Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Best nonfiction

I always enjoy lists and I am a major fan of some of the books on the Guardian's "100 greatest non-fiction books" list -- Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Roland Barthes' Mythologies, Susan Sontag's On Camp. But like all non-bylined lists of this sort, it is also heavy on "important" doorstops like Critique of Pure Reason and Leviathan that are not really for actual reading by any actual human.

I prefer lists that don't pretend to take a view from nowhere. So just for fun and in no particular order here is a list of some of my own personal favorite nonfiction books. No claim that these are the best of all time or that this is comprehensive. But I liked them.

Robert Mentzer's Certified Finest Nonfiction Books:


Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson
A true investigation into what aesthetic taste is and how taste gets made. So smart and so honest and so useful. If it doesn't change the way you think about music and art, read it again.

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century by Greil Marcus
Cultural history from French Situationism to punk rock.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
Terrific, rigorous hip-hop history. Pitch-perfect until he hits the '90s!


The Big Short by Michael Lewis
The story of the financial collapse through the eyes of those who saw it coming.

Boss by Mike Royko
The greatest newspaper columnist of all time chronicles Richard J. Daley.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Working poor in practice.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Children by Philip Gourevitch
Terrible, terrible.

Them by Jon Ronson
Travels with crazies. Hilarious, sympathetic portraits of some very unsympathetic souls.


Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Best memoir ever.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Does this count as nonfiction?

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Not every essay in here is a winner -- "E Unibus Pluram: Television and American Fiction" is completely insufferable -- but the title essay is terrific, lots of fun and smart. The first essay "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley," which is set in central Illinois, still makes me nostalgic for home.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Read this probably 15 years ago and I still remember its description of kitchen work and soup-kitchen hopping.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel
Best oral history.

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cape Town to Cairo by Paul Theroux
Travels in Africa and some worthwhile thoughts on the aid industrial complex.


Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
This was the most moving, most deeply felt piece of philosophical writing I read in college. Really great as a literary work and really great and influential as a piece of philosophy.

Illuminations by Walter Benjamin
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" doesn't hold up well at all but the essays are terrific and "Theses on the Philosophy of History" is basically a masterpiece.

What are your picks? Please add in comments!


gnarlytrombone said...

A fantastic list. I would add Walter Lippmann's early opus, particularly Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. John Dewey considered the latter such a powerful indictment of democracy he wrote another great book in reply, The Public and its Problems.

Lippmann gets a bad rap because he's considered dated and he became a bit of a hack and power junkie after the war. But he's a brilliant stylist and expertly wrestles with ancient, epic themes in a modern context.

KT said...

Where is the science! All of these books I promise are actually enjoyable to read, and many of them I've read more than once. For fun.


Anything by Richard Feynman. He'll make you laugh, and teach you stuff.

Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is a really fantastic fundamental explanation of physical forces, and the universe. If you're going to read just one physics book, I'd recommend this, despite my love of Feynman. And I do think everyone should read at least one. And this is eminently readable, and fun.


Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene changed my life at age 17 or so. It explains so much of animal and human behavior, and how evolution and genetics really works. It's truly stunning.

For a more general overview of evolution, Dawkin's recent The Greatest Show on Earth can't be beat. I love it, I love it, I love it. He explains how it all works. And I think it's irresponsible for people to not understand that, I really do. It's a super-important topic.

Daniel C. Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea is another on that tackles evolution in a lovely fashion.

Dawkin's The Ancestor's Tale is a pretty awesome overview of how all living beings are related, going back to our oldest common ancestor. It's a great read. But not as essential as the other two.

I'm only (slowly) reading Darwin now, but it surprised me how readable it is, so I do recommend that.

Cognitive Science

It's so important to know how our mind works. Another book that truly and literally changed my entire life path when I read it at age 16 was Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. I don't know how to sum it up but it's about how the brain works, how language works, and how we are who we are. These are an important part of a well-examined life. Plus Hofstadter's entire bibliography is fantastic. I'd recommend anything in there.

Daniel C. Dennett's Consciousness Explained is quite good too, as is really any of his stuff.


I like Steven Pinker's stuff, especially The Blank Slate, but I'm a bit out of my depth there.

And on my other hobby horse:


Jung Chang's Mao is the best biography I've ever read. It's less "just" a bio and more an entire history of modern China. It is revelatory and fascinating. I could not give it a higher recommendation if I tried, it is just that good.

I also really liked a book I read recently called All the Shah's Men, about the US involvement in Iran in the 1950s, but i don't know if it's essential. It's highly recommended though. I think the author is Kinzer.

And I guess these go somewhere between history and science, but both Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse by Jared Diamond should be required reading. The former because it explains a lot about why the world is the way it is (and while doing so busts some persistent and nasty myths) and the latter because it gives an indication of where we might be going and some ideas on how to not.

I would probably include Satrapi's Persepolis and Spiegelman's Maus under memoirs too.

Maybe some Bertrand Russell under philosophy. If I'd read Why I Am Not A Christian when I was younger, before I'd been exposed to those ideas piecemeal in other places, it would have been a revelation.

Oh and I would totally add All the President's Men under reporting.

I'm going to stop wandering around staring at my bookshelves now and go back to reading about hepatitis!

Rob said...

KT you are very correct that I have read hardly any books about science, and this is to my discredit. I did read "An Anthropologist on Mars," that was a cool book. But I really need to get on "Brief History of Time," don't I?

I think my roommate in college was into Godel, Escher, Bach. That book looks terrific.

And to gnarlytrombone, as a bit of a hack and power junkie myself, I think I should be able to appreciate Lippmann just fine!

haahnster said...

I'm a bit of a world religions buff. I suppose a non-believer of a/any/all of these belief systems could challenge the "non-fiction" label, but...

In addition to the Bible, I'd highly recommend Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Dhammapada, and I also really like Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and The Prince by Machiavelli.

haahnster said...

I suppose those last two fall somewhere between Philosophy and Political Science (didn't want you to think I considered them under "World Religions").

Also, to be clear, I didn't list the Koran/Quran/Qu'ran(sp?) merely because I have not read it. Thus, I can make no recommendation on it.

haahnster said...

Oh, and speaking of Michael Lewis, I have not yet read The Big Short, but really enjoyed/highly recommend Moneyball and Liar's Poker. Oh, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell... and Freakonomics by Levitt & Dubner.

I'll shut up now (promise).

Anonymous said...

Lipstick Traces is an absolute classic.

Definitely could use a little more history in there. I highly recommend "Fires in the Minds of Men" by Billington. Big, heavy book about the philosophical roots and political manueverings behind the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries "Age of Western Revolutions." Especially great is the talk about the uneasy marriage of "egalite" and "liberte" in the history of those revolutions.

Might be a boring, college-kid sort of topic to some, but Billington's chapter on the rivalry between Marx and Proudhon and later Marx and Bakhunin is especially good.

Another book that's good though is "Elijah Muhammed's G-String Bakesale" by the Rockin' Locobots.