The best non-fiction of all time?

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?

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Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.

7 thoughts on “The best non-fiction of all time?”

  1. Without thinking on this and just doing the first thing that pops into my head my answer would have to be any atlas and any Lonely Planet guide. Will have a think and see if that changes. M

  2. I’m amazed to find the “Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson did not make it into the list.

  3. Odd to berate the lack of historical focus in the fiction lists and then about-turn for this non-fiction list of the Guardian’s; should the representation of time be somehow prescribed? Surely the very notion of a value list can rarely be more than a marketing endeavour. In that respect, the Guardian flaunts publisher’s demands to account for great shifts in social knowing and thinking, which I think is fair. Or just create debate, which is laudable. For all else, the point is for individuals to offer books they love on an individual basis to other individuals.
    Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is the best non(ish) fiction read of all time, as it goes. 🙂

  4. Notes from a Big Country remains my Bryson favourite …. and just going to say, an author can have more than one spot on a list of best books.

    The Blue Day Book by Bradley Trevor Greive. It’s little and has pictures but I think it’s fabulous.

    In Cold Blood was forced on me at some point during academia but I feel the need to add something with at least a remote degree of respect.

    Similarly The Beauty Myth or Fat is a Feminist Issue have some relevance to current feminist thought.. or so I’ve been told.

    And for non books that may not be the greatest but get repeat readings from me

    The Omnivore’s Dilemma
    Advance Australia … Where?

  5. I’m a big fan of On Writing and Notes from a Big Country, but shall have to check out a lot of the others. New reading material is always good, thanks for the input everyone!

  6. I’m going to give a shout out to books that fit in loads of these categories: travel, sports, memoir, geography, and, er…adventure/ pain and suffering?! I speak of survival/ hardship against the elements: Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm, Touching the Void. Utterly engrossing from beginning to end, and a fascinating if terrifying glimpse into some of the planet’s less hospitable corners…
    Loved Blink too Sadhbh. Guns Germs and Steel and King On Writing have both been top of my To Do list for a while now!

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