What Are Your Favorite Non-Fiction Books?

A few days ago, The Guardian published its list of the 100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books of all time. The collection spans biography, art, philosophy, history and several other hefty categories, and, for the most part, there’s not much for anyone seeking light summer reading, unless you’re the sort who regularly brings Kant, Hume, Herodotus, and Pepys down to the seaside. (Note: The Guardian published Friday The Best Holiday Reads, which goes heavy on vacation-worthy fiction.)

Inspired by the Guardian project, The New York Times turned to its staff and put together a list of their own favorite non-fiction books. Some of their choices are what you’d expect (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Joan Didion’s The White Album, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball), and a few others both surprised and delighted us (Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain). But we still found the list vaguely incomplete.

So now, dear readers, we turn to you.

Several years ago we asked you to tell us about the books that changed your life, and you delivered. (Your first choice by a wide margin was George Orwell’s 1984.) This time around, we want to hear your favorite non-fiction books, and we’ll both post your choices and — of course — let you know if they’re available for free online.

We’ll kick it off with a few personal favorites:

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman. A delightful reminiscence by a recovering graduate student, in which she treats, among other things, Russian novelists, doomed love affairs, academic conferences, Turkic poetry, and mostly, the pleasures and perils of loving books just a little bit too much.

The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by David Halberstam and Glenn Stout. You don’t even need to know or care about sports, because like all great literature, these essays aren’t really just about what they’re about. The subject may be sports, but the stories are America.

Your turn! Feel free to add your favorites to the comments section below…

Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.


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  1. JJ says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 1:20 am

    Christi-Anarchy by Dave Andrews

  2. Paulina says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 1:30 am

    The ‘Wisdom of Whores’ by Elisabeth Pisani is definitely one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

  3. Benjamin Woods says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:52 am

    “The Theatre and It’s Double” by Antonin Artaud is one I frequently return to…

  4. David Williams says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 4:18 am

    Head On / Repossessed by Julian Cope.

  5. Valts says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 4:56 am

    “Out of our Minds” Sir Ken Robinson. As well as “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder

  6. Mikey says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:10 am

    “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” by Wade Davis.

  7. Larry Hancock says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:16 am

    “Hamlet’s Mill,” by Santillana & Dechend.

  8. b., from afar, says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:20 am

    Like every top ten I try to make, where I end with fifty items, I hardly can name juste one. I’ll keep the list to three… but I may change tomorrow !
    «Les mots et les choses» (The order of things), Michel Foucault
    «La Société du spectacle», and «Commentaires sur la société du spectacle» (Society of the spectacle, and Comments on…), by Guy Debord
    «On war», by Clausewitz

    and… Oh, no, three. Okay.

  9. Wade Franklin says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:24 am

    “The Immense Journey” by Loren Eiseley.
    “Up in the Old Hotel” by Joseph Mitchell.

  10. hoagy kartoffel says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:43 am

    1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
    2. The Times Atlas Mid-Century Edition

  11. James Corologos says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:44 am

    “Man’s Search for Meaning” by V. Frankel changed my philosophy of perception way back in undergraduate classes and continued throughout graduate school and beyond.

  12. Just Looking says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:58 am

    1. Demon Haunted World

    2. Everyone Makes Mistakes (Except for me)

  13. Rick Subber says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 6:16 am

    “The Big Sort” by Bill Bishop…clustering is a bad thing for America

  14. Jason Blum says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 6:57 am

    Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained

    and

    Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype

  15. Natalie says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 7:00 am

    Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx is well researched, brilliantly written and very funny.

  16. Andrew says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 7:28 am

    If I can only name on, it would be Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.

  17. Toyin says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 8:10 am

    “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham

  18. Diana says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 8:48 am

    “Reading Lolita In Tehran” ignited my passion for classic literature.

  19. Scarlett Hepworth says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 9:49 am

    “Cry of the Kalahari” is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books, written by wildlife researchers Delia and Mark Owens. The book was supposed to be about lions, mostly, but ended up being also about hyenas and weather, and politics and human beings. Lovely, compelling reading.

