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
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
Vulcans, the horribly depressing Richard Clarke book, etc.), and
year I’ve had a tumble through a number of other non-fic books. I
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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!
- 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
- 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.