The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list

Jan 1, 2018

After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, Robert McCrum has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing.

Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below – and then feel free to share your own favorites here, along with a brief explanation of why you like them.

23 comments on “The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list

  • A lot to say here.

    Several palpable hits. Darwin and Origin, the exemplar of scientific inquiry made accessible to all, certainly The Selfish Gene and Dawkins, but why not Newton and Principia?

    Why Kenneth Clark and not John Berger “Ways of Seeing”?

    Why in non fiction the KJV Bible, Shakespeare and Becket (Godot), Eliot (Wasteland)?

    It was good to see Brief Lives and Aubrey and other seminal biographies and auto-biographies. I cannot over praise, Pepys, Boswell (London Diaries) for these first honest accounts of introspection and human failings. Such honesty could only go into fiction for the next hundred or so years.

    Why not Machievelli or Sun Tzu The Art of War?

    Gibbon wonderful history (if wrong) but establishing how broad and deep rooted histories need to be.

    Rather “colonial” choices for me, but that is more a sign of my poverty of view.

    Rachel Carson, Silent Spring….so needed now, but why not Vance Packard? The Hidden Persuaders, The Waste Makers, even now the most critically necessary ideas to save society and the planet.

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  • Feels to me like another book was at 100 but the King James was put in for editorial reasons. Either a cop out or looking for hits? Hate lists of “best” .

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  • Lists of bests are best when they are by somebody. They are a real insight into the person.

    I am always looking for reviewers to follow to pre sort all the mountain of stuff out there. McCrumb’s choices are close to my own. I’ve read 40 of his hundred, but know 90. I would sometimes niggle over the book selected for a writer but would agree with the writer. So McCrumb’s choices unknown to me are next to be explored.

    But then I am some sort of sad bastard, without a real life.

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  • Phil

    From another sad bastard in another way, I just don’t think that anyone can compile an honest list that I would trust as an insight.

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  • Phil and Olgun

    I’ve read many on the list of the 100 best novels. I was very pleased to see Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. That book is a riot.

    And Conrad’s Heart of Darkness! Marlow is one of the most enigmatic fictional characters of all time. He is distant and sympathetic at the same time.

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  • Marco,

    I am taken with two of those books at least. the Schama Volume II on the Jewish plight (I liked Rough Crossing on the return of negro slaves to Liberia) and Kathryn Hughes’ insights into Victorian reactions to bodily afflictions. The sad story of Lady Flora Hastings would make a wonderful narrative for a fictionalised account. Ian McEwan would be perfect, if he wanted to venture further into the past than On Chesil Beach and Atonement.

    Ollie, truly there is no best list and no definitive order of merit either. But I am fascinated by other people choosing. Insights into their character and the cluster of their particular interests. Its like reading their intellectual DNA.

    Vicki, I don’t know why Heart of Darkness left me cold. I find it fascinating and historically important. I must go back to it someday to correct the failing. Tom Jones is a great insightful piece into most of English society from an enlightened humanitarian, who had seen most of it. Must look at that list. Its been a while.

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  • Another good list, for me, I recall.

    The early stuff makes more sense that the latter, when the authors make sense but the specific novels don’t.

    Why “The End of the Affair” for Graham Greene, when he wrote so much more and better stuff for a general audience? This is a perfect illustration of religious mind-fritz of perfectly good neurons.

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  • Vicki, I don’t know why Heart of Darkness left me cold.

    Can’t you just picture Marlon Brando as Kurtz whispering, “The horror! The horror!”

    Lord Jim affected me even more deeply. Maybe because he was, after all, “one of us.” And again, Marlow narrates the story. Seriously, for me Marlow is to Conrad what Sherlock Holmes is to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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  • Vicki,

    The failing is mine, I am sure. I get “The Horror” I just think I didn’t get the political/social symbolism. I got Lord Jim more. Conrad is hugely important and unsettling.

    This worries me. I think the narratives Americans (on average) take to their hearts is unsettling, but in quite the wrong way.

    I perservered with The Fountainhead out of horrified fascination… bodice-ripping chicklit by an adolescent Adolf Hitler.

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  • Just to add a continental European (some British Islanders would dispense with “continental”, as for them Europe appears to be something east of the English Channel – again a very parochial islander’s term not shared by others) viewpoint – in my case German: the list is exclusively anglophone. And it stops its journey back in time in the early seventeenth century. So it misses huge swaths of (continental) European writing, never mind that outside of Europe, from China, India and the Islamic world. The latter, with the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406) as perhaps its last author of note (after which a fossilization of thought set in), was leading in may areas for several centuries before that, with nonpareil centers of learning in Baghdad and Cordoba, to name just the most famous.

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  • Good points Grumpy, though

    a very parochial islander’s term

    gives me sad. Ich bin ein Europäer.

    Ibn Rushd would be one of my contenders, but I’m not sure of a definitive book.

    A favourite quote though is

    “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence. This is the equation.”

    Oo, oo, and

    The world is divided into men who have wit and no religion and men who have religion and no wit.

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  • Love those quotes, Phil. Talk about on the nose …

    You’re right about the anglocentrism of the list, Grumpy, though I guess that just reflects the fact it comes from a British newspaper. Sadly, you’re also right about the anglocentrism of far too many Brits, but this Brit is firmly with Phil on this one: European through and through. I can’t imagine a “me” without Europeanness. I wouldn’t even want to.

    Thanks for broadening the view.

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  • @ Phil: erm, I’ll just give you what English Wikipedia has to say about divergent terms for EC: “The English Channel (French: la Manche, “The Sleeve”; German: Ärmelkanal, “Sleeve Channel”; Breton: Mor Breizh, “Sea of Brittany”; Cornish: Mor Bretannek, “British Sea”); as Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame would comment here (and I would second him): “’nuff said.”

    Ibn Rushd, Latinized Averroes, is probably the most influential Islamic thinker and writer in the west. As my (second-hand at best) memory tells me, he was the third in a trilogy of brilliant (I’ll take the experts’ word on it) Islamic commentators on Aristotle. Ibn Sīnā, Latinized Avicenna, c. 980 – 1037, a Persian, was the first. Al-Ghazali, Latinized Algazel, c. 1058 – 1111, also a Persian, wrote a “contra” commentary to Ibn Sīnā (and therefore Aristotle). Ibn Rushd, 1126 – 1198 then wrote a “contra” commentary to Al-Ghazali. Barak Obama, if he actually said such a thing early in his presidency when he was in Egypt, about the west not knowing about Aristotle without Islam, fell for, excuse my French, beuf merde. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (bringing the Eastern Roman Empire to a whimper end) sent a wave of people knowledgeable about Aristotle (and Plato, and Socrates, and lots of others) spilling into Western Europe. What the West, and the world, would be missing are the commentaries on Aristotle of these three brilliant thinkers. Without Thomas Aquinas (not solely him, but him especially) possibly no one would by our times know about Averroes / Ibn Rushd, as he was kicked out of Moorish Spain by some Berber primitives (how harshly does that ring a bell with the current US political situation!). Al-Ghazali might exist as an obscure footnote in Islamic writing, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā would probably have disappeared.

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  • Good stuff, Grumpy. Another fan apart from you and me , is Jim Al Khalili. His books Pathfinders and The House of Wisdom do a great job in fleshing out their actual significance in science particularly, also that of numerous others.

    Interesting fact: Salman Rushdie’s father named himself and his family after Ibn Rushd.

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  • Grumpy

    Add a few “must haves” through social pressure and snobbery and that shows why I don’t like lists of bests.. we have too much baggage that make an honest claim.

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