  20. Ellen says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 9:59 am

    Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  21. Andres says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 10:04 am

    Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is one of my favourite books.

  22. catherine matson says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 10:08 am

    newjack. by ted conover

  23. Dale Mathews says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 10:10 am

    I’ll be surprised if you get another recommendation for this one – “The Black Jacobins” by the Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James. However, I am currently enthralled by Yaroslav Trofimov’s “The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine”. Sometimes reality trumps any fictional thriller.

  24. Jan says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 11:15 am

    “Packing for Mars,” by Mary Roach (light)

    “Postwar,” by Tony Judt (heavy)

    Almost anything by John McPhee, e.g., “Coming into the Country”, “The Control of Nature,” “La Place de la Concorde Suisse,”

  25. Miguel Ferreira says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 11:19 am

    “Other Inquisitions” from Jorge Luis Borges (“Otras Inquisiciones” in the original spanish)

  26. Noel Donnellon says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 11:25 am

    “Shake Hands With The Devil” by Romeo Dallaire

  27. Robin says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 11:59 am

    “What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng” by Dave Eggers. It is not wholly non-fictional, but close enough.

  28. Mike says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 12:28 pm

    Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

    A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

    Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

    And even though Joan Didion’s The White Album was mentioned, it would be a crime not to include Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

  29. Tim says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 12:53 pm

    Kon Tiki by Thor Hyerdhal, Lost Civilizations of the Pacific by David Hatcher Childress, and Te Maiharoa by Buddy Mikaere are my 3 favourite

  30. Fitch Burger says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 1:07 pm

    “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, by Joseph Campbell argues and illustrates how the archetypal hero tale spans all human times and cultures. I’ve found remnants in most “coming of age” books and movies too!

  31. Fitch Burger says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 1:10 pm

    How could Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” not be in the list?

  32. Sean says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:11 pm

    How about “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Albert Lansing? It’s an incredible tale told very capably. As for something more recent, I was quite partial to “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean.

  33. Amy Alkon says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:17 pm

    Dr. Barbara Oakley’s “Cold-Blooded Kindness,” which combines rigorous reporting, a true-crime story, some of the clearest science writing I’ve ever read, and the very interesting idea of “pathological altruism” — how nefarious people use our best traits (like compassion) to manipulate us to do things we’d otherwise never do.

  34. Maxwell Despard says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:37 pm

    ‘Villains of All Nations’ by Marcus Rediker

  35. Lisa G. says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:41 pm

    Anything by Bill Bryson!

  36. TeachThought says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:43 pm

    “The Way of Ignorance” by Wendell Berry. Any non-fiction by Berry, for that matter.

  37. Michelle Knight says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:44 pm

    “Tigana” by Guy Graviel Kay. Just an amazing fantasy novel.

  38. Spud Darling says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:46 pm

    ‘Philosophical Investigations’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein

  39. Darren says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 2:49 pm

    “Take Me With You” by Brad Newsham filled me we with love for humanity.

    And “My Young Years” by Arthur Rubinstein is a beautifully written autobiography about what it was like to be the early 20th century classical music version of a rock star.

  40. Patricia says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 3:02 pm

    “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder

  41. Sam says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 3:06 pm

    “Satchmo Blows Up The World …
    Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War”
    by Penny M. von Eschen
    Harvard University Press, 2004,
    ISBN: 0-674-01501-0
    Vivid documentation of the ways jazz musicians proofed to be good ambassadors – just not the way they were intended to be…

  42. Sue Anne Brown says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 3:55 pm

    Christopher Buckley’s “Losing Mum and Pop”

  43. Christopher Albertyn says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 5:43 pm

    “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”, Barrington Moore Jr.
    “A Theory of Justice”, John Rawls
    “A History of the English Speaking Peoples”, Winston Churchill
    “The Fatal Shore”, Robert Hughes

  44. patricia smith lopez says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 7:03 pm

    Bill Bryson “Into the Woods”
    Jon Krakauer Anything
    Thomas Merton “The Seven Storey Mountain”
    ??? “Longitude”
    ??? “Nothing,..and So Be It”

  45. DF says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 7:10 pm

    Second Elif Batuman’s The Possessed! And Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Powerful and moving stuff.

