The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list
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
- Robert McCrum reflects on his 100 greatest nonfiction books list
- The 100 best novels written in English: the full list
- What did Robert miss? Leave your thoughts in the comments
Robert McCrumSun 31 Dec 2017 03.30 EST
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 III.
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.
This article was amended on 9 April 2018. An earlier version said that Tom Paine’s book Common Sense helped ignite revolutionary America against the British under George II. This has been corrected to say George III.