Saturday, January 13, 2018
The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace (Routledge Studies in Intervention and Statebuilding) 1st Edition by Mandy Turner (Editor), Florian P. Kühn (Editor) (Rouledge)
Mandy Turner and Florian P. Kuhn’s The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace(Routledge, 2016) is a brilliantly collated edited volume that brings together invaluable scholarly insights on intervention and peace. The book achieves the difficult task of combining rich critiques of the practices of peacebuilding with sound analyses on the conceptual underpinnings of liberal peace.
The Politics of International Intervention goes to the heart of a puzzling question: despite being so normatively desirable, why does the quest for peace lead to instability and violence? The book challenges associating such outcomes with social, political and economic structures or identity-politics in local contexts. Moreover, it goes beyond a simple engagement with the different sides of the debate on liberal peace and understands this phenomenon through a historical and conceptual analysis.
Chinese Engineers Join Peacekeeping Force in Darfur, © United Nations Photos, 2008.
In doing this, the book adopts a wide definition of intervention that includes military involvement as well as sanctions, diplomatic or financial support for local elites and aid policies. The points made in the book on the importance of understanding the different ways in which societies respond to intervention and the complexity of the local-international interactions makes this wider conception of intervention convincing. Furthermore, the book’s analysis of the experiences of the intervention from the perspective of the intervened makes it a particularly valuable contribution to the field. In this context, the book claims to develop a ‘sociological’ understanding of peace and intervention. This branding is slightly confusing as the book heavily focuses on the political/normative aspects of intervention and how these are shaped by the expansion of liberal capitalism and Western security. Of course social phenomena are relevant to such processes, but that does not necessarily render the analysis sociological, in its disciplinary meaning. Therefore, the use of this concept ‘sociological’ begs for some clarification.
The Politics of International Intervention has a two-line argument and all the contributors consistently engage with this argument. First, intervention is the pursuit of the expansion and protection of liberal capitalism, its social relations and institutions. It aims to ‘police differences’ globally. Second, intervention is inherent in the Western-dominated international system. The chapters in the book explore different forms of global ‘policing of differences’ and how this policy affects different local contexts.
The first part of the book, composed of five chapters, elaborates on the contradictions within the concept and practice of liberal peace. Philip Cunliffe offers a historical perspective. He argues that peacekeeping (with normatively positive narrative) today and imperialism (a normatively negative one) in the past have both aimed at generating a single political order based on liberal government and market-capitalist society. Florian P. Kuhn draws attention to how the policy of peace, despite its peaceful narrative, disguises aggressive politics that aim to preserve existing security of the liberal capitalist core. Scott Kirsch and Colin Flint highlight the contradictions between the concept and practice of peace by showing how capital accumulation, state formation and militarisation based on Western principles in post-conflict reconstruction reinforce dynamics that emerge during conflict.
The first part of the book also offers two analyses that emphasise normative contradictions in peacebuilding policies. Michael Pugh highlights the exclusionary principles and practices of the political economy of peacebuilding that contradict the supposed values of tolerance in liberalism. From a gender norms perspective, Heidi Hudson argues that liberal peacebuilding victimises local women that need saving, and this actually leads to exclusionary outcomes.
The second part of the book focuses on experiences of intervention in the 2010s. While some authors in this part emphasise the liberal economic dimensions, others focus on both political and economic dimensions. Caroline Hughes explains how the UN mission in Cambodia re-integrated the country in the ‘regional capitalist economy’ through connecting local authoritarian elite with Western donors. Mandy Turner argues that Western aid and donor policies in the occupied Palestinian territory prioritised security and stability over economic development, human rights and democracy, which led to colonisation and fragmentation in the occupied territory. Bruno Charbonneau and Jonathan Sears explain French intervention in Mali as an example of peace-enforcement and neoliberal governance that lead to socio-economic splits in the society. Bruno Charbonneau, in another chapter, shows how the violence exercised in peace operations in Cote d’Ivoire was utilised by local elites, raising questions about divisions between ‘local’ and ‘international’.
Astri Suhrke points to the contradictions of intervention in Afghanistan where the interventionists carried out war and peacebuilding at the same time. They also tried to simultaneously generate an aid-dependent rentier state and a democracy that is accountable. Toby Dodge explains how the Western conception of ‘enemy image’, loaded with racist and Orientalist assumptions, shaped the policies of the US-led Coalition during the intervention of Iraq. Such a conception led to the mistake of complete exclusion and repression of Iraq’s old ruling elite and Sunni communities, which in turn played a key role in the ensuing civil war. Nicolas Pelham points to another mistake by interventionists, this time in Libya. Having learnt lessons from Iraq, the National Transitional Council integrated the ‘old guard’ but alienated those who led the rebellion against Qaddafi’s regime. In the case of Syria, Chris Phillips argues that despite the Western powers’ anti-interventionist rhetoric, regional and international actors intervened in the civil war through diplomatic protection, financing, and providing weapons and fighters. This implies again the necessity of applying a more inclusive definition of intervention.
The Politics of International Intervention is a thought-provoking and illuminating book. By incorporating different conceptual, theoretical and empirical lenses, and doing so in a coherent way, the book offers a rare opportunity to think about intervention through these lenses all at the same time. Moreover, reading the book, you find yourself witnessing deep discussions and thinking processes (which makes it a rather fascinating read) that led to this important contribution to the study of international intervention and peace.
Citizenship in Transition: New Perspectives on Transnational Migration from the Middle East to Europe Hardcover – Unabridged, October 11, 2013 by Francis Owtram (Author, Editor), Annemarie Profanter (Editor) (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
As Europe is struggling with an unprecedented wave of refugees, especially from the Middle East, Citizenship in Transition: New Perspectives on Transnational Migration from the Middle East to Europe is a timely book. The implications of this migration for the concept of citizenship are the main motif holding the different contributions together. The volume, edited by Annemarie Profanter and Francis Owtram, is divided into three sections addressing this topic from different perspectives.
The section on Citizenship, Modernity and Cultural Identity starts with an overview by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of the structural problems of the Middle East. He identifies these problems, specifically the deficits in the education system, as push factors for migration to Europe. Nigel M. Greaves uses Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony (i.e. the interests of particular groups masquerading as being good for society as a whole) in juxtaposing the ideology of European liberalism with that of Islamic faith. In contrast, Annemarie Profanter questions the concept of a homogenous ‘Europe’ and the accompanying call for a ‘European Islam’.
