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June 15th, 2011


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08:45 am - Non-Fiction
You may have seen the Guardian's list of 100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books Ever. I think their only restriction is they have left out religious books, which I think is sensible, as that's too contentious (like, 'The books of your religion are fiction', 'No, yours.').

I have read something from a good many of these books, but I have only read a few of them completely cover to cover. The ones I have read every word of (I think) are:

Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Gaia: A new hypothesis by James Lovelock (the Guardian have shown the wrong title here, they say 'The Revenge of Gaia' which is a more recent book)
Dispatches by Michael Herr
Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
De Profundis by Oscar Wilde
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (not really non-fiction. I would substitute 'If this is a Man')
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I think I recommend every one of those books as worth a read, and none of them are that long or incomprehensible (actually Godel Escher Bach is long, but it's easy to read). It's hard to compile such a list, and hard for one person to criticise it. There are books I would have liked to see in there, but what would I drop to make room for them? Some of the non-fiction books I have enjoyed most are too specialist to go into a universal 100-book list.

Some additions I might argue for:

Anabasis by Xenophon
Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein
Urn Burial by Thomas Browne, because it is so beautifully written
Being and Time by Heidegger, even though he was a fascist
Of Grammatology by Derrida, even though I don't like it
Something by Jung, don't know what
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
Married Love by Marie Stopes
The Economic Consequences of the Peace by JM Keynes
The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius by George Orwell
Notes on Nursing by Florence Nightingale
Mutual Aid by Piotr Kropotkin

I don't think the Dao De Jing is religious, but enough people would disagree that I'll leave it off.

(18 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:June 15th, 2011 08:26 am (UTC)
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Zarathustra???? Arguably fiction and unarguably rubbish!

I'd have
A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Connelly,
History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (only philosophy book written in readable English I've come across),
Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution by Stevie Davies,
Our Hidden lives by Simon Garfield and
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 08:36 am (UTC)
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I like your choice of works that transmit the words of people normally excluded from these kinds of lists.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:June 15th, 2011 08:46 am (UTC)
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I've dipped into a lot of these but can't honestly say I've read very many from cover to cover, and several of those I wouldn't include.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Their science/maths list feels very poor to me. Darwin & Feynmann, yes, the rest no. Lots of influential things missing like Gray's Anatomy. And what about a dictionary or two?
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 08:54 am (UTC)
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I think the science section looks poor, and there's far far too much travel writing - middle class self-indulgence
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From:espresso_addict
Date:June 15th, 2011 09:00 am (UTC)
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there's far far too much travel writing

I thought that was just me, who never reads the stuff.
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From:steepholm
Date:June 15th, 2011 09:12 am (UTC)
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Yes, reference books, generally - but the OED, surely! (But that's a bit Anglophone of me, perhaps, but in any language it's a unique achievement.)

Also agree re. science, which apart from the Darwin are mostly expositions for non-scientists rather than your actual ground-breaking books. If Copernicus is too much like hard work, they could at least have included Galileo's Dialogues Concerning the Two World Systems - or even Sidereus Nuncius!
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From:steepholm
Date:June 15th, 2011 09:16 am (UTC)
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Ha - I was wondering to myself whether they'd included Anabasis - then scrolled down, and there it was at the top of your list! I applaud your choice of Urn Burial, too.

And poor Aristotle! Dominates Western culture for almost two millenia, and gets totally left out in favour of, say, The Golden Bough (valued more for its influence of literature than its anthropological reliability, I suspect).

Like most such lists it suffers badly from presentism.
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From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 10:15 am (UTC)
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The list has so many errors in it that I think they slung it together with more than usual haste. I'd probably prefer The White Goddess to The Golden Bough, though they are both of them pretty far from non-fiction.
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From:several_bees
Date:June 15th, 2011 09:21 am (UTC)
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Very surprised they don't have The Pillow Book, given how much memoiry stuff they do have!

The whole thing skews a bit modern, which is a shame because it means that the slightly out-of-the-expected choices are mostly post-1950, and there's not much space for older things that aren't Definitely Established Classics (eg Urn Burial as you mention - the distribution is such that they're clearly not going to have that and The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Burton is the much more famous.)
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From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 10:16 am (UTC)
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The Pillow Book should definitely be in there as they are aware the list is too Eurocentric.

I haven't read the Anatomy of Melancholy. That's an obvious Kindle book.
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From:Kevin Faulkner
Date:June 15th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
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Burton is a bit of an also ran as a literary stylist and philosopher in comparison to the much better known and true English classic 'Urn-Burial' Just check the number of bloggers who write in admiration of Browne's Discourse compared to the utter silence upon Burton's minor work.
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From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
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and from your profile I see you are a major fan of Browne
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 11:05 am (UTC)
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Yes the Guardian might as well have written 'We don't know anything about maths'. I don't know the titles, but presumably Pythagoras, Euclid, Leibniz on Calculus, Pascal on probability, Markov, Godel himself of course, Boole? Ada Lovelace?
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 15th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
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Right. Is there anything good by Benoit Mandelbrot or (whatever his name is) Julia?
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From:espresso_addict
Date:June 15th, 2011 11:35 pm (UTC)
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And even in the more recent stuff there's just this great yawning gap. What about, say, Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming?
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From:sugoll
Date:June 15th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
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I'm sure I've read The Diary of Ann Frank, but since it was a school book, I don't recall whether we covered all of it.

I got bored about 2/3 of the way through the Hoff.

I've read all of Hawking's book. But that's it for that list, for me.


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