Nonfiction Favorites

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

Inspired by the Guardian’s list of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time, the New York Times asked a bunch of its staff writers to pick their five favorites. There was a four-way tie for first place, and the reason for the tie is more interesting than the names of the books themselves:

Of the 33 lists submitted, each of those books appeared three times. (Yes, I know that is a completely unscientific basis for deeming them our picks as the best of all time, but what did I say about rigor?)

That’s sort of remarkable. Out of 33 lists, not a single book was mentioned by more than three people. And unless I missed something, only four books out of a total of 167 (two staffers imperiously listed six books instead of five) were written before the 20th century. What’s interesting is that this is such a dramatic demonstration of how atomized we are these days: we all read wildly different things, and even within a group of fairly similar people there’s not a whole lot of crossover. Not only are there no classics that we’ve all read and treasured, but even among modern books there’s precious little that we all have in common.

But this is a hard exercise. I’ll make it easier by listing my ten favorite nonfiction books, but honestly, if you asked me again next week it would probably be a different list. (With the exception of #1, which would show up every time.) That said, here’s this week’s list:

  1. The Power Broker, by Robert Caro
  2. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
    [Embarrassing update: this is, of course, a work of fiction. I sort of forgot that.]
  3. Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson
  4. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond
  5. Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein
  6. Postwar, by Tony Judt
  7. Against the Gods, by Peter Bernstein
  8. Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill
  9. In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, by John Gribbin
  10. How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

So many books left out! Even though I did the more traditional list of ten. Sigh.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate