About a year ago I waxed eloquent in Pulitzer-winning fashion about my favorite fiction books. Since then I have been swamped with an e-mail asking about my favorite non-fiction books, to which I have been hesitant to respond because non-fiction books are hard—especially when being thrown at you for taping the end of the Alabama-Auburn game over one’s wedding video.
In my defense, I have already watched the end of that game way more often than any wedding video.
And in retrospect, my defense is perhaps not as strong as I had anticipated.
The problem with ranking non-fiction books is that when you combine the sheer number of categories with varying personal tastes you almost have a possibility for every time Lorde is played on the radio. The other problem is determining what exactly is fiction and what is not. Non-fiction is a work based on real facts and information. A good example might be a dictionary or James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces or a collection of President Obama’s healthcare speeches. Fiction on the other hand, is a work that is not real, being completely invented by the author, such as The Hunger Games or The History of the Soviet Union.
And while ranking fiction is like comparing apples and oranges, ranking non-fiction is like hanging up pudding: there are a lot of ways to do it, none of which work very well and what you end up with is something nobody really wants anyway.
So out of curiosity, I Dogpiled the greatest non-fiction books of all-time and what I discovered is that I really prefer Google. Regarding the books, the resultant lists were more diverse than a San Francisco County Culture Festival. For example, Time’s list has two books on writing in the top 10, while thegreatestbooks.org tends towards philosophy, and Random House’s Modern Library seems to like history. Snooki was not on any of the lists.
One of the more interesting lists was at thebest100lists.com in that 1) it only had 50 books on it; and b) The Bible was ranked eleventh, two spots below C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. So…Lewis’ book about The Bible is actually better than The Bible itself.
Which brings up the question of criteria: What makes a good non-fiction book? First of all, it has to be memorable. One time a (female) friend of mine was in a public restroom when an elderly woman came in, entered a stall, and after a moment of silent exertion exclaimed “Corn?! When did I have corn?!” A great non-fiction book is like this old woman; it should give you an experience that will be ingrained in your memory for some time—but for the right reasons. Sorry, Snooki.
How does it do that? By being engaging (e.g., Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help It Happen by Candice Watters), illuminating (e.g., The Light Bulb: And How It Changed the World by Michael Pollard), and clear (e.g., Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom by Martin and Susan Tolchin). I would also add significant; not big or heavy significant like my derriere, but significant as in important—life-changing even. And it should probably have a colon in the title. All great non-fiction works have colons in the title.
In all humility, below is my modest list of faves reflecting my obvious WASP bias. Please keep in mind that I have not read every non-fiction book out there, nor do I want to. But I am always looking for a good recommendation to ignore, so comment at will. (P.S. Regarding the titles, I have listed them Sharon Osbourne-style; that is, with the colons removed.) Again, you can keep up with what I’m currently reading and what I think of what I’m currently reading at the bottom of my page.
1) The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. After spending a lifetime studying and writing about history, the Durants wrote the greatest book ever written and yet it is shunned by the list-makers like an ex-Scientologist. Short, lucid, and brilliant, it should be required reading in every high-school in the world. And maybe other worlds as well.
2) How Now Shall We Live? by Charles Coleson and Nancy Pearcey. A person and thus a culture is defined by how one answers four key questions, none of which, believe it or not, has ever been explored in People Magazine.
3) Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. Perhaps the greatest living theologian gets past the religion and cuts to the quick of what it is to be Christian. And when one cuts to the quick, it hurts—just ask Paul Hogan, my Australian Shepherd.
4) Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner. A lesson in motivation and unintended consequences that every politician should read—or at least pass to see what is in it.
5) Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. Turns out the philosophies upon which we base much of Western society came largely from people who were royally screwed up. Which begs the question: Why exactly do we base our society on the thought of these nutjobs?
6) Affluenza by John de Graaf, David Wann & Thomas H. Naylor. Based on a PBS special, it chronicles the failures of frenzied consumerism. Be sure to pick it up at your local bookstore for just $19.95. Makes the perfect gift!
7) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This seems to be on every list of great non-fiction. While the story is only moderately interesting, it is the writing itself that is truly astounding. It almost makes me want to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Almost.
8) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared M. Diamond. Diamond explains why some societies flourish while others flounder. Not to spoil the ending or anything but…The reason? You guessed it: Guns, Germs, and Steel.
9) Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This won the Pulitzer for “Greatest Book to Ever Be Made into a Movie Directed by Angelina Jolie.” I read it last year as a reader-recommended must-read, and it is. An astounding story of perseverance amidst bitter misfortune and cruelty—kinda like my dating life in high-school. A similar and equally awesome story is The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman.
10) Good to Great by Jim Collins. Not sure this is top-ten, but I thought I would throw in a business book for the sake of discussion or lack thereof. Surprising insight on why some companies thrive while others shrivel. Hint: It’s not Guns, Germs, or Steel.