The following three articles fall under the heading of Citizenship, Education and Law. Christine Difato shows how the educational policies of the UK and Germany were shaped by the contradictory principles of human rights, economic efficiency and social cohesion, thereby leading to less than perfect outcomes for the education of migrant children. Necla Ozturk provides an in-depth comparison of the Turkish citizenship laws of 1964 and 2009, arguing that the latter, with all its shortcomings, is much better adapted to a globalised world. Sotirios S. Livas vividly illustrates the depressing living conditions of Afghans and Pakistanis in Greece, where they face unsympathetic bureaucracy and xenophobic outbursts.
The contributions to the third section entitled Citizenship and Second Generation Networks paint a somewhat more upbeat picture. Khawlah Ahmed’s microstudy on young women of Yemeni origins in the UK shows that integration into British society is well compatible with undiminished attachment to another country. Ulrika Mårtensson presents the encouraging results of a dialogic encounter between the Church and a leading Muslim organisation in a Norwegian city. Francesco Mazucotelli presents some immigrant organisations in Lombardy and their quest for societal integration, which is made more complicated by the localisation of Italian immigration policies.
All these articles are relevant to the overall citizenship topic of the volume. The traditional concept of citizenship is bound with that of the nation – a culturally homogenous community of equals, sharing rights and duties as citizens of one sovereign state. During the 19th and much of the 20th century, the citizenship issue revolved around the successful struggle of certain marginalised groups – namely workers, women and ethnic/religious minorities – to be recognised as full members of this community. Today, there is a new type of marginalised groups in the shape of immigrants with cultural roots that are often – as in the case of the Muslims – different from those of mainstream society. Ending this marginalisation through full societal integration might simply be effected through extending citizenship as understood traditionally to these migrants, i.e. in the same vein as the previous groups have become integrated into one, and only one, nation-state.
However, in their introduction, the editors Annemarie Profanter and Francis Owtram point towards a different option, that of transnational citizenship. This refers to a situation when migrants find their identity in, and direct their commitment to, both their host country and to their (or their parents’) country of origin. In other words, citizenship and its accompanying duties need not be restricted to one state only. This links with the more general concept of transnationalism within the academic discipline of International Relations. Instead of seeing international relations as the stage on which sovereign states cooperate with or rival each other, transnationalism stresses the relevance of actors and institutions transcending the borders of the nation-state.
Within this volume, the contributions of Profanter (against a purely European Islam), Ozturk (double citizenship in Turkey) and Ahmed (mixed British-Yemeni identities) come perhaps closest in envisaging such a transnational understanding of citizenship. Most of the other articles focus on factors that may either foster (Mårtensson on interfaith dialogue) or hinder (Difato on education, Livas on squalid living conditions, Mazucotelli on localisation of immigration policies) the successful integration of migrants, whether through traditional or transnational citizenship. This points to deficiencies within Europe, which principally could be rectified. However, somewhat more sobering perspectives are provided by the first two contributors: By implication, the deep-rooted problems of the Middle East as identified by Ulrichsen are unlikely to be solved by citizenship issues in Europe. Likewise, by pointing out the hypocritical and contradictory features of Europe’s liberal hegemonic ideology, Greaves’ article might drive to the conclusion that integration through citizenship is not as easy as one would like to think.
Naturally, reading this collected volume poses questions rather than provides answers. However, the articles contained therein provide a multitude of useful insights that may contribute to finding these answers. As current events show, the issue of Muslim migration into Europe will remain present for the foreseeable future. At a time when Europe’s policies towards migration appear to be rather helpless, hectic and uncoordinated, this well-researched and balanced book helps clarify some of the issues at stake and thus deserves a wide readership.
Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt (Cambridge Middle East Studies) Paperback by Pascal Menoret (Cambridge University Press) ,
While it is understandable that the title and blurb of this new book from Pascal Menoret should give pride of place to the eye-catching topic of joyriding in the Saudi capital, this framing perhaps risks underselling a work that is truly ambitious in scope. In fact, original analysis of the youth pastime of “drifting” emerges as only one of several contributions made by the book; this element being situated within a far broader and quite compelling account of how the kingdom was transformed in the second half of the twentieth century by integration into global markets, internal migration, state violence and urban expansion.
Following an introductory chapter establishing key themes and some preliminary history, the second chapter “traces the contours of the Saudi political realm” through an extended discussion of the twists and travails of ethnographic fieldwork in the shadow of “pervasive yet unpredictable repression” (p. 19). It is in the third and fourth chapters that Menoret really begins making inroads into the core subject matter. Drawing in part on research in the archives of the Greek city planner Constantinos A. Doxiadis, who drafted a 1971 master plan for Riyadh, he traces how a “high modernist” vision for the city was ultimately subverted by the capricious forces of the real estate market and royal patronage. These chapters offer a vivid story of the city’s growth in which official tropes of prosperity and development give way to displacement, segregation, conflict and chaotic suburban sprawl.
It is only in the fifth and sixth chapters that the joyriders of the book’s title really take centre stage. Here, Menoret considers how “young disenfranchised Saudis” reappropriated this new urban space “through their use, misuse, and abuse of cars” (p. 20). These chapters locate the history of drifting within the same dynamics of economic transformation and social dislocation that shaped modern Riyadh. They also consider the emergence of a distinctive drifting subculture, efforts to tackle the phenomenon by means of “moralization and repression” (p. 20), and its eventual criminalisation and politicisation.
In a book framed as an ethnography of joyriding, Chapter 6 is perhaps a little late to tell the reader that “in most cases, it was impossible to even chat with drifters” and that the author had only “few” such conversations; entirely understandable as this may be, given the underground nature of the pastime and Menoret’s own standing as an outsider tailed by the secret police. Nonetheless, Menoret derives a wealth of insights from the ethnography that he did succeed in undertaking with those operating both within and on the margins of the drifting subculture, presented in evocative vignettes and vibrant colloquial translations of his interlocutors’ own reflections. Furthermore, he draws on a raft of striking cultural artefacts, including songs, YouTube videos and online texts produced by and for joyriders, as well as press coverage and the output of criminologists, sociologists and preachers.
