Tuesday, October 4, 2016

25 best non-fiction books: an Open Culture readers' poll

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
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)
Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell, trans. Tao Te Ching

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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