The 100 best nonfiction books?

The Modern Library on its website lists the100 best” English-language books in fiction and nonfiction. Alongside each are the best according to an online poll—and the readers’ choices consist of much trash: the top three slots of each list, fiction and nonfiction, are filled by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard.

Modern Library’s own considered nonfiction list is fascinating because it’s wildly diverse, reflecting the genre’s diversity, no doubt. It mixes histories and works of philosophy that have had social or intellectual impact with essays and memoirs. Virginia Woolf’s pioneering feminist essay A Room of One’s Own is ranked 4th,, while Vladimir Nabokov’s classic literary memoir Speak, Memory—panned and lauded on this very blog—is 8th and Richard Wright’s heartfelt memoir  Black Boy is 13th. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, the title essay of which I’ve previously declared America’s greatest, ranks 19th,  while Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ranks a solid 20th.

The Library’s number one greatest nonfiction book ever published in English is officially an autobiography, memoir’s staid precursor, The Education of Henry Adams. I read it so many years ago I can’t remember it, but do recall that it was recommended to me then because of its introspective impulse, which today we’d call memoiristic—a meditation on Henry Adams’s intellectual life—rather than being the usual dry recitation of a politician’s public deeds.

 

It helps to be named Woolf, Wolfe, or Wolff

Seeing Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in 52nd place confirmed my recent hunch that it would be a great book to teach—it’s a monument to immersion reporting and to narrative nonfiction storytelling. Wolfe penetrated the world of military test pilots and rocketed away with their immortal tough-guy phrase—“the right stuff”—as an overarching metaphor. He showed how those steely fighter jocks bent the U.S. space program to their will, wresting a degree of flight control from pocket-protected missile scientists and coffee-breathed NASA bureaucrats.

I was gratified that one of my favorite memoirs, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, made the list (86th) and nodded when I saw Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at 96th. Without apparent irony, in 97th place is Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, an expose of the pitfalls of the kind of empathetic immersion with criminals that Capote practiced. Malcolm generalizes the issue of some crime writers’ duplicity toward killers to all journalists—the way they act friendly and then sell sources out.

Having recently reread and written here about the excesses of The Journalist and the Murderer, I wonder what its placement says about the status of journalism. Even as narrative nonfiction dominates publishing and bookselling, people don’t fully trust it, or at least are wary of what they sense are inherent flaws. Maybe that’s simply wise—most people call any narrative book a novel, after all.

But I can think of several books, equally slim in size, that are better than Malcolm’s narrow screed. Offhand, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, reviewed here, is far larger in its ambition, its achievement, and its relevance for civilians.

 

The Modern Library’s top 100 nonfiction list . . .

1. THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by Henry Adams

2. THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE by William James

3. UP FROM SLAVERY by Booker T. Washington

4. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf

5. SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson

6. SELECTED ESSAYS, 1917-1932 by T. S. Eliot

7. THE DOUBLE HELIX by James D. Watson

8. SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

9. THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE by H. L. Mencken

10. THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST, AND MONEY by John Maynard Keynes

11. THE LIVES OF A CELL by Lewis Thomas

12. THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY by Frederick Jackson Turner

13. BLACK BOY by Richard Wright

14. ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL by E. M. Forster

15. THE CIVIL WAR by Shelby Foote

16. THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman

17. THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND by Isaiah Berlin

18. THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN by Reinhold Niebuhr

19. NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

20. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS by Gertrude Stein

21. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk and E. B. White

22. AN AMERICAN DILEMMA by Gunnar Myrdal

23. PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell

24. THE MISMEASURE OF MAN by Stephen Jay Gould

25. THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP by Meyer Howard Abrams

26. THE ART OF THE SOLUBLE by Peter B. Medawar

27. THE ANTS by Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson

28. A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls

29. ART AND ILLUSION by Ernest H. Gombrich

30. THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS by E. P. Thompson

31. THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W.E.B. Du Bois

32. PRINCIPIA ETHICA by G. E. Moore

33. PHILOSOPHY AND CIVILIZATION by John Dewey

34. ON GROWTH AND FORM by D’Arcy Thompson

35. IDEAS AND OPINIONS by Albert Einstein

36. THE AGE OF JACKSON, Arthur Schlesinger by Jr.

37. THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB by Richard Rhodes

38. BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON by Rebecca West

39. AUTOBIOGRAPHIES by W. B. Yeats

40. SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION IN CHINA by Joseph Needham

41. GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves

42. HOMAGE TO CATALONIA by George Orwell

43. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN by Mark Twain

44. CHILDREN OF CRISIS by Robert Coles

45. A STUDY OF HISTORY by Arnold J. Toynbee

46. THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY by John Kenneth Galbraith

47. PRESENT AT THE CREATION by Dean Acheson

48. THE GREAT BRIDGE by David McCullough

49. PATRIOTIC GORE by Edmund Wilson

50. SAMUEL JOHNSON by Walter Jackson Bate

51. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X

52. THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

53. EMINENT VICTORIANS by Lytton Strachey

54. WORKING by Studs Terkel

55. DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Styron

56. THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION by Lionel Trilling

57. THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Winston Churchill

58. OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen

59. JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME by Dumas Malone

60. IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN by William Carlos Williams

61. CADILLAC DESERT by Marc Reisner

62. THE HOUSE OF MORGAN by Ron Chernow

63. THE SWEET SCIENCE by A. J. Liebling

64. THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES by Karl Popper

65. THE ART OF MEMORY by Frances A. Yates

66. RELIGION AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM by R. H. Tawney

67. A PREFACE TO MORALS by Walter Lippmann

68. THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE by Jonathan D. Spence

69. THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS by Thomas S. Kuhn

70. THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW by C. Vann Woodward

71. THE RISE OF THE WEST by William H. McNeill

72. THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels

73. JAMES JOYCE by Richard Ellmann

74. FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by Cecil Woodham-Smith

75. THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY by Paul Fussell

76. THE CITY IN HISTORY by Lewis Mumford

77. BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM by James M. McPherson

78. WHY WE CAN’T WAIT by Martin Luther King by Jr.

79. THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT by Edmund Morris

80. STUDIES IN ICONOLOGY by Erwin Panofsky

81. THE FACE OF BATTLE by John Keegan

82. THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND by George Dangerfield

83. VERMEER by Lawrence Gowing

84. A BRIGHT SHINING LIE by Neil Sheehan

85. WEST WITH THE NIGHT by Beryl Markham

86. THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

87. A MATHEMATICIAN’S APOLOGY by G. H. Hardy

88. SIX EASY PIECES by Richard P. Feynman

89. PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

90. THE GOLDEN BOUGH by James George Frazer

91. SHADOW AND ACT by Ralph Ellison

92. THE POWER BROKER by Robert A. Caro

93. THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION by Richard Hofstadter

94. THE CONTOURS OF AMERICAN HISTORY by William Appleman Williams

95. THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE by Herbert Croly

96. IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

97. THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet Malcolm

98. THE TAMING OF CHANCE by Ian Hacking

99. OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS by Anne Lamott

100. MELBOURNE by Lord David Cecil

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14 Comments

Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, teaching, education

14 responses to “The 100 best nonfiction books?

  1. Richard, I recently finished reading The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James in a men’s discussion group. Only people who haven’t read it but had only heard of it could put that book at Number Two on this list.

    • Dave, that’s what I understand. I have heard it’s a truly great book but tried to read it when I was too young. And to think the author’s brother was the great Henry James, whose own The Wings of the Dove is at 26 on the novels list, with The Ambassadors right below it; his The Golden Bowl is at 32.

      With your endorsement, The Varieties of Religious Experience now goes to number one on my TBR list.

      • Richard, I wasn’t suggesting that Varieties should be Number One. I question it being on the list at all. I can’t believe that anyone(s) who have actually read it would rate it this highly. Of course, that’s just an opinion.
        But if it’s still on your TBR list, I accept no responsibility.

      • Oh! Dave, thank you for correcting my impression. I find the list a mixed bag for perhaps the same reason: there are books on it that made a big impact or were thought very important and yet have been surpassed or which are simply not very readable.

        An example of my own, sadly, is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It caused all kinds of changes for the good, and it literally killed her to write it, but is now primarily of historical interest. I read it and taught it a few years ago, and I did not find it as gripping as I thought I would; its organization seemed diffuse, perhaps because she was covering so much territory, but its narrative seemed to suffer as a result and I felt there must have been a better structure for it. There have been great books of environmental reportage since that have taken the banner forward and which are much more gripping. But Silent Spring is there for historical reasons.

        Makes me wonder if Ulysses really is the greatest novel ever written, as the Modern Library’s fiction list has it (with Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at number three), or if it is just there because of its extreme innovation (that makes it unreadable for most people).

  2. I also support The Varieties of Religious Experience as a TBR book. And, yes, William and Henry were brothers. Check out Alice also. Amazing family.

    Love lists. I need to add this one to my own collection of lists, though only some of these are memoirs. Hope that is ok with you?

    • It would be great if you used it, Shirley. That’s why I called attention to it, to spread the word! The list interests me, especially the sprinkling of memoirs and other books of very personal writing, along with narrative nonfiction and popular scholarship like The Varieties of Religious Experience.

      I have a huge biography, as yet unread, on the James family . . .

  3. Fascinating, Richard. It opens up whole new vistas of reading. I love lists too. Also note your own recommendations on the side of the blog. Nice addition!

  4. It’s heavy on men, predictably I guess. Lots of reasons for this, but still —

    I wonder about the composition of the committee–age, race, gender-wise. Get a different committee and you’d probably get a 50% different list. Do you think?

    Glad to see Rebecca West on there.

  5. Pingback: The 100 best nonfiction books- Modern Library «

  6. I was a little disappointed not to see “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer on the list. I could also name several other books I think should go on the list, but I agree with Ms. Alden, the list represents the biases and opinions of the committee.

  7. Fascinating. Great post.

  8. Thanks a lot for publishing the list, Richard. Though there are a number of books I can’t see myself ever reading on it, the overall list causes me to reconsider my opinion of Modern Library–before this, they seemed so terribly, terribly middle-brow in the things the things they had to say and publish. I’m much more impressed with them now than I was (and of course, I continue to be highly impressed with you, for your excellent coverage of what’s happening in the world of memoir and etc. writing. Your qualified endorsement of the list also counts for a lot).