Having lived for four years in Riyadh, Menoret can claim to know Saudi Arabia better than many foreign researchers. Though the present work is the first book-length product of his doctoral and postdoctoral research, he had previously settled in the kingdom as a teacher in 2001 and published a book which would appear in English as The Saudi Enigma: A History in 2005. These several years spent in the country, combined with what are clearly very strong language skills, provide for the empirical richness and ability to give voice to Saudi youth culture which are defining features of Joyriding in Riyadh.
The author’s background presumably also contributes to his capacity to offer a nuanced and fundamentally human picture of life in the kingdom. Rather than trite invocations of a society riven by a fundamental contradiction between tradition and modernity, between the mosque and the mall, what emerges here is a far more subtle fabric of ambiguity, ambivalence and fluidity, of the kind that exists in all societies. We hear of a joyrider known for his drink driving who would halt his night-time revels long enough to attend mosque for dawn prayers before returning to the wheel; a youth subculture marked by homophobic insults, an aggressive and violent brand of masculinity, and seemingly quite open celebration of aestheticised “homosocial romance”; and drifters turned streetwise religious preachers who strive to save the souls of their former cohorts from roadside tents.
Another strength of the book is a real sense of intellectual integrity, including a willingness on the part of the author to be quite frank about his own understandably convoluted research trajectory and the limitations of his knowledge as an outside observer. Some readers may find extended meditations on the fieldwork process a distraction from the main arguments. However, these passages will certainly make interesting reading for anyone who has undertaken fieldwork in Saudi Arabia or who is considering doing so. More broadly, with their self-aware consideration of the place of a foreign researcher in a politically repressive environment, and sanguine reflections on the ways in which research projects may evolve productively through sequences of mishaps, setbacks and unexpected opportunities, they would be well worth the attention of any postgraduate student embarking for the first time on extended fieldwork in comparable circumstances.
If there is one question which feels unresolved in the book, it is the precise status of drifting as a political act or phenomenon. Early on, the author acknowledges the danger of giving in to the “romance of resistance”, the temptation “to end up naively interpreting youthful exuberance as subversive rebellion”; he promises to avoid presenting joyriding as “a fight for freedom” (pp. 16-18). Yet for all the nuances of Menoret’s analysis, there seems to be a persistent tension here – at least in tone – with the notion of “road revolt” invoked in the book’s title, with the idea of joyriders waging “a war on the state” (p. 198), and with the description of drifting as “a way of confronting the state in its most basic operations: managing public spaces, protecting private property, and enforcing the law” (p. 11). Certainly, the welcome note of caution early on in the book seems at odds with passages comparing drifting indirectly with the Occupy Wall Street protests (p. 163), or directly with the torching of stage coaches by “nineteenth century European revolutionaries” (p. 206).
In the final chapter, Menoret argues that drifting came to be politicised in three ways: firstly, it was “constructed by sociologists, criminologists, and preachers as a public issue”; secondly, “joyriders also identified the political value of their driving practices”, as “a revolt against state surveillance” and “a way to physically escape police repression”; and thirdly, joyriders exercised “an agency in their own right” and “actively criticized the production of space in Riyadh” (p. 177). But what are we to make of all this if, as he affirms, the “speed and mobility” of joyriding “ultimately pointed to a nowhere” (p. 205)? In that case, is there not perhaps reason to give more weight to the conclusion of the Saudi sociologist Salih al-Rumayh, as paraphrased by Menoret, that drifting in fact functions as “the opium of the downtrodden” (p. 196)? Menoret has much to say on these issues and his overarching reading of the drifting subculture as constituting a “plebeian public sphere” is valuable. At the same time, for this reader at least, there remains a sense of unresolved tensions implicit in these various angles on the political import of joyriding. Perhaps that is in keeping with a work which, as noted above, has the strength of acknowledging ambiguity in social life.
This is an insightful, important and unique book. It is extremely readable and will be accessible to students of all levels, as well as others inside and outside academia with an interest in the Gulf, urban history and politics, and gender and sexuality in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and the Path to Political Change: National Dialogue and Civil Society (Library of Modern Middle East Studies) y Mark Thompson Hardcover (I.B.Tauris)
Under domestic and international pressure, authoritarian monarchies in which citizens are completely disenfranchised, are often compelled to occasionally engage multiple domestic constituencies in dialogue. This is usually a response to specific terrorism threats, demands for reform, or internal sporadic mobilisation. Post 9/11 Saudi Arabia was on the brink of implosion from within. The country witnessed the worst terrorism crisis in its modern history as its major cities became the ground for suicide bombings targeting locals and foreigners, shoot outs between militants and security forces, and multiple voices calling for serious political reform. It did not help that its monarch King Fahd (d.2005) was incapacitated. Crown Prince Abdullah (d. 2015) had to step in and respond to the various immediate and long-term challenges. The book under review analyses one of the steps taken by Abdullah to save Saudi Arabia from sinking further into real crisis with multiple contributing causes.
Saudi Arabia and the Path to Political Changeaddresses one response to the mounting challenges that in addition to terrorism included increasing unemployment, the youth bulge, religious reform, gender equality and many other areas of concern that had remained unaddressed during the late stalemate years of King Fahd’s reign. Based on several years of working in Saudi Arabia, and conducting research between 2009-2011, Mark Thompson examines the National Dialogue Forum, initiated by King Abdullah Centre for National Dialogue KACND and its progress during those turbulent years that followed 9/11.
Thompson’s interlocutors who are used as a research focused group deny that the National Dialogue was initiated because there is a political crisis and insist that the initiative is unique because there is no conflict in the kingdom (p. 108). This statement, however, seems to reflect official narratives that often deny the presence of multiple challenges whether they are related to terrorism, unemployment or radical preachers. Thompson seems to accept it at face value although he must be aware of the numerous upheavals that swept Saudi Arabia between 2003-2008, a year before the commencement of his research. In fact, in Chapter 2, the author alludes to various Saudi debates, state and non-state actors who are engaged in conversation about the future of the country and the threats it faces as a result of awareness among professionals and elites that reform has become urgent.
The idea of reform remains ambiguous, illusive and hotly debated. According to Thompson, the question about it should move away from whether the Al-Saud leadership is serious about reform, to asking what the leadership understands and means by reform (p 45). A further question is also related to what multiple state actors mean by reform, with princes not admitting that it is urgent while others invoke it to mean development. Amidst this confusion, the National Dialogue was a state sponsored institutional initiative in which aspects of reform/development were discussed by carefully chosen professionals, bureaucrats, technocrats, religious scholars, academics and others designated by the state administrators as worth engaging in successive dialogues.
