Top 5 Non-Fiction Books

Last week, I invited Top Five requests (I’d still
take them — it’s ridiculously slow at work. Should I be saying that?),
and said: Five top books, please. Break it
into fiction and non-fiction, since they’re apples and
oranges.

So, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking. Five Top Books, fiction and
non-fiction. This changes often, so these are going to be books that I
love with elements of “I feel like re-reading them again soon” thrown
in, because I can’t really escape from that. And I’ll annotate,
because… Well, because I can.

Top Five Non-Fiction

First, a note on my reading of Non-Fiction books. Usually every summer,
I get on to a non-fic kick. I can’t explain it. Last summer I went
through a political reading fit (Woodward’s Bush books, The Rise of
the
Vulcans
, the horribly depressing Richard Clarke book, etc.), and
this
year I’ve had a tumble through a number of other non-fic books. I
almost always
go right from one non-fiction book to another, and I try to keep the
string going for as long as I can. It’s like how they’ve discovered
that Nielsen families watch more PBS than other families; I do it
because I feel like I should be reading more non-fiction, and when I’m
finding it enjoyable, then I try to keep going with it.

But my criteria for nonfiction is almost the same as it would be for a
good fiction book. I expect to learn something from both. I expect a
good story. I don’t think being non-fiction should excuse dry prose.
If I wanted that, I’d read a textbook.

So, I’ll go with these five:

  1. All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob
    Woodward. I have read this book once a year since I first bought a
    beat-up used paperback copy sometime early in college. I always put it
    down with the same feelings: what will happen next? How did they know
    to ask this or that? And, of course, could I ever do that? It’s not
    just a fascinating look at the media and the Nixon/Watergate affair, but
    it’s a really interesting study as a piece of writing, because the two
    men had to put their opinions and their own memories together into one
    piece, written in third person. It manages to have a consistent voice
    despite their varied personalities, though bits of quibbling come
    through. Every time I read it I want to throw away everything else I’m
    working on or at and go sit in front of a state capital somewhere.
  2. President Kennedy: Profile of Power by
    Richard Reeves. This was my John F. Kennedy Bible during the tender
    year or two where I read everything I could get my hands on about his
    presidency. I like several things about this book. In general, I think
    it’s as good a book as any as a chronicle of a certain slice in time.
    It reads a little bit like Forrest Gump, in that the flash points
    of the few years it covers all manage to be related back to the main man
    (Kennedy). You wouldn’t think that’d be so unusual for a book on a
    president, but… This one does it well. I used this book as a
    reference, for instance, when some friends and I were doing a high
    school project where we needed to have certain early-60s happenings
    explained. A specific thing that I liked about this book was its
    attention to Kennedy’s life, and particularly to his brief presidency.
    The book ends with his death — no conspiracy theories, no flowery
    “grieving nation” prose. The best part of that is that it allows the
    book to be honest about Kennedy — to say tough things, to let things
    remain unfinished, to breed uncertainty about the character and ideology
    of a man who’s been, somehow, canonized. A really good biography, with
    excellent sources.
  3. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. This may seem like a cliched
    choice, but I can’t help it. I thought the book was just that good. It
    reminded me of the romance that real life can hold. It was a story that
    was made better by staying so close to the truth. I first heard of this
    book in a Washington Post magazine article about Hillenbrand, who
    suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had spent years and years
    researching and writing the book (after spending significant time
    writing an article about Seabiscuit). I couldn’t put the book down when
    I read it the first time; it was like being back in grade school and
    getting a really good book for Christmas, one where the people are so
    real and so likable and interesting that you don’t want the book to end,
    you don’t want to let them get away. And this time, the people and the
    situations were real! I think she did a great job of compiling details
    that were beyond the scope of the original project, so that this book —
    like Profile of Power — serves as a chronicle of a time just as
    much as a story. But oh, what a story!

  4. Essays of E.B. White by, well, E.B.
    White. I know I’ve spoken about this book at length in the past, while
    I was reading it for class, but I really would rank it among the best
    non-fiction that I’ve read. White has an intriguing grasp of time and
    an instinctive way of writing that make these essays just flow and soar.
    They can be read for fun, as magazine filler pieces, or they can be dug
    into like a big work of literature. Artfully layered and ultimately
    inspiring.
  5. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and
    Other Battles
    by Anthony Swofford. This gets the Contemporary
    Award, because it’s probably only making the list right now because I
    read it so recently. But it gave me a whole different outlook on war
    and combat, and the way the book was written was extremely effective:
    choppy, short waves of memory, all of it artful and, therefore, highly
    unreliable, but still knowledgeable and with a ring of truth. It was
    cool and heartbreaking and gross and hot and weird and just really,
    really well done.

And that’s my five non-fiction, and it’s time to rock on home.

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10 Responses to Top 5 Non-Fiction Books

  1. tmseay says:

    Oh, thank you! I’m always looking for good nonfiction to read, and several of these have just been added to the list.

  2. next_bold_move says:

    I know I need to read All the President’s Men before you decide you don’t want to be my friend anymore, and the E.B. White book looks like something I should read….

    I think I’ll do this list, too. But tomorrow.

  3. next_bold_move says:

    Thomas, have you read any Diane Ackerman?

  4. tmseay says:

    Nope, none.

  5. therealjae says:

    Wow. I actually think I probably read more non-fiction than you do (I read about 50% non-fiction, 50% fiction), and yet I’ve never read any of them. They sound marvelous.

    -J

  6. next_bold_move says:

    She’s a poet by trade, and if I recall correctly, she teaches at Cornell.

    More than a decade ago, she wrote two non-fiction books, one called A Natural History of the Senses, which I have, and the other, A Natural History of Love, which I have owned twice but always disappears on me.

    At any rate, I think the local library has them, and they are just beautifully written, like a cross between non-fiction and poetry.

  7. kepkanation says:

    Obviously, I highly recommend them all, heh.

    I’m always looking for good nonfiction to read

    As am I! My list is ever-expanding, but I think that nonfiction, perhaps even more than fiction, requires me to be “in the mood” for a certain topic or style of writing. So I never know what I’ll be reading next.

  8. kepkanation says:

    If you can forgive the number of movies I haven’t seen, I can forgive All The President’s Men. But not for long, heh heh.

  9. kepkanation says:

    Obviously I enjoyed them all. I think a lot of my interest in writing about politics actually comes from the Richard Reeve book on Kennedy. It was a fascinating study.

  10. simplelyric says:

    I think there are only a few nonfiction books that have really stuck with me. I have one in particular (among many books) from the library right now, Major Conflict: One Gay Man’s Life in the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Military , that seems well-written and promises to be interesting, although I can’t yet speculate on how affecting or memorable it will be.

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