Let the debate begin: The 100 greatest nonfiction books of all time were chosen by the Guardian’s book desk writers, who observed: “The list we’ve come up with rewards readability alongside originality, heaps praise on perfect prose and rounds it all off with a dash of cultural significance. It’s clearly a mug’s game to make any kind of claim for definitiveness but, whatever you make of our list and its (doubtless many) omissions and imperfections, there’s no question that it features a whole heap of truly great books.”
I was immediately interested, of course. Don’t we all love lists? The usual game is how-many-have-I-read, and I didn’t do all that well. It’s interesting to see what they chose, though, and to think about what I maybe *should* have read, or should read. I haven’t reproduced the entire list here – you can go read it at the above list, and you should! But I have reproduced some of the entries, recategorized. (Blurbs following titles are the Guardian’s, not mine.)
Books Already on my TBR shelf:
The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
Stein’s groundbreaking biography, written in the guise of an autobiography, of her lover
-has been on my list for years; actually just brought home a copy a few weeks ago
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970)
A moving account of the treatment of Native Americans by the US government
-has always been on my shelf. still haven’t gotten around to it
Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)
A vivid account of Herr’s experiences of the Vietnam war
-not on my shelf, but I’ve seen it on my parents’ shelves all my life
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
Wollstonecraft argues that women should be afforded an education in order that they might contribute to society
The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBois (1903)
A series of essays makes the case for equality in the American south
Books I have read:
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
This account of the effects of pesticides on the environment launched the environmental movement in the US
- read as a kid, maybe grade school
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)
The man in the white suit follows Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they drive across the US in a haze of LSD
-one of my all-time favorites
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
Published by her father after the war, this account of the family’s hidden life helped to shape the post-war narrative of the Holocaust
-of course. this is a staple. everyone has read this. right?
Read as part of my undergrad education in political science
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)
This vivid first person account was one of the first times the voice of the slave was heard in mainstream society
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859)
Mill argues that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532)
Machiavelli injects realism into the study of power, arguing that rulers should be prepared to abandon virtue to defend stability
-my prof thought I’d be a JS Mill fan; but I reacted with far greater fascination (if not far greater sympathy) to Machiavelli. Go figure.
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)
Hobbes makes the case for absolute power, to prevent life from being “nasty, brutish and short”
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1791)
A hugely influential defence of the French revolution, which points out the illegitimacy of governments that do not defend the rights of citizens
Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1988)
Chomsky argues that corporate media present a distorted picture of the world, so as to maximise their profits
I also noted The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990): An examination of the moral dilemmas at the heart of the journalist’s trade. Not specifically on my TBR list, but Janet Malcolm in general is; maybe I should move this one up the list. My TBR reads from her, already, are The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and (I already have my copy of this one) Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice.
I also just wanted to note the range of dates covered by this list: pretty wide! From
The Art of War by Sun Tzu (c500 BC)
A study of warfare that stresses the importance of positioning and the ability to react to changing circumstances
Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (2008)
A vibrant first history of the ongoing social media revolution
Something else I really appreciated about the Guardian’s list is that they have invited debate. No list will ever be final or uncontroversial, as we know! I’m not going to be so ambitious as to start my own list of 100 nonfiction books; I’m overwhelmed enough by my own list of 100, which is of course still incomplete. (Hey, my life is incomplete. As are all of ours.) But I’m sure it is and will be a fascinating debate. Are there any you think really shouldn’t be on this list? And I’m sure there are lots that we could think of that should be… Just looking back at my aforementioned list of 100 for nonfiction, I find quite a few. Here comes more list-making: I’ve reproduced them for you here, with a few words about each. I’m not sure they all belong on the all-time list, for various reasons…
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: I think this is an awfully important book. The only argument for is exclusion is its recent publication. I always wonder if a book’s importance will last the test of time. Although in this case I’m rather sure it will, I wouldn’t be against a sort of mandatory waiting period, if you follow.
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor: This one might be extra important to me personally, because of the insight it allowed me into my own recovery from a brain injury. Maybe not so universally applicable; but still, I’d say, worth consideration.
Pretty Good for a Girl by Leslie Heywood: The author’s story of being a young female athlete and battling the problems common to that demographic, including eating & exercise disorders and an unhealthy relationship with an older coach. Another important book. Although it sounds like a niche subject, I think the issues are large ones: the struggles of being female in a male world.
Ten Points by Bill Strickland: Okay, this is a little more niche; it’s a cycling book. But really, it’s the author’s story about being a bike racer, struggling to win, as metaphor for trying to overcome the abuse he was victim to as a child, and trying to not repeat the cycle.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley: How is this not one of the greatest and most important nonfiction books of all time? Really.
The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley: Totally niche. Artistic little vignettes of life as a bike messenger in Chicago, enchanting to me as a (now former) bike messenger.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich: I recognize that the political leaning of this one may make it less universally appealing, but I thought there were some important points made. I fear its acceptance is harmed by the author’s obvious slant, which is a shame because I think her conclusions are true regardless of politics.
The Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court by Peter Irons: I read this in college and found it instructive. It is, as the title says, 16 stories about regular people making history. A very readable way to learn judicial history.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey: Nature, solitude, beauty. Poetic.
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck: Steinbeck’s travels in Americana with his dog. Maybe a bit too concentrated on US culture for the Guardian’s list? But there are others on their list that focus on certain countries or cultures.
Dethroning the King by Julie Macintosh: Again, a recent publication, so there’s that. But wow – an international tale of business, culture, hubris, and beer. C’mon.
Fire Season by Philip Connors: 2011 publication. However! This might be my favorite book of 2011 so far, and it tells so many important and poignant stories of history, public policy, nature, beauty, solitude, relationships… and does it so beautifully. I’m still raving about this book.
Okay, well. I don’t have any major arguments with the Guardian’s list, but I do submit Malcolm X’s Autobiography, and really Henrietta Lacks as well. What do YOU think they left off?