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20 Nonfiction Books You Should Read

June 14, 2013

I’ve been meaning to develop a list of nonfiction for the well-rounded reader (to match my long list of fiction), since I read a good deal of nonfiction. After all, lots of notable institutions have created nonfiction lists: the Modern Library, the National Review, and my personal favorite, the Guardian. But I’m feeling a little lazy and decided to simply name 20 that I’ve read and would highly recommend to any curious reader.

In no particular order—well, it’s sort of in reverse order of my reading them—here are 20 nonfiction books you should consider reading:

1. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt’s writing is excellent and the story is really compelling. Click the link to learn more about it.

2. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

Admittedly, I read an abridged version, but Gibbon’s massive work is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in antiquity. And all those gaps in my understanding of ancient Rome finally filled in!

3. The History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani

An excellent book for understanding the Middle East and its people.

4. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

I love Pollan’s book, and this one was my favorite because of Joel Salatin. My second favorite by Pollan is The Botany of Desire.

5. The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk

Not many journalists working in the world nowadays share Fisk’s passion for truth. He doesn’t flinch from telling it, even when it reflects badly on him or his country.

6. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown

I read this one years ago, and it greatly informed my opinions on the fates of Native Americans.

7. A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

This book changed my life. Really. I would have remained a middle-of-the-road, ostrich-in-the-sand Democrat if I hadn’t read this.

8. Vietnam, by Stanley Karnow

For a couple years in my 20s I was utterly fascinated by the Vietnam War (even though it had ended by then), and this is the volume that started it.

9. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan

Another great book about the Vietnam War.

10. You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

In a previous life I was a web geek, and Lanier’s book supports my feeling that our society gives way too much power to its technology. Plus that, Lanier is a creative genius and poses questions and ideas that intrigue.

11. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King

Some day I’m going to travel to Florence, God willing, and see this amazing structure. Read Ross King’s book and you’ll learn why it’s so amazing.

12. How Fiction Works, by James Wood

Wood is my all-time favorite literary critic, mostly because he writes really well and can explain why a piece of literature is good without all the inane and crazy language that so many other critics use.

13. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer

This book does an excellent job of articulating why virtually every politician in the United States wilts under pressure from the Israel lobby. And it’s all documented to the nth degree.

14. Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

I read this book and vowed I’d never eat at McDonald’s again. You may, too.

15. Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

Like fantasy novels? Campbell will help you understand why you do, what you’re looking for when you read them.

16. Don’t Make Me Think: A Commonsense Approach to Web Usability, by Steve Krug

The best book I know of for understanding how to think about the Web.

17. Histories, by Herodotus

A must read for anyone who likes history.

18. Once More around the Park, by Roger Angell

I don’t think he writes very often anymore, but Angell’s columns in The New Yorker sent me off to read more. This collection of his baseball columns over the years is a treasure trove of great sports writing.

19. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose

Ambrose is one of those historians who know how to write engagingly while telling a great story. I loved this one so much that my daughter got really tired of hearing me tell her about the Corps of Discovery sites on our train trip across the country.

20. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

I read this a long time ago and don’t remember a lot about it (not a very good endorsement, I guess!), but I do remember loving the book and Dillard’s writing. It’s quite evocative of an American life that’s long gone but certainly worth reading about.

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