I'm reading Yuval Noah Harari's book named Sapiens. The book is pretty interesting but I wonder if there's a particular word for such a book. It's not a novel, or a biography/autobiography and nor is it a memoir.

Wikipedia categorises it under the genre of "Non-fiction" but, I feel non-fiction is too broad to describe it. It's more like a Nat-Geo documentary but I'm not sure if calling it a "documentary book" is a great idea or even correct for that matter.

So, I want to ask the native English speakers and Literature academics what would they call it.

  • 2
    Non-fiction is correct. That's what the written equivalent of a documentary is. Of course, there are sub-genres. It could be, for instance, historical non-fiction. (This particular book looks more like it's anthropological.) – Jason Bassford Jan 10 '19 at 7:25
  • One name for a broad overview of an extensive subject is "survey". In that sense, this book seems to be an anthropological survey. – Gary Botnovcan Jan 10 '19 at 23:04

As Jason's comment notes, the use of non-fiction is correct.

To expand on that, the broadness of the term non-fiction allows it to be used as an all-purpose term for anything that covers facts, real history, and real people. If a piece of content (a book, a movie, etc.) doesn't fit or can't be easily placed into a certain type of non-fiction, it is perfectly acceptable for a native speaker to use "non-fiction" as a default term and further clarify what the content is.

The term fiction is similarly broad and versatile.


There is nothing wrong with referring to a book as a documentary. The word is well understood and familiar to people through movies and television, but comes from the word "document", which originally specifically referred to writing. Historical non-fiction is broader than historical documentary. Historical non-fiction allows for a broader reach, including opinions, while a historical documentary implies it is a series of recorded events with less personal comment. Similarly, a travelogue is a non-fiction documentary about a person's travels. If you go to "documentary" on Goodreads, you will find sapiens listed there. goodreads.com/shelf/show/documentary

  • Maybe a travelogue is a ‘non-fiction documentary’ but I don’t think you would refer to it as a documentary; ‘ah, I’m reading this documentary on the author’s travels’ just doesn’t sound right. Likewise for Sapiens. – Fivesideddice Jul 16 '20 at 21:47
  • If you go to "documentary" on Goodreads, you will find sapiens listed there. goodreads.com/shelf/show/documentary – George Moore Jul 18 '20 at 1:40
  • perhaps, but you can also find it under non-fiction, history, anthropology, and philosophy, and what’s more important those are classifications/genres which people would actually give Sapiens in everyday usage. – Fivesideddice Jul 18 '20 at 4:40
  • I said there was nothing wrong with referring to it as a documentary. You're saying you don't think a person would do that. I showed you where it is done. I would definitely use it in everyday conversations, as it exactly describes the genre with a term people are familiar with from television documentaries. "I read a documentary on the type of weaponry used in the times of Alexander the Great". I would use it to look up books in that genre. So in answer to "is it a great idea or even correct", there is nothing wrong with it. – George Moore Jul 19 '20 at 15:56

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