The book is a study of a new state institution that came to be known as King Abdullah Centre For National Dialogue (KACND). Chapter 1 and 2 are introductory, surveying previous scholarship on the history of the kingdom and identifying key actors. In chapter 2, there is an interesting discussion of tribalism, considered a way to forge a protective zone between the individual and the state in the absence of civil society (p. 52). Thompson argues that education and economic advantages have begun to undermine the salience of tribal affiliation, resulting in greater homogenisation and integration. Yet, further down the lines, an interviewee highlights that various military institutions remain tribal, with individuals using tribal affiliations to foster their individual and group interest. Later in this section, a female journalist affirms that ‘tribalism is getting stronger because the state has tolerated it for so long.’ (p.53). A third interviewee claims that southern tribes are taking over state institutions, thus pointing to the preeminence of one tribal group over others. The discussion of tribalism swiftly shifts to regionalism without resolving the debate about the salience or weaknesses of tribal affiliation. These short insights could have been developed further with Thompson inserting his own objective assessment of the question of tribalism. This could have been achieved with empirical evidence collected during fieldwork. Unfortunately, we are left with multiple statements and quotations volunteered by interviewees without a serious assessment of the empirical evidence in support of these statements.
Chapter 3 sketches the genesis of KACND, starting with the leadership recognising that it is time for the country to have a ‘culture of dialogue’, which seems odd given how new communication technology and new media in general have operated since the late 1990s to allow Saudis of all political persuasions to discuss their frustration at the stagnation of the political system and the stumbling of reform, regardless of how loosely it is defined. Nevertheless, the state endeavoured to teach Saudis and train them to engage with dialogue. Thompson explains the aim as stated in official documents as to consolidate national unity, foster a true image of Islam, solve problems, include multiple voices, and engage in dialogue with multiple establishments. He then discusses the eight forums that took place between 2008-10. The title of these conference meetings reflected the concerns of both the state and society at the time: national unity, extremism, women’s rights, youth issues, ourselves and the others, education, employment, and health. With time, the topics discussed moved away from ideological concerns to services, which focused on development of welfare such as education, employment and health. In addition to dialogue, Thompson examines the rationale behind government training programmes (chapter 4). Amongst many schemes, the government promoted empowerment and ambassador projects, both are meant to encourage young people to discuss ideas that generate jobs and enlist students studying abroad on government scholarships to improve the country’s image and that of Islam.
In subsequent chapters, Thompson traces the official narrative and the rationale behind various meetings and societal reactions to them over a long period of time. In chapter 8, he captures the debate that accompanied the meeting on the role of women in society and king Abdullah’s initiatives to empower them, especially in education and employment. The appointment of Norah Al Faiz as first Saudi female deputy minister of education (not minister as stated by Thompson on page 194) was a novelty that promised greater visibility and endorsement of women’s issues. But this appointment was short-lived as Al Faiz was relieved of her duties when Salman became king in 2015, thus casting doubt over previous reform initiatives that seem to have been either abandoned or reversed with the arrival of a new king to the throne. It would have been insightful had Thompson discussed the durability of these high profile appointments and initiatives and the prospect of them generating long term serious shifts in the practices of power in the kingdom.
Norah Al Faiz, seen here meeting UK Former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, was appointed as first Saudi female deputy minister of education (UK FCO, flickr.com)
The book’s conclusion argues that there are ample opportunities for bottom up influence and horizontal interventions into the leadership. According to Thompson, the KACND allowed the leadership to hear multiple voices. But acting on the policy recommendations of these voices is not straightforward as the recommendations of the dialogue forums are not binding to the leadership. They have the status of advise. It is regrettable that the book concludes by asserting that ‘there is more freedom in Saudi Arabia than even before and this is because there has been a convergence of forces that are transforming the whole system, linked to awareness by certain individuals in power, especially king Abdullah, of these forces.’ (p. 245). It is not clear what kind of freedom there is now after the dialogue forums. If the author means freedom of expression and assembly, there is certainly less freedom, given the number of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia and the various human right violations as documented by independent international organisations. Women are still under the guardianship system unable to work or leave the country without authorisation of their male relatives. They are also deprived of freedom of movement with the ban on driving still in place. Activists on social media face long prison sentences following any criticism of the performance of the top leadership, with the king and the princes remaining beyond criticism.
The book succeeds in documenting the euphoria that accompanied the new dialogue initiatives and the debates that they generated among multiple audiences that included enthusiasts, critics and skeptics. Some sections read as general praise for king Abdullah. Although the book is rich on documentation, it would have benefited from further analysis and above all a critical theoretical approach to the debate on civil society in authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia.
The book stands as a documentation exercise of the era of King Abdullah and his many initiatives that have attracted a lot of media attention but whose everlasting impact on state-society relations is yet to be explored. The book could have benefitted from further analysis of the role of top-down initiatives in societies where the central absolutist state monopolises initiatives and leaves little space for non-governmental institutions to flourish in ways that allow them to act as buffer zone between the individual, society and the state. In the absence of such independent and legal initiatives, Thompson’s book is a welcome addition to our understanding of how the Saudi state manages crisis, controls initiatives and manipulates results in ways that empowers it alone and reinforces the control of a handful of state institutions over society.
Thursday, January 11, 2018
After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, the Guardian has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing
1. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
An engrossing account of the looming catastrophe caused by ecology’s “neighbours from hell” – mankind.
2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
This steely and devastating examination of the author’s grief following the sudden death of her husband changed the nature of writing about bereavement.
3. No Logo by Naomi Klein (1999)
Naomi Klein’s timely anti-branding bible combined a fresh approach to corporate hegemony with potent reportage from the dark side of capitalism.
4. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)
These passionate, audacious poems addressed to Hughes’s late wife, Sylvia Plath, contribute to the couple’s mythology and are a landmark in English poetry.
5. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (1995)
This remarkably candid memoir revealed not only a literary talent, but a force that would change the face of US politics for ever.
6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
The theoretical physicist’s mega-selling account of the origins of the universe is a masterpiece of scientific inquiry that has influenced the minds of a generation.
7. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979)
Tom Wolfe raised reportage to dazzling new levels in his quest to discover what makes a man fly to the moon.
8. Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)
This polemical masterpiece challenging western attitudes to the east is as topical today as it was on publication.
9. Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)
A compelling sense of urgency and a unique voice make Herr’s Vietnam memoir the definitive account of war in our time.
10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)
An intoxicating renewal of evolutionary theory that coined the idea of the meme and paved the way for Professor Dawkins’s later, more polemical works.
11. North by Seamus Heaney (1975)
This raw, tender, unguarded collection transcends politics, reflecting Heaney’s desire to move “like a double agent among the big concepts”.
12. Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (1973)
Sacks’s moving account of how, as a doctor in the late 1960s, he revived patients who had been neurologically “frozen” by sleeping sickness reverberates to this day.
13. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)
The Australian feminist’s famous polemic remains a masterpiece of passionate free expression in which she challenges a woman’s role in society.
14. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom by Nik Cohn (1969)
This passionate account of how rock’n’roll changed the world was written with the wild energy of its subject matter.
15. The Double Helix by James D Watson (1968)
An astonishingly personal and accessible account of how Cambridge scientists Watson and Francis Crick unlocked the secrets of DNA and transformed our understanding of life.
16. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag (1966)
The American novelist’s early essays provide the quintessential commentary on the 1960s.
17. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)
The groundbreaking collection, revolving around the poet’s fascination with her own death, established Plath as one of the last century’s most original and gifted poets.
18. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)
The book that ignited second-wave feminism captured the frustration of a generation of middle-class American housewives by daring to ask: “Is this all?”
19. The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963)
This influential, painstakingly compiled masterpiece reads as an anatomy of pre-industrial Britain – and a description of the lost experience of the common man.
20. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
This classic of American advocacy sparked a nationwide outcry against the use of pesticides, inspired legislation that would endeavour to control pollution, and launched the modern environmental movement in the US.
21. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S Kuhn (1962)
The American physicist and philosopher of science coined the phrase “paradigm shift” in a book that is seen as a milestone in scientific theory.
22. A Grief Observed by CS Lewis (1961)
This powerful study of loss asks: “Where is God?” and explores the feeling of solitude and sense of betrayal that even non-believers will recognise.
23. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White (1959)
Dorothy Parker and Stephen King have both urged aspiring writers towards this crisp guide to the English language where brevity is key.
24. The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958)
An optimistic bestseller, in which JFK’s favoured economist promotes investment in both the public and private sectors.
25. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life by Richard Hoggart (1957)This influential cultural study of postwar Britain offers pertinent truths on mass communication and the interaction between ordinary people and the elites.
26. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955)
Baldwin’s landmark collection of essays explores, in telling language, what it means to be a black man in modern America.
27. The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art by Kenneth Clark (1956)
Clark’s survey of the nude from the Greeks to Picasso foreshadows the critic’s towering claims for humanity in his later seminal work, Civilisation.
28. The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin (1953)
The great historian of ideas starts with an animal parable and ends, via a dissection of Tolstoy’s work, in an existential system of thought.
29. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1952/53)
A bleakly hilarious, enigmatic watershed that changed the language of theatre and still sparks debate six decades on. An absurdist masterpiece.
30. A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (1950)
This landmark recipe book, a horrified reaction to postwar rationing, introduced cooks to the food of southern Europe and readers to the art of food writing.
31. The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (1948)
The controversial critic’s statement on English literature is an entertaining, often shocking, dissection of the novel, whose effects are still felt to this day.
32. The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper (1947)
The historian’s vivid, terrifying account of the Führer’s demise, based on his postwar work for British intelligence, remains unsurpassed.
33. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock (1946)
The groundbreaking manual urged parents to trust themselves, but was also accused of being the source of postwar “permissiveness”.
34. Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)
Hersey’s extraordinary, gripping book tells the personal stories of six people who endured the 1945 atom bomb attack.
35. The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (1945)
The Austrian-born philosopher’s postwar rallying cry for western liberal democracy was hugely influential in the 1960s.
36. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth by Richard Wright (1945)
This influential memoir of a rebellious southern boyhood vividly evokes the struggle for African American identity in the decades before civil rights.
37. How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (1942)
The American culinary icon was one of the first writers to use food as a cultural metaphor, describing the sensual pleasures of the table with elegance and passion.
38. Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly (1938)
Connolly’s dissection of the art of writing and the perils of the literary life transformed the contemporary English scene.
39. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)
Orwell’s unflinchingly honest account of three northern towns during the Great Depression was a milestone in the writer’s political development.
40. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937)
Much admired by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Byron’s dazzling, timeless account of a journey to Afghanistan is perhaps the greatest travel book of the 20th century.
41. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
The original self-help manual on American life – with its influence stretching from the Great Depression to Donald Trump – has a lot to answer for.
42. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
Brittain’s study of her experience of the first world war as a nurse and then victim of loss remains a powerful anti-war and feminist statement.
43. My Early Life: A Roving Commission by Winston Churchill (1930)
Churchill delights with candid tales of childhood and boy’s own adventures in the Boer war that made him a tabloid hero.
44. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)
Graves’s account of his experiences in the trenches of the first world war is a subversive tour de force.
45. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)
Woolf’s essay on women’s struggle for independence and creative opportunity is a landmark of feminist thought.
46. The Waste Land by TS Eliot (1922)
Eliot’s long poem, written in extremis, came to embody the spirit of the years following the first world war.
47. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919)
The American socialist’s romantic account of the Russian revolution is a masterpiece of reportage.
48. The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes (1919)
The great economist’s account of what went wrong at the Versailles conference after the first world war was polemical, passionate and prescient.
49. The American Language by HL Mencken (1919)
This declaration of linguistic independence by the renowned US journalist and commentator marked a crucial new chapter in American prose
50. Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (1918)
Strachey’s partisan, often inaccurate but brilliant demolitions of four great 19th-century Britons illustrates life in the Victorian period from different perspectives.
51. The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois (1903)
The great social activist’s collection of essays on the African American experience became a founding text of the civil rights movement.
52. De Profundis by Oscar Wilde (1905)
There is a thrilling majesty to Oscar Wilde’s tormented tour de force written as he prepared for release from Reading jail.
53. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)
This revolutionary work written by Henry James’s less famous brother brought a democratising impulse to the realm of religious belief.
54. Brief Lives by John Aubrey, edited by Andrew Clark (1898)
Truly ahead of his time, the 17th-century historian and gossip John Aubrey is rightly credited as the man who invented biography.
55. Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S Grant (1885)
The civil war general turned president was a reluctant author, but set the gold standard for presidential memoirs, outlining his journey from boyhood onwards.
56. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883)
This memoir of Samuel Clemens’s time as a steamboat pilot provides insight into his best-known characters, as well as the writer he would become.
57. Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)
The Scottish writer’s hike in the French mountains with a donkey is a pioneering classic in outdoor literature – and as influential as his fiction.
58. Nonsense Songs by Edward Lear (1871)
The Victorians loved wordplay, and few could rival this compendium of verbal delirium by Britain’s “laureate of nonsense”.
59. Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (1869)
Arnold caught the public mood with this high-minded but entertaining critique of Victorian society posing questions about the art of civilised living that still perplex us.
60. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
Darwin’s revolutionary, humane and highly readable introduction to his theory of evolution is arguably the most important book of the Victorian era.
61. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859)
This fine, lucid writer captured the mood of the time with this spirited assertion of the English individual’s rights.
62. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole (1857)
A gloriously entertaining autobiography by the widely revered Victorian sometimes described as “the black Florence Nightingale”.
63. The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857)
Possibly Gaskell’s finest work – a bold portrait of a brilliant woman worn down by her father’s eccentricities and the death of her siblings.
64. Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
This account of one man’s rejection of American society has influenced generations of free thinkers.
65. Thesaurus by Dr Peter Mark Roget (1852)
Born of a Victorian desire for order and harmony among nations, this guide to the English language is as unique as it is indispensable.
66. London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew (1851)
The influence of the Victorian journalist’s detailed, dispassionate descriptions of London lower-class life is clear, right up to the present day.
67. Household Education by Harriet Martineau (1848)
This protest at the lack of women’s education was as pioneering as its author was in Victorian literary circles.
68. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)
This vivid memoir was influential in the abolition of slavery, and its author would become one of the most influential African Americans of the 19th century.
69. Essays by RW Emerson (1841)
New England’s inventor of “transcendentalism” is still revered for his high-minded thoughts on individuality, freedom and nature expressed in 12 essays.
70. Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Rich in detail and Old World snobbery, Trollope’s classic travelogue identifies aspects of America’s national character still visible today.
71. An American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster (1828)Though a lexicographical landmark to stand alongside Dr Johnson’s achievement, the original sold only 2,500 copies and left its author in debt.
72. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey (1822)
An addiction memoir, by the celebrated and supremely talented contemporary of Coleridge and Wordsworth, outlining his life hooked on the the drug.
73. Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (1807)
A troubled brother-and-sister team produced one of the 19th century’s bestselling volumes and simplified the complexity of Shakespeare’s plays for younger audiences.
74. Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa by Mungo Park (1799)
The Scottish explorer’s account of his heroic one-man search for the river Niger was a contemporary bestseller and a huge influence on Conrad, Melville and Hemingway.
75. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
The US founding father’s life, drawn from four different manuscripts, combines the affairs of revolutionary America with his private struggles.
76. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
This radical text attacked the dominant male thinkers of the age and laid the foundations of feminism.
77. The Life of Samuel Johnson LLD by James Boswell (1791)
This huge work is one of the greatest of all English biographies and a testament to one of the great literary friendships.
78. Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790)
Motivated by the revolution across the Channel, this passionate defence of the aristocratic system is a landmark in conservative thinking.
79. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1789)
The most famous slave memoir of the 18th century is a powerful and terrifying read, and established Equiano as a founding figure in black literary tradition.
80. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White (1789)
This curate’s beautiful and lucid observations on the wildlife of a Hampshire village inspired generations of naturalists.
81. The Federalist Papers by ‘Publius’ (1788)
These wise essays clarified the aims of the American republic and rank alongside the Declaration of Independence as a cornerstone of US democracy.
82. The Diary of Fanny Burney (1778)
Burney’s acutely observed memoirs open a window on the literary and courtly circles of late 18th-century England.
83. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776-1788)
Perhaps the greatest and certainly one of the most influential history books in the English language, in which Gibbon unfolds the narrative from the height of the Roman empire to the fall of Byzantium.
84. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)
Blending history, philosophy, psychology and sociology, the Scottish intellectual single-handedly invented modern political economy.
85. Common Sense by Tom Paine (1776)
This little book helped ignite revolutionary America against the British under George II.
86. A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (1755)
Dr Johnson’s decade-long endeavour framed the English language for the coming centuries with clarity, intelligence and extraordinary wit.
87. A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1739)
This is widely seen as the philosopher’s most important work, but its first publication was a disaster.
88. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729)
The satirist’s jaw-dropping solution to the plight of the Irish poor is among the most powerful tracts in the English language.
89. A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe (1727)Readable, reliable, full of surprise and charm, Defoe’s Tour is an outstanding literary travel guide.
90. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)
Eloquent and influential, the Enlightenment philosopher’s most celebrated work embodies the English spirit and retains an enduring relevance.
91. The Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer (1662)
Cranmer’s book of vernacular English prayer is possibly the most widely read book in the English literary tradition.
92. The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys (1660)
A portrait of an extraordinary Englishman, whose scintillating firsthand accounts of Restoration England are recorded alongside his rampant sexual exploits.
93. Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
Browne earned his reputation as a “writer’s writer” with this dazzling short essay on burial customs.
94. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)
Hobbes’s essay on the social contract is both a founding text of western thought and a masterpiece of wit and imagination.
95. Areopagitica by John Milton (1644)
Today, Milton is remembered as a great poet. But this fiery attack on censorship and call for a free press reveals a brilliant English radical.
96. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne (1624)
The poet’s intense meditation on the meaning of life and death is a dazzling work that contains some of his most memorable writing.
97. The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)
The first edition of his plays established the playwright for all time in a trove of 36 plays with an assembled cast of immortal characters.
98. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
Burton’s garrulous, repetitive masterpiece is a compendious study of melancholia, a sublime literary doorstop that explores humanity in all its aspects.
99. The History of the World by Walter Raleigh (1614)
Raleigh’s most important prose work, close to 1m words in total, used ancient history as a sly commentary on present-day issues.
100. King James Bible: The Authorised Version (1611)
It is impossible to imagine the English-speaking world celebrated in this series without the King James Bible, which is as universal and influential as Shakespeare.
