Observer 100 best nonfiction books

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Observer 100 best nonfiction books

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feb 2, 2016, 5:46pm

The Guardian / Observer likes doing booklists from time to time. {For non-UK members, the Guardian (est. 1821), published Monday-Saturday, and the Observer (est. 1791), published on Sundays, merged in 1993. "The paper's readership is generally on the mainstream left of British political opinion" (Wikipedia)}. Recent lists have included the Guardian 1000,, the Guardian essential library,, and my favourite at the time, Lucy Mangan's A book lover's guide to building a brilliant children's library,

They have now decided to revisit the Guardian 100 greatest non-fiction, (c.2011?), with the Observer's 100 best nonfiction books of all time. Three rules: (i) only books originally written in English; (ii) only one book per author; (iii) the books will be presented in reverse chronological order.


No. 1. The sixth extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert,

The below the line discussion threads of the two articles have probably already suggested several thousand titles for the remaining 99 slots.

feb 2, 2016, 6:05pm

Thanks for highlighting this.

I can't understand the merit of the self-imposed limitation to (i) only books originally written in English. The previous lists suffered from too many recent books/bestsellers that later failed to become classics. A cut-off date of, say, 2000 would have reduced the friends and family bonus.

feb 7, 2016, 1:34pm

No. 2. The year of magical thinking, by Joan Didion (2005).

Love and death are the themes of the great novels, but the emotion that links love and death - grief - is more often the stuff of memoir. The result is a classic of mourning that's also the apotheosis of baby-boomer reportage.

Detached, clear and precise, Didion narrates a year that began when her husand, the writer Gregory Dunne, collapsed from a fatal heart attack in the couple's New York apartment on the evening of 30 December 2003. ("You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.")

URL to come, when it's published online

Okay, I'm officially impressed. I don't know anything about this book other than what I've read - pretty much universally positive - but like >2 jcbrunner: I half expected a slew of recent titles. But with one leap, Robert McCrum is most of the way back to the twentieth century. He's already skipped a few of my personal candidates:

James E. Hansen, Storms of my grandchildren (2009).
Josephine Marchant, Decoding the heavens : solving the mystery of the world's first computer (2008). The mere idea of the 'Antikythera mechanism' (prob. 2nd cent. BC) is gob-smacking.
Richard Holmes, The age of wonder : how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science (2008).

He's also skipped Richard Dawkins, The god delusion (2006). A much discussed book, but I'd prefer to save Dawkins for The selfish gene (1976) or The blind watchmaker (1986).

And he's rapidly bearing down on several others I fancy:
Bill Bryson, A short history of nearly everything (2003).
Jared Diamond, Guns, germs and steel : a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (1997).
Richard A. Fortey, Life : an unauthorised biography : a natural history of the first four thousand million years of life on earth (1997).
Dava Sobel, Longitude : the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time (1995).

I'm also beginning to wonder, two books in, whether non-fiction isn't too big a field to be make sense. Fiction and non-fiction aren't two sides of the same coin. The coin is more likely to be a die, with fiction as one face, and history, biography, popular science and natural history among the other faces.

feb 8, 2016, 10:55am

>3 Cynfelyn: "Fiction and non-fiction aren't two sides of the same coin. The coin is more likely to be a die, with fiction as one face, and history, biography, popular science and natural history among the other faces."

I like that!

aug 26, 2016, 8:43am

I am lucky to read english, french and dutch non-fiction books without many problems so it is much easier to expand my knowledge because not all books have been written or translated into english