The Guardian newspaper recently run a feature on the greatest non-fiction books of all time. Despite their bad idea to split up the list into different categories, I was suitably inspired to wonder what my list would look like, limiting myself to the top ten.
And at the risk of giving further ammunition to those who accuse me of being too self-indulgent in my column (and I am one of my own accusers on this point) I decided to make this the subject of this week’s column. Aside from the top three, the list is not in any particular order:
1. Dispatches (Michael Herr): Covering Herr’s experiences embedded with American troops at war in Vietnam, it is a powerful book about conflict and how people deal with it and live through it.
There is a good reason war makes for such powerful writing. Because it takes the self-destructiveness of human nature to its furthest extreme, it usually has profound insights about the world.
2. Wild swans (Jung Chang): A memoir about growing up in Mao-era China doesn’t seem like a book that belongs here, but Wild swans is a tremendous and horrifying slice of history.
It chronicles how the author slowly fell out of love with Mao whose astonishingly destructive policies for China resulted in some of the most catastrophic events of the twentieth century.
It also contains some of the most effective descriptions of cult-worship, chronicling how Chinese venerated Mao as a God. A truly astonishing book.
3. A short history of nearly everything (Bill Bryson): Few books capture the wonders of science quite like this one. Bryson is a popular travel writer, but here, he steps out of his comfort zone describing the wonders of the universe and jumping from one scientific field to the other with enthusiasm and razor-sharp wit. You’ll never look at life in the same way again.
4. The forever war (Dexter Filkins): As noted earlier, there is something about war that produces wonderful literature and this is another great example.
This is an absorbing and profound look at the Iraq war. The horror and sheer senselessness of armed conflict has rarely been as beautifully expressed as in this brilliant but depressing book.
Provides great insights into why Iraq became-in the words of Brendan O’Neill-‘the world’s first suicide state’
5. Stuart: a life backwards (Alexander Masters): A gripping tale about a homeless man and his struggles with society and his own demons.
6. Feeding Frenzy (Will Self): A collection of essays published in various British newspapers by author and journalist Will Self, this book has some of the most astonishing prose and barbed wit I’ve ever read.
Even his restaurant reviews achieve a level of high-art. The fact that Self is ridiculously smart also helps.
7. The Damage done (Warren Fellows): Chronicling the experiences of an Australian in a Thai prison, the book is filled with some truly shocking tales of inhumanity and becomes a savage indictment of the prison system. One of the most harrowing books I have ever read.
8. I didn’t do it for you (Michaela Wrong): Wrong- who rose to fame after writing the equally excellent In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz- turns her attention to Eritrea, and the result is a startlingly interesting tale.
The constant theme here is betrayal of the Eritrean people- by Colonial powers, by their government, by their territorial neighbors and finally by their own liberators.
9. We are Iran (Nasrin Alavi): A collection of blog posts from Iranians capturing their aspirations and disillusionment, this is one of the most insightful portraits of a country, mainly because Alavi simply lets the people speak for themselves. There is plenty of tragedy here, but ultimately this is an uplifting book.
10. The shadow of the sun (Ryzard Kapucinski): A collection of essays from his travels around Africa, Kapucinski effectively captures the diversity and surrealism of the continent.