How I chose my list of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time
What makes a nonfiction classic? Stephen Darori reflects on his two-year odyssey to compile a list of the best 100 nonfiction books in the English language – moving backwards in time to sign off with the 1661 King James Bible
Clockwise from top left: James Baldwin, Barack Obama, Oliver Sacks, Germaine Greer, George Orwell, Tom Wolfe, all of whom feature in Robert McCrum’s list.
Some weeks into the compilation of our nonfiction classics list, one mischievous colleague with a penchant for the arcane posed this wild-card challenge: “So what are you going to do about Betty McDonald?”
“Haven’t you read The Egg & I?”
In 1946, Betty McDonald’s whimsical autobiography was as popular as baked beans; now it’s almost completely forgotten, but, tellingly, still in print. Alas, after an hour or two with The Egg & I, it was excruciatingly obvious that Betty McDonald’s book is not a classic. On some weeks, there might be as many as five competing challenges for each nonfiction slot, but rarely as straightforward as this.
Literary classics cluster on the north face of Parnassus. For this vertiginous terrain there are different sherpas. Italo Calvino says that a classic is “a book that has never finished what it wants to say”. Ezra Pound identifies “a certain eternal and irresponsible freshness”; TS Eliot, much more astringent, observed in The Sacred Wood that “no modern language can hope to produce a classic, in the sense I have called Virgil a classic”. Alan Bennett wryly notes: “Definition of a classic: a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have.”
Among nonfiction classics, the most treacherous category is that creature beloved of publishers – “the contemporary classic”. A second cousin to that notorious impostor is the “instant classic”. Such books will have been judged by slippery criteria: popular and literary critical fashion, a changing marketplace and new technology, bestseller lists and hype. In the past 100 years, a familiar palette of blurbish adjectives has given shape and colour to a moving target: provocative, outrageous, prophetic, groundbreaking, funny, disturbing, revolutionary, moving, inspiring, life-changing, subversive…
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 99 – The History of the World by Walter Raleigh (1614)
This list raises another troubling question: is nonfiction “the new fiction”? There are some good writers who will argue that this is so, but I believe that nonfiction (which can sometimes successfully bring together many genres) is not, strictly speaking, a genre of its own. Creatively – yes – using narrative techniques borrowed from fiction, it’s possible to give certain kinds of nonfiction the aura of a distinct new genre. Yet, at the end of the day, “nonfiction” fractures into time-hallowed categories such as philosophy, memoir, history, reportage and poetry (see below), etc. This is particularly true of “nonfiction classics” from the 18th and 19th centuries, titles such as A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume or On Liberty by JS Mill. By that yardstick, a recent classic will be quite distinct, chiefly because its literary and cultural milieu is so different.
Literature always mirrors social and political upheaval. In a rare, and possibly thrilling, moment of historical disruption, our cultural matrix is so much in flux that we’d be wise to rule nothing out. While multicultural diversity slowly transforms the canon, new readers coming of age are likely to frame “nonfiction” in a new way. As Kazuo Ishiguro said this month in Stockholm, during his Nobel prize lecture:
“We must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature. The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.”
Definitions of “good literature” start with critics and publishers. In the UK, the book industry is just beginning to reject patterns of exclusion that permeate the literary establishment. A Spread the Word report has already drawn attention to the dominance of white, middle-class males not merely in festivals and prizes but also in the upper echelons of book publishing. Penguin, Faber and Bloomsbury (to name three) are now addressing the issue of diversity in their commissioning cadres. Diversify the editors and you will diversify the books.
Disruption plus innovation equals confusion: we have been here before. In the spring of 1886, a young and iconoclastic Oscar Wilde, writing in the Pall Mall Gazette, declared: “Books today may be conveniently divided into three classes.” There were, he went on, “books to read” and “books to reread”. Finally, there were “books not to read at all… argumentative books and books that try to prove anything.” This, Wilde decided, was “an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire and writes so much that it has no time to think”. His solution was typically Wildean. “Whosoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst 100 Books’, and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.”
Your list-maker will have the appetites of a butterfly-collector, the instincts of a gambler, the mind of a missionary…
The Observer’s two series (fiction and nonfiction) have had more serious intentions. In the first, my choice of classic novels, a taxonomic spree could become quite an elevated discussion, based on comparative criticism. For my 100 nonfiction classics, the debate has been broader. Where fiction is a discrete and well-defined genre with established criteria, as manageable and satisfying as a spacious country house garden, “nonfiction” remains the wild west. To put it another way: choosing it becomes an infuriating case of “As I Please”, driven by whim and caprice as much as taste. One thing is certain: the classic in all genres must, uniquely, express something about its subject in a way that was previously unexpressed. It must, in Pound’s famous injunction, “make it new”. Read it for the first time now and still be thrilled by its vigour, originality and wisdom.
Nevertheless, simple criteria cannot disguise the obvious and inescapable fact that our nonfiction list first appeared in the pages of a British national newspaper during the years 2015-17. It has, for instance, been interesting to discover how some of these classics, unforced, speak quite directly to the twin challenges of Trump and Brexit.
Your list-maker, then, is a creature of his or her times. They will have the appetites of a butterfly-collector, the instincts of a gambler, and the mind of a missionary or saboteur – perhaps with more than a hint of the cultural dictator. They are also part anthologist and part antiquarian.
There’s an additional difficulty. As every week’s roster of online comments indicates, almost any selection of “classic nonfiction” from library shelves that include history, film, biography, cookery, politics, fashion, sociology, art history, reportage, feminism, drama, biology, philosophy, economics and poetry (which I included because poetry is catalogued as “nonfiction” by most libraries) is going to be either perverse and disappointing, or stupid and enraging, or downright baffling.
FacebookTwitterPinterest Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
When a nonfiction classic is whatever takes your fancy, according to your own self-imposed criteria, then the subtitle to such a project might be “Anything Goes”. It could be a book that reported a great revolution – John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World – or a masterpiece of magazine journalism that exposed the truth about a humanitarian catastrophe such as John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Some of the classics catalogued here have caused shock and outrage: Carson’s Silent Spring, for example, or Said’s Orientalism. Others, notably Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, and de Quincey’s Confessions, I’ve listed as diversions. Still others – Greer’s The Female Eunuch or Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – have broken down barriers and turned worlds upside down. Some titles (A Grief Observed; A Room of One’s Own) have expressed a new idea sotto voce; others at maximum decibels: A Vindication of the Rights of Women, The Double Helix, The Making of the English Working Class and Common Sense. Some classics live on, imperishably, as works of sheer entertainment: How to Cook a Wolf or Eminent Victorians, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and Goodbye to All That. Some classics were written in extremis and carry their scars all too visibly (Dispatches,Birthday Letters, De Profundis); others are more reflective (The Uses of Literacy; Awakenings). Every one is original and speaks for itself.
All writers, great and small, commune with the dead. One unintended pleasure of the reading for this list was uncovering the interplay within the Anglo-American tradition: Jefferson nodding to Locke, Orwell to Swift and Hughes to Shakespeare.
Towards the end of the series, I chanced upon The Oxford Book of English Prose (1998), edited by the late and great John Gross. Working on this list, I had strenuously avoided making comparisons with similar exercises. Now, with almost all my entries read and written, I could not resist a sneak peek at some tantalising alternatives. Should we have neglected William Morris, John Ruskin and Fraser’s Golden Bough? How could we have omitted Neville Cardus, Rebecca West and Nirad Chaudhuri?
The Oxford Book of English Prose has more than 500 entries. We had just 100 slots to play with. Furthermore, our list has been compiled for a weekly newspaper audience, with the added gimmick that it unspools backwards in a reverse chronological sequence: it was always intended to entertain, tantalise and provoke. And there is, of course, no accounting for taste, the intangible thing we inherit that has been shaped by character, education, class, gender and race.
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 1 – The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
Such influences marked the crossroads of a fierce internal debate. Would it be possible, I often asked myself, to reshape the contours of the canon by assertively promoting forgotten kinds of writer? If there was a choice, say, between a neglected female writer and a dead white male, should I automatically favour the former? And what about writers of colour? What about African American slaves such as Olaudah Equiano?
If we are true to the historical record, the inconvenient truth is that such affirmative action on behalf of the forgotten and the ignored becomes mission impossible. Lists such as this one (and its fiction predecessor) cannot escape the past. From a 21st-century perspective, those times do not make a pretty sight. The history of our literature is shaped by patriarchal traditions and Anglo-Saxon attitudes or, to put it another way, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, religious intolerance and sexism.
Before the 19th century, there are very few published women and virtually no English language writers from India, Africa or the far east. That’s not a complacent assertion, but a simple statement of fact. The alternative titles one would need to construct an alternative canon simply do not exist. Where they do, as in the case of African Americans such as Equiano, they are in a minority. Even to list the outstanding half-a-dozen African American writers of consequence is still hardly to redress the injustices of the past.
In the evolution of English and American prose, there are at least three turning points in our literature. First, there’s the shift from the courtly, Latinate eloquence of Bacon, Donne and Milton towards the crisper, vernacular clarity of Pepys, Defoe and the notable writers of a self-confident Great Britain. Between the years 1660-1688, from the Restoration to the Glorious Revolution, English prose becomes plainer, more demotic and robust – to suit the times.
A hundred years later, there’s the dramatic expansion of English as a future world language after the American revolution. Finally, during the last century, as English culture, disseminated by colonialism, began to flourish worldwide and find local Indian and African expression, the Anglo-American hegemony starts to morph into a more global expression of English, infused by the literary traditions of India, Australia and the far east, Canada and sub-Saharan Africa. In our own century, this process is ongoing…
Some readers referred darkly to my egregious omissions, but rarely supplied persuasive alternatives. Generally, the level of below-the-line commentary generated more heat than light. There were, however, many excellent contributions and, where possible, I adjusted the selection to answer a good suggestion.
Some tough decisions were very tough: Cyril Connolly had to be on my list, but to prefer Enemies of Promise over The Unquiet Grave was painful. JM Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936 in the depths of the Great Depression, is beyond question a landmark volume of the 20th century. But every nominated author is only allowed one title, so I chose the less well-known but more readable Keynes essay, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
Then there’s the Thorstein Veblen question. The neurotic author of The Theory of the Leisure Class (as well as the far-seeing The Engineers and the Price System, 1921), Veblen is remembered as a cantankerous theorist with a penchant for the wives of his colleagues on the Stanford campus. Among many phrases, he coined “conspicuous consumption” and is a guru of American technology, but his books now seem weirdly dated. Veblen – in or out? In golfing parlance, he did not survive the cut.
FacebookTwitterPinterest Regretfully omitted: CLR James.
Other serious regrets include: Robert Hooke: Micrographia; Alexander Pope: An Essay on Man; JH Newman: Apologia Pro Vita Sua; Marie Stopes: Married Love; CLR James: The Black Jacobins; Nancy Mitford: Madame de Pompadour, Noblesse Oblige; Julia Child: Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Ronald Blythe: Akenfield; Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem; Hunter S Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Francis Fukuyama: The End of History; Vance Packard: The Hidden Persuaders; DW Winnicott: The Child, the Family and the Outside World; Alex Comfort: The Joy of Sex; Paul Fussell: The Great War and Modern Memory; George Steiner: Language and Silence; Richard Mabey: Flora Britannica; and William Goldman: Adventures in the Screen Trade.
Working backwards into the past, the list evolved from week to week. Some choices reflect the zeitgeist. The passage of time will undoubtedly winnow a lot of titles inspired by the Great War once that apocalypse takes its long-term place in history.
The year 1900 marked a turning point. A “modern classic” may easily get forgotten; a 19th- or 18th-century classic will be part of the canon almost by definition. As survivors from another age, such books have a special consequence. Among 20th-century classics, it’s more difficult to achieve both influence and true greatness, though The Waste Land is a title with a strong claim on posterity.
What do I take away from nearly five years on the north face of Parnassus? The vitality, richness, depth and variety of the Anglo-American literary tradition continues to astonish. And because it has shaped who we are, and why we are here, it also educates and instructs. At times a chore, occasionally a headache and always a looming deadline, I would not have missed it. Now it’s time to move on.
Sometimes, I wonder what such an exercise will look like in 2117. For now, this list will survive online, a snapshot of taste at the beginning of the 21st century. It will, no doubt, continue to provoke and infuriate. That’s partly its raison d’etre. More seriously, it will also continue to mine a treasury of prose that has been seasoned by adversity, guarded by devoted readers of all kinds, and cherished for expressing the shock of the new, in the greatest language the world has ever known.