights, sounds, and (ugh) smells of nineteenth-century Chicago. 


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Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States

By Bill Bryson

Book cover of Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States

Why this book?

Bill Bryson’s other books are more famous, but this one is my favorite. It details the wacky, startling, and sometimes unbelievable stories behind all the common phrases and words we use. I always keep a (lovingly tattered) copy in my car. You can pick it up, turn to any random page, and be happily engrossed for five minutes—or five hours. 


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The Library Book

By Susan Orlean

Book cover of The Library Book

Why this book?

It’s the story of a true crime, yes… But Susan Orlean’s fantastic book is also a love letter to one of America’s most incredible, beneficial, and undervalued institutions. I thought I knew what libraries are, what they do, and who they help. Then I read this book and realized that I didn’t have the first clue.


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Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims

By David Lindsay

Book cover of Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims

Why this book?

Subtitled A Stranger Among the Pilgrims, this little gem details the unlikely story of Richard More, who arrived on our shores as a child on The Mayflower…then grew up, moved north to Salem Village, and watched one of his best friends die in the infamous witch trials. The author also happens to be More’s descendant, which brings an extra passion to the telling.


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