Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A readers' list of 25 best non-fiction books

Open Culture asked its readers to name the best non-fiction books (of all time!) and, as this kind of open-call goes, the results were pretty broad and with a few surprises here and there. The top 25 were selected primarily through a process of repeat nominees, and it would be interesting to see what else was nominated but didn't make the cut -- for example, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

Still the list leaves a wide range of reading -- much of it 20th century history, some American school-room classics, and the thoughts of a Roman emperor. Commenters tossed a few zingers: only two women writers made the top 25, and suggested Beryl Markham's excellent West With the Night and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

And at least the number one nomination reveals all that heavy reading doesn't ruin a sense of humor.

It is encouraging to see that the list isn't top-heavy with university-taught philosophy: whoever the readers of Open Culture might be, they are obviously reading for themselves and not for a college curriculum. And not a single book about the death of the printed word -- an encouraging sign that readers are still cracking open books, although Open Culture contributor Sheerly Avni does admit that the selection process "leaned toward books that are available for free online."

The List, in descending order:

Hunter S. Thompson - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Friedrich Nietzsche - The Gay Science

Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene

Wendell Berry - The Way of Ignorance

Joseph Mitchell - Up in the Old Hotel

Brian Greene - The Elegant Universe

Norman Lewis - Voices of the Old Sea

Joan Didion - The White Album

Benjamin Franklin - The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Tony Judt - Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Henry David Thoreau - Walden

Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

Bill Bryson - A Walk in the Woods

George Orwell - Homage to Catalonia

Hannah Arendt - Eichmann in Jerusalem

Booker T. Washington - Up From Slavery

Jorge Luis Borges - Other Inquisitions (1937-1952)

Marcus Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell, trans. Tao Te Ching

Victor Klemperer - I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years (1933-1941)

Greil Marcus - Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century

Philip Gourevitch - We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families

Winston Churchill - A History of the English Speaking Peoples

and as any journalist might add to the top 25:

Lastly, and only in part because we’ve been warned that we would be roundly scolded for the omission: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

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