As you know well if you’ve read this blog around year’s end, we’re awfully fond of lists around here. And judging by the proliferation of lists on the internet, they must appeal to a vast number of others as well (unless the internet is written purely for the sake of us at DGLM, in which case, thanks!). So I was delighted to come across this Guardian list of greatest nonfiction books. Unlike with lists of novels, where I usually feel pretty confident that I’ll come out OK if I go through to see how many I’ve already read, this one’s pretty daunting. I’ve partially read Said’s Orientalism for a class, have always pretended to myself that Decline and Fall is coming up real soon on my list (plus Sally Draper read parts of it that time), and I’m pretty certain I once got assigned Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and claimed to have read it. I minored in philosophy in college, so I’ve read parts of some of each of those texts, plus all of The Symposium. Likewise, I’ve dabbled in a number of the politics books for classes. Like most people, I imagine, I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary, and like most English majors, I hope, I know all about Virginia Woolf’s very own room. I think I may have read Ways of Seeing for a class as well. But of everything on this list, all 100 titles, I’ve read only two in full, purely because I wanted to: Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Philip Gourevitch’s riveting and heartbreaking We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families.
Reading through the rest of the list, I can flag any number of things I feel I should read (A Brief History of Time, The Communist Manifesto, The Medium is the Massage, The Prince, The Periodic Table) and a few I think I even genuinely want to (In Cold Blood, Slouching Towards Bethlehem). For the most part, though, it looks to me like a lengthy and, while perhaps edifying, boring homework assignment. So help me out here, readers: which of these have you read, and of those, which would you really recommend? I actually love all kinds of thoughtful and educational nonfiction, and feel a silly amount of pressure to be “well read,” but at this point in my life and with the near infinite number of book options and finite number of hours, I’d prefer not to read anything else merely because it proved to be important. I think I have enough of an education to have a good sense of why some books matter in the grand scheme of things and why they find themselves in the canon, but since no one’s asking me to write essays about them anymore, I just don’t have it in me to read them solely for that reason. For a moment, let’s categorize greatest simply as most enjoyable or entertaining or moving. By that rubric, I’d definitely keep Gourevitch on, but I’m not sure I could say the same for Orientalism, which is a bit of a slog. What do you think still belongs on this list? What would you add? What would you definitely remove?