List time!

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?

12 Responses to List time!

  1. Jenni Wiltz says:

    I’m kind of depressed now–I’ve read maybe 20 percent of these books. I’m slogging through “Decline and Fall” right now, and it’s actually amusing (Gibbon wants to be a gossip but he’s too prim). I slogged through “Bury My Heart” a few years ago. It’s terrible to say, but that book had very brief moving moments and very long boring stretches. Franz Fanon should definitely stay. I read an excerpt from “Black Skin, White Masks” for a grad class and I’ve never been so moved by a piece of non-fiction (I’ve also never found so many quotable phrases that make kick-ass titles).

    What’s missing from this list? “Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert K. Massie. Hands down the best non-fiction I’ve ever read. Balanced, thoughtful, painful, and touching. There’s also a little-known Holocaust book called “Into That Darkness” by Gitta Sereny. She interviewed the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, and wrote the book as she tried to understand the man behind the deeds. It’s fascinating in this painfully horrific way–Stangl comes across as pathetic and almost sympathetic. I re-read it every few years to remind me how great characters are built.

  2. DaveRave says:

    “The Prince” by Machiavelli. A must read that actually becomes a fun read. At least it did for me.

  3. Giora says:

    Thanks Lauren for the list. I’m surprised that you wish to read the “The Communist Manifesto”, for example. While the topic of Communism and Marxism is important to know, reading a long book about it is not as productive as reading an essay of few pages giving a summary of the main ideas in the book. The book about Femminism is also an important book to read. Personally, I will only read now “China Along the Yellow River” because it related to my own China-America fiction book. For the rest of books, I rather read first a summary of the book and then if one it’s really exciting, will pick to read all the book. There are so many books that we are supposed to read, but the time is limited, so we just can’t even if we feel that we must. We already know that you have a soul mate in reading (Katey) so maybe she can chime in with her suggestions. Have a wonderful weekend, Giora

    • Lauren says:

      Oh, I don’t WANT to read THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, per se. I just feel an obligation to. I’ve actively attempted to de-snob myself since I realized in grad school that a life in academia was never going to be for me, but some feelings of intellectual aspiration die hard.

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    “In Cold Blood” is stellar. I haven’t thought of this book in ages, but now that you’ve brought it up … wow. Not light stuff. Disturbing. Be warned.

    In addition to “A Brief History of Time,” I’d add the books by physicist Richard Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” These are particularly intriguing because Feynman describes, in retrospect, his mixed feelings about working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, as well as his thoughts about the Challenger disaster. One really comes away with a vivid picture of pre-Atomic age Americathink. He’s an amazing writer. :)

    • Lauren says:

      I definitely want to check out Feynman. If you had to pick, which one would you suggest?

      • Lisa Marie says:

        These really need to be read in sequential order for you to “get” Feynman. “What Do You Care …” was his first book, and it sets the scene for the second — which is actually more intriguing. The first book also addresses the death of Feynman’s wife. Parts of it are very moving, especially when he sees a dress in a store window that he thinks she’d like. :'(

  5. Catherine Whitney says:

    Thanks for this topic, Lauren. As a nonfiction writer I am constantly battling the perception that fiction is fun and nonfiction is homework. Great nonfiction, however, can be a rapturous ride. Some of my favorites: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, and John Adams by David McCullough. I’ll pass on The Communist Manifesto and The Periodic Table!

    • Lauren says:

      I do love THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT. I’ve never read the Berendt, but I do often have trouble reading things for which I’ve already seen the movie, so I sort of took it off my mental list. Maybe I should put it back!

      I will say, I imagine THE PERIODIC TABLE isn’t a fun read, but I’ve read IF THIS IS A MAN, and Levi was a pretty brilliant writer. Combining his philosophical depth with chemistry actually sounds pretty fascinating to me. But I think I’ve focused too much of my nonfiction reading on brutally painful subjects to delve back into his oeuvre any time soon. The best three nonfiction books I can think of that I’ve read are all about genocide–no doubt important and compelling, but maybe something that could actually be classified as entertaining would be a nice change! You’re absolutely right that nonfiction can–and sometimes should–be fun!

  6. Katie says:

    Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” was strange, beautiful, and spellbinding.

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