When lists are compiled of the “Best Books of All Time”, two things tend to happen. The first will be that, despite stating “of all time”, most of the books will be recent releases (for example when the Sydney Morning Herald published a list of the top 100 books of all time, and the Harry Potter and Twilight series took the top two spots). The second is that non-fiction rarely gets a look-in. When people say “book”, they usually mean “novel”.
So I was excited to see that the Guardian were putting together a list of the greatest non-fiction books ever written. Whatever about the paper’s politics, when it comes to books and culture, the Guardian is known for the thought and enthusiasm it brings to reviewing trends and books for their readers. And, even better, they clarified these books should not just be informative but really enjoyable reads, books that win over both hearts and minds. “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.” A pretty lofty goal.
But after browsing the list I, like some of the readers, feel they have taken things to the other extreme. Far from being focused on the present, this list is firmly grounded in the distant past. Of their 6 biographies, 3 were written before the twentieth century and none were penned after 1933. Out of twelve recommended philosophy texts only one – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – was released in the twentieth century and that was published in 1962. Their only book on mind is by Sigmund Freud in 1889, and even their science section has nothing after 1988.
The Guardian blog contains a lively discussion, with plenty of people pleading my point that modern scientific books are horribly under-represented. But at least scientific books got a mention, as aficionados of sport, cookery and gardening point out – none of their areas (which make up a good half of the Boomerang Top 25 non-fiction books sold in 2010) even get a look in. Still, one hundred books may sound like a lot but when you try and include everything written under the broad banner of non-fiction you are going to end up with a lot of gaps, as the Guardian admits.
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… As you’ve doubtless gathered, this is a very left-leaning, liberal, limey kind of list. But this is the Guardian: what else would you expect?
They have a point. The Guardian is a paper with a rich and long history. It was founded in 1821 so perhaps it’s only natural that they are comfortable looking back several hundred years to find most of their best non-fiction reads (and looking only in the English language as well). But I’d like to see what a reader with a more modern eye considers indispensable to a well-rounded and enjoyable non-fiction Top 100.
I’ll start the ball rolling with a few choice picks of my own:
- Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel – This book on why history unfolded so differently on different continents ensures you will never look at any society quite the same way again, and Diamond’s prose is as polished as his name suggests.
- Malcolm Gladwell – Blink – All of Gladwell’s books are well-worth reading as he renders the most scientific and abstract of concepts understandable and fascinating but Blink, a book of “thinking about thinking” is a stand out read in a stellar group.
- Bill Bryson – At Home / Mother Tongue / A Short History of Nearly Everything – I’m struggling with Bryson, not because I can’t think of any books sufficiently good but because I can’t choose between several of his titles. Is the acerbic focus of Mother Tongue more worthy than the wide-ranging Short History, and is his recent release At Home really that wonderful or is its novelty blinding me to some older, better texts?
What do you think? Should we include some Bryson, some Sedaris or even some Jeremy Clarkson? Or did the Guardian nail your favourite non-fiction reads?