  46. Devika says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 9:42 pm

    Heroes of History – Will Durant
    Bound Together – Nayan Chanda

  47. Lulu says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 9:54 pm

    -Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell
    -The Tao of the Tao Te Ching by Michael Lafargue.

  48. john says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 10:35 pm

    The Rebel, by Camus.
    Fear and Loathing… in Las Vegas
    … on the Campaign Trail,
    by Hunter S. Thompson

  49. Suzanna Hicks says . . . | June 20, 2011 / 11:44 pm

    I Will Bear Witness – 2-volume diary set of Victor Klemperer

  50. Lipo says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 12:36 am

    I having two familiar fiction books which are mine favorite all the time. They are “The 4-hour workweek by Timothy Ferriss , Don’t sweat the small stuff by Richard Carlson. I have read couple of times. Now i am thinking to bring new unique and insuperable fiction books as soon.

  51. Pete says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 4:23 am

    “The Selfish Gene” – Richard Dawkins

  52. Jeremy Corbally-Hammond says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 5:16 am

    NonZero by Robert Wright
    Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

  53. Stacey says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 8:10 am

    “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington.

  54. Martin Newhouse says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 8:11 am

    “The Unredeemed Captive,” by John Demos.

  55. Sheerly Avni says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 8:27 am

    Great responses! Thanks everyone, we’ll put this all together and post it soon.

    Sheerly

  56. Sam says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 11:45 am

    Another for “Into the Woods” by Bill Bryson.

    Also, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.

  57. Joshua says . . . | June 21, 2011 / 10:31 pm

    One modern one I enjoyed was The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.

  58. leith says . . . | June 22, 2011 / 1:30 am

    Naples ’44 or Voices of the Old Sea – Norman Lewis

  59. tyler fenn says . . . | June 22, 2011 / 12:13 pm

    Godel,Escher,Bach.

  60. Jim says . . . | June 22, 2011 / 6:27 pm

    Walden, Henry David Thoreau
    Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb

  61. Jim says . . . | June 22, 2011 / 6:30 pm

    One more…The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

  62. R. Jeffrey Krause says . . . | June 23, 2011 / 1:41 pm

    “The Second Law” by P. W. Atkins is the best book I have read so far explaining why things happen.

  63. R. Jeffrey Krause says . . . | June 23, 2011 / 1:46 pm

    “Language in Thought and Action” by S. I. Hayakawa convincingly explores how language models reality.

  64. Jan Hunter says . . . | June 23, 2011 / 3:16 pm

    Care Of The Soul by Thomas Moore
    The Wedding Basket by Lynn Andrews

  65. Iggy Iggins says . . . | June 23, 2011 / 3:23 pm

    Extraordinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds – Charles Mackay

    The Faber Book of Reportage – (ed) John Carey

    Uncommon Therapy – Jay Haley

    The Myth of the Chemical Cure – Joanna Moncrieff

    Power – Bertrand Russell

  66. Jim Byrd says . . . | June 26, 2011 / 2:02 pm

    I would recommend Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” to make a top 100 best non-fiction list. After all the misinformation surrounding this author, and now, much having been put to rest, his Gay Science is a great work, being philosophical as well as poetic and addresses nearly every one of his major ideas in this one volume.

  67. Caitlin says . . . | June 26, 2011 / 7:12 pm

    “The Tree” by Colin Tudge.

  68. Eddie says . . . | December 22, 2011 / 4:50 am

    Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” I read it when I was a young man trying to navigate the conflicting demands of spiritual life and service to society (I.e.: military conscription Vietnam War). Tolstoy illuminated for me the uncompromising message of the teachings of Jesus.

  69. Kat says . . . | January 9, 2012 / 9:50 pm

    Betcha ya cant put this book down!

    A new nonfiction book “Greasy Village” @ Amazon.com

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