While I’ve chosen fiction for my own writing, I’ve always been struck by the research and writing skill that’s required for the best non-fiction. Some people are amazed at the fertile imagination of novelists and short story writers, but non-fiction writers pour the same amount of passion and effort into non-fiction writing…and they have to be accurate, resourceful, and truthful with their material (unlike novelists, who lie for a living).
What follows is my personal short list (in no particular order) of some of the best non-fiction writing I’ve come across. The list is completely unfair, of course, since non-fiction is an exceedingly broad term, with many sub-genres, and my own preferences cut out hundreds of categories and thousands of titles. Apologies to those authors, themes, and titles I’ve missed. We’ll get you next time.
1. The Post-American World 2.0 | Fareed Zakaria
Finding a thoughtful, informed, unbiased assessment of the United States as the world tumbles into the 21st century can be difficult. Books on the subject tend to be either flag-waving rants with political agendas or doomsday prophecies with little basis in history or fact.
In clear language, using calm–almost serene–observations, Zakaria analyzes the path(s) that led America to become a “uni-polar” power in the late 20th century and demonstrates why those same attitudes and actions won’t keep the U.S. on top of the heap in the 21st. More importantly, perhaps, he introduces the concept that it’s the rise of other nations in the quickly globalizing world that will have more to do with our descent than anything we do. Responding constructively to that change in circumstances will dictate America’s future place in the world.
The Post-American World is an academic but eminently readable treatise on how America got where it is and what it can do to remain not only economically competitive, but also regain its position as the country to which other nations aspire.
Fareed Zakaria’s dedicated weekly news show on CNN, the Global Public Square, is also the perfect, current counterpart to this book.
2. Hot, Flat, and Crowded | Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman believes the Earth is becoming Hot due to global warming and unsound ecological policies and practices; it’s economically Flat when barriers to commerce are removed by advances like the internet; and it’s going to be Crowded as we see the planet’s population growing at an alarming rate.
These three issues are what Friedman believes will dominate our lives and the lives of generations to come. Our lack of will to deal with these issues–especially in the United States–however, is steering us towards a series of crises that we may not recover from. The New York Times columnist lays out a blueprint for helping resolve these issues and get back on the right track…but only if we start working at it now. It’s a sobering, but eventually optimistic, view of how we can get things right if we try.
3. Longitude | Dava Sobel
Sobel is perhaps better known for her book Galileo’s Daughter, but I found her break-out book Longitude to be more readable and interesting. It tells the story of John Harrison, a seventeenth-century tinkerer and self-taught clock-maker who, after a forty-year effort, discovered something we take for granted today: a clock that can accurately tell time without the use of a pendulum.
The importance of the discovery made possible another ability we often skim over, if we think about it at all: the calculation of longitude, which is impossible without an accurate time-keeping device. And, as sailor discovered quickly, pendulum-powered clocks don’t exactly keep pin-point accuracy on a rocking ship.
This is a great historical read filled with political machinations, easy-on-the-brain science, and amusing anecdotes of history. There is also a lush, illustrated version of this title that is a pleasure to see as well as read.
4. The Big Short & Boomerang | Michael Lewis
Not many people can dissect financial systems with the wit, humor, and insight of Michael Lewis. The Big Short tells the story of how a small group of financiers–working independently, though sometimes crossing paths–saw the sub-prime lending crisis of the mid-2000’s for what it was…and bet against it. It’s a fascinating story of greed and mass self-delusion.
Boomerang details the ongoing fates of several countries–Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany, and eventually the U.S.A.–after the grim realities of the sub-prime lending crisis have set in. In many ways, and Lewis admits this, the book is made from the tailings of the research he did for The Big Short, but the story is dynamic and still changing (as well as a telling “before” and “after” picture). The ending is a bit hokey, but the trip getting there is worth it.
5. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World | Mark Kurlansky
Much like Sobel’s Longitude, Cod is a book about an incredibly important part of our history that has been buried in time and, frankly, lack of interest. Rather than a discovery, as in Longitude, however, Cod is about a commodity and how that item–the cod fish–changed the fortunes of countless Europeans and Americans over hundreds of years. The book also has a sobering message about our excesses and the impact people can have on an entire eco-system.
Kurlansky’s book Salt, almost certainly built upon the research for Cod, is also a fascinating read about something we all take for granted.
6. Perfect Storm | Sebastian Junger
Junger has had his critics for his near novelization of a factual account, but it’s hard to argue with the power that narrative has when describing hurricanes, fishing practices, and the lives that are brought together–or torn apart–by a “simple” weather pattern.
7. On Food and Cooking | Harold McGee
This is one of the few books I can pick up, allow it to fall open to any page, and start reading. McGee–obviously a passionate cook, historian, etymologist, and food scientist–tackles nearly any topic you can think about as relates to food or drink. In one chapter you might learn the earliest known references to man’s use of honey; in another, the differences between wine, beer, and liquor. How is sugar made? What part of the cashew is poisonous? Why does meat get tough?
Even if you’re not a cook, you probably eat. This book should be beside your plate at the next meal.
8. Botany of Desire | Michael Pollan
I’m embarrassed to say that, although I’ve known for years about Michael Pollan (who hasn’t heard of Omnivore’s Dilemma?), I first encountered his writing through television. The PBS documentary based on Pollan’s Botany of Desire is a lush, engaging 2-hour program faithful to the book (it includes many mini interviews and asides with Pollan) that kept me spellbound when it was aired. There was nothing for me to do but run out and grab a copy of the book.
It was worth it. Botany’ traces man’s obsession with four natural products–apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana–and poses the fascinating thesis that these fruits, vegetables, and flowers have been using us instead of the other way around. The book is written in tight, entertaining prose; the pages fly by while your brain fills up with facts, figures, and anecdotes. Food science was never so interesting!
Pollan is also a dynamic and entertaining speaker. Carve out some time to see him if he’s speaking near you.
9. A Short History of Nearly Everything | Bill Bryson
Bryson could write about car trouble and make it funny, engaging, accessible, and informative. Give him a topic like the history of science (and the world) and you’ve got a five-hundred page book that will have you laughing out loud and learning more than all of your high school and college science classes combined. A Short History illustrates the best of non-fiction: instructive, entertaining, thought-provoking. If only all my classbooks had been like this one…
There’s a great children’s version of this book, as well: A Really Short History of Nearly Everything.
10. In Patagonia | Bruce Chatwin
Like Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm, many readers have questioned whether In Patagonia is more fiction than fact. There’s certainly a healthy dose of personal story-telling by Chatwin and he was known for enhancing details when the facts weren’t enough to entertain. As a novel, however, it would fail miserably; it is in places disjointed, plotless, without characters besides Chatwin and a large cast of minor faces.
So, I’ll go with non-fiction. I can tell you from experience that his descriptions of the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, as dreamlike and unlikely as they seem in places, are accurate. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction; Chatwin not only recognized that in Patagonia, he used it to create probably the most enduring outsider’s portrait of a land and people.