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The best nonfiction books ever

How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I read this book long before I had kids–it’s incredibly helpful for interactions with adults as well. It’s definitely #1 on my list: a book that really changed my life.

How animals work, by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. What can I say–this is cool stuff. Physics really works.

Low life, by Luc Sante. This one needs no introduction, I think. I happened to read it around when it came out–I’m not sure how I encountered it–and what struck me was its utter deadpan tone.

The honest rainmaker, by A. J. Liebling. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. Although it should probably be classified as fiction.

Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain. OK, it’s basically fiction too, also has some dead spots, but still has a great treatment of one of my favorite themes, which is that so much that seems permanent is not.

The last laugh, by Phil Berger. Doesn’t really belong in this list–it’s good, but probably not great–but it’s my favorite of the books I’ve finished lately.

That reminds me, by Tony Randall. No kidding. The only way this book could be improved would be to have some indicator of which of the stories are actually true.

Plagues and peoples, by William McNeill. Understanding history in terms of micro- and macro-parasitism. May seem obvious now, maybe could be updated, but as far as I know was pretty trailblazing. Full of fun facts.

The origins of the second world war, by A.J.P. Taylor. Compulsively readable, also seems (to this non-expert) to be full of insight.

Baseball’s greatest quotations, by Paul Dickson. OK, not really in the top 200 even, but I wanted to include something by this charming nonfiction writer.

Ball four, by Jim Bouton. This one really does belong on the list. (I’d also like to include the Bill James abstracts, but I’m not sure which ones to pick, and they have weaknesses as well as strengths. I’ll save them for my list of the best statistics books ever.)

The death and life of great American cities, by Jane Jacobs. OK, another classic–sorry, the list is getting less and less idiosyncratic.

Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. An amazingly good book with an incredible quality level, especially considering it’s an edited volume.

The great war and modern memory, by Paul Fussell. After this one he got crankier and crankier, but this one is essential.

Also I have a soft spot for my own books, but due to lack of critical distance I’ll keep them off this list.

10 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    I'm going to claim just a tiny bit of credit here, for recommending three of these books to you (Ball Four, How Animals Work, and That Reminds Me). I guess I don't deserve _quite_ as much credit as if I had _written_ one of these books, though.

    I also recommend Collapse, by Jared Diamond (which is better, I think, than his good but repetitive "Guns, Germs, and Steel").

    Another favorite is The Language Instinct, by Stephen Pinker. Unfortunately, his success and acknowledged expertise concerning language has somehow convinced him that he knows everything, and his subsequent work, including How The Mind Works, is very disappointing.

    Cod, by Mark Kurlansky, remains my favorite book of micro-history, or whatever this genre is called: history as told through the story of a single circumscribed element.

    And for us homeowners, it's hard to beat The Walls Around Us, by David Owen, for its combination of helpful advice, humor, and historical information.

  2. lees says:

    One of my very favorites, which ought to be of particular interest to readers of this blog, is Paul Hoffman's THE MAN WHO LOVED ONLY NUMBERS: PAUL ERDOS AND THE SEARCH FOR MATHEMATICAL TRUTH.

  3. Andrew says:

    Phil,

    You need to recalibrate. Your suggestions are ok but they don't compare to the best self-help book ever written, the best book of quotations ever compiled, the best sports book ever, the best ever book of literary criticism, etc.

  4. Peter says:

    For your consideration:

    Melvin Konner: The Tangled Wing: Biological constraints on the human spirit.

    Konner has an MD and a PhD in anthropology. He's not just smart and erudite, he's wise.

    Cerf and Navasky: The Experts Speak: An encyclopedic compendium of authoritative misinformation….. quotations from people who ought to have known better. Planes can't fly. TV is impossible….. my favorite, a letter from the head of the US Patent Office, c. 100 years ago, asking the president to abolish his office because "Everything that can be invented, has been"

  5. Phil says:

    I would put Cod ahead of Low Life, if forced to choose. I haven't read (or previously heard of) The Last Laugh, but since you yourself suggest that it's not great, I'm pretty sure I would put Collapse ahead of it. And although it's true that Judgment Under Uncertainty deserves enormous credit for its extremely important place as a, um, touchstone (although that's not the word I really want) in this important field, if we view it as a stand-alone work, it ranks below The Walls Around Us for me.

    So, I stand by my suggestions as deserving to be mingled with the ones on your list. However, I agree that they are not among "the best non-fiction books ever"; I didn't think you really thought all of the books you mentioned belong on that list either.

  6. John says:

    "An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution" by Partha Dasgupta

  7. Corey says:

    "Lucy's Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution" by Alison Jolly.

    "A Leg To Stand On" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat" by Oliver Sacks.

  8. DCBob says:

    I thoroughly agree with nearly all of your choices – just this morning I recommended Fussel to a colleague. You could really add all of the works in "Liebling At Home" and "Liebling Abroad" – 'The Earl of Louisiana' is incomparable political writing that makes the current crop of southern Republican right-wingers completely comprehensible. On military themes, a book that complements Fussel is John Keegan's "The Face of War." And Dava Sobel's hymn of praise to John Harrison, "Longitude" is one of the most inspiring books I've ever read. As for baseball, I cannot recommend Larry Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times : The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It" too highly – it is simply the best baseball book ever, and now many of the interviews are available on CD as well.

  9. dave blei says:

    i'd like to add "up in the old hotel" by joseph mitchell. it makes great summer reading.

    (and he mentions that "life on the mississippi" is *his* favorite book in the chapter called "evening with a gifted child.")

  10. Dan Dyckman says:

    QED by Richard Feynmann — as close to religion as a science text can get. Not his usual humorous writing, but an attempt to allow non-physicists to understand the complexity and beauty of his Nobel Prize-winning theory. Minimal math required.

    Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White Jr., — a wonderful monograph covering a few topics that changed the world, yet you've probably never thought of before (e.g. the invention of the stirrup…) Eye opening book.

    Life of George Washington, James Thomas Flexner — won a special Pulitzer for this four volume set that makes Washington & his times truly come to life. By the end of the book, you'll see George W. as a real, living, breathing, striving, often flawed man, seeking to overcome his flaws, never confident in himself, always questioning. One of the best biographies I've ever read for how close it comes to the subject. There's also a one-volume distillate that is very good, but not nearly as rich as the full 4-volume set.

    History of the Jews, Cecil Roth — preeminent Jewish historian writes incredibly compactly about one of the world's least compact topics, but manages to astound and inspire.

    Hokusai 100 Poets, Peter Morse — a gorgeous new volume reproducing most of Hokusai's color prints in this series which illustrated a well-known medieval Japanese set of 100 poems by 100 poets. Morse's explanatory texts are just right for making this work of art come alive with as much richness and freshness as could be expected for Western readers. A delight that I relished by reading and studying as slowly and thoughtfully as I possibly could, savoring each page, knowing there were only a mere hundred of them.