For a magazine populated largely (these days, at least) by reactionary cranks, National Review had a pretty solid list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the twentieth century — most notable, perhaps, for the laudable (and surprising) absence of Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, I’ve read embarrassingly few of them. Here’s my quick take on the ones I’ve read:
3. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
A wonderful book — unforgettable and haunting. Definitely top five material.
5. Collected Essays, George Orwell
Alyson gave me this for my birthday, and I’m making my way through it very slowly. Certainly a desert-island book if there ever was one. I don’t think Orwell ever wrote anything that wasn’t worth reading; he could probably have discoursed quite eloquently on a roll of toilet paper (and, for all I know, he did — haven’t finished the book yet).
7. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
Much of it went over my head at the time, but Lewis’s deploring of the relativism being taught in the public schools is still very relevant today.
20. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
For some reason no one ever talks about this book much after high school. I think it’s a very good book — and remarkably well written considering how young she was. Be sure you get the unexpurgated edition — it’s a lot more compelling than the bowdlerized version you probably got in school.
26. Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis
There’s no denying the elegant precision of Lewis’s arguments in favor of Christianity, regardless of whether you agree with them. Oddly, his argument for Jesus’s divinity popped up in almost identical form in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as an argument for Narnia’s reality. (Basically: Either Jesus/Lucy is lying, crazy or telling the truth. Since he/she is not a liar, and doesn’t appear to be crazy, he/she must be telling the truth.)
44. God & Man at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr.
It’s impressive that Buckley wrote this when he was 23, but it doesn’t stand up particularly well, particularly compared to something like The Abolition of Man. It reads as if it was intended more to irritate the liberal establishment than to make a serious point.
62. The Elements of Style, William Strunk & E. B. White
I stole the word “studentry” (as a substitute for “student body”) from the forward to this book. For once, all the hype is justified.
85. The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk
Kirk’s brand of conservatism seems strangely detached from reality. There’s no denying he was a smart dude, but you get the impression he would have benefited from a good stiff drink every now and then.
91. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
I don’t know if I could reread this now, but it certainly was a blast when I was 16.
There you have it. I wouldn’t say any of these books are particularly characteristic of me (apart from “Homage to Catalonia,” of course). I have on my shelf, and fully intend to read:
2. The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
4. The Road to Serfdom, F. A. von Hayek
15. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
23. Relativity, Albert Einstein
36. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Albert Camus
39. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
42. The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter
87. Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson
95. To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson
99. The Last Lion, William Manchester
Have no intention of ever reading:
1. The Second World War, Winston S. Churchill
His speeches are enough for me, thanks.
11. Modern Times, Paul Johnson
Skimming it at the bookstore was more than enough to convince me I’d be alternately bored and incensed.
18. Centissimus Annus, Pope John Paul II
Definitely not the target audience for this one.
41. Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker
It’s kind of charming that this is on here, but that doesn’t mean I’m ever going to read it.
73. R. E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman
I can think of few people I’d less enjoy reading a four-volume hagiography about than this guy.
92. Darwin’s Black Box, Michael J. Behe
The anti-Darwin movement (made up largely of people who don’t appear to have actually read Darwin) is one of the sorrier spectacles of the last decade.
97. The Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes
I read a bunch of this book while writing a long paper on the life of Alexander Kerensky. Basically, it’s ludicrously biased, contemptuous not just of the key players (all of whom Pipes regards as dupes) but of the Russian people in general (whom Pipes regards as backwards by nature). The fact that Pipes (rightly) condemns the Bolsheviks shouldn’t keep us from dismissing his work as hysterical propaganda.