Yesterday, The Guardian released a list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books to coincide with the release of the shortlist for the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, and it’s bound to ruffle some feathers. They’ve divided up the books into 17 categories, from Art to Travel, with a few ostensibly divisive entries thrown in (e.g., the only book in the “mind” category is Sigmund Freud’s 1899 opus, The Interpretation of Dreams). We’ve chosen our favorites from the bunch and included them below, though not without hemming and hawing before we made our decision. Should we include the most popular books — those that have impacted the most lives or changed the course of history? Or should we include those that were written with the most skill, though they might be less loved? In the end, we decided on a mix of the two, though we realize they aren’t always mutually exclusive. If you’d like to weigh in, then follow this link to nominate a book you think has been unjustly omitted from the list, and see our choices after the jump.
The Histories by Herodotus (400 BCE)
This is where it all begins — the first known historian to collect information, shape it, and then create a narrative around it. In the Histories Herodotus tackles the Greco-Persian Wars — which can be blamed on Cyrus the Great and his henchmen, if you want to go around pointing fingers. (We’re sure the Persians would disagree, however.) Enter the age of long form narrative nonfiction.
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532)
This groundbreaking book of political philosophy influenced everyone from despotic rulers to Wall Street jerks and anyone else who is trying to create his or her own corporate empire. The lesson: rule by carrot and stick. Just remember: “It is the nature of men to be as much bound by the benefits that they confer as by those they receive.”
Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (1781)
Kant sidesteps the battle between rationalism and empiricism by combining the two in this landmark treatise on the nature and importance of human reason, which philosophy majors have been reading and arguing over for more than 200 years. Take that, Hume!
The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBois (1903)
“The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color-line.” This series of essays — many first published in The Atlantic — gives an account of the suffering and hopes of black Americans at the turn of the century. This book is not without its faults (e.g., the “Talented Tenth” hypothesis), and yet, it’s an enduring work of sociological study that continues to be taught today. As Du Bois wrote, “I have not always been right, but I have always been sincere.”
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)
Woolf takes on social justice issues in this incredible, compact work of expository prose. She writes, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.” What if Shakespeare had a sister?
The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
This was included in the biography section of the choices, and we opted for it because it’s such an odd, endearing, and egotistical work. It takes all of about two pages until Gertrude Stein is first mentioned, and then it is apparent that the “autobiography” is actually an account of the couple’s daily life together in France; it’s a sort of journal entry or a narration of the events of an evening and the people in attendance, rather than a straightforward bio. It’s funny, sometimes rude, and includes some hilarious and offensive descriptions of Stein, who apparently had “an explosive temper.”
The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich (1950)
This is one of the most popular art books in history has one of the most accessible introductions to the subject ever written. It has been translated into 34 languages since its release, and includes almost 400 color illustrations. One reviewer from the Birmingham Post writes, “I am surprised it’s not yet been placed in hotels on the bedside table along with Gideon’s Bible since Gombrich is as authoritative as the voice of God.”
Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)
This benchmark book for postcolonial studies students has been irritating professors ever since its publication in the late ’70s. Edward Said writes, “As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge.” Say goodbye to the paintings of Gustave Flaubert, Herodotus’s flawed account of the Greco-Persian Wars, and all the other Westerners who view the East and its occupants as weak, tyrannical, and sexually available. This is not a clash of civilizations; it’s an explanation of false assumptions.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
Who else but Stephen Hawking could write an overview of cosmology and sell over 10 million copies? Its subtitle is “From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” though it only includes one equation, familiar to physics students near and far: E=mc².
The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald (1995)
This is the second novel by our favorite German author, Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald (or W.G. for short), and it concerns a leisurely meander in East Anglia, among other things. André Aciman writes in the New York Review of Books, “What The Rings of Saturn is, actually, is a protracted visit to purgatory, except that here Dante, like the lonely eccentrics in all four of The Emigrants‘ tales, never comes back in one piece, and certainly never quite among the living.”