The Guardian has released great fodder for argument: the 100 greatest nonfiction books. I’m a nonfiction addict – the creative essay, persuasion in all its guises, academic study, education research, society & culture, the arts, history. I have just finished The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and am currently reading The Information by James Gleick. I often run fiction, poetry, and nonfiction texts concurrently, and the nonfiction generally turns over more quickly. This list is interesting because it runs from Herodotus to Clay Shirky, who is one of my favorite current thinkers. There are must reads from Sontag’s Notes on Camp to Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky’s arguably most excellent tome, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (outdone by his epic The Ancestor’s Tale, in my opinion), The Revenge of Gaiam and The Silent Spring in the environmental camp, In Cold Blood, Innocents Abroad, The Souls of Black Folk – the hits just keep on coming. Additionally, there are many titles like Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that have reached cult status and which I have high on my list of what to read next. In literature The Uses of Enchantment and in journalism The Journalist and the Murderer caught my eye as unknowns, as well as The Story of Art, which shares a title with Simon Schama’s awesome BBC and much later produced television series all grabbed my attention.
Why is this list important? Any list represents a smattering of opinion at best, but this may spark conversation about nonfiction, which is a creative and under-appreciated genre, especially in high school English classes. Just today, I had five separate conversations with students who are abandoning advanced English coursework in favor of science and math. If we were teaching engaging, vibrant, creative non-fiction covering areas of student interest per student choice, perhaps we would be more likely to retain interest in more challenging English courses. Of course, higher level IB or AP English courses have debatable value, but I see value in students valuing the study of reading, writing, and communication. Students are not best served when they see English studies as an impediment to their scientific or mathematics careers. But, when they don’t get to see lists like this, how could they know what they’re missing? How could students know until they’ve missed developmentally essential time for developing their skills in examining writing for data, argument, and nuance and for writing fluently and vividly that the most famous and successful mathematicians and scientists are all great authors unless we have them read these books?
Literature includes nonfiction, which means literature is science, math, art, culture – haute and pop (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, anyone?), philosophy, and so much more. When English teachers expand their literary choices to include excellent nonfiction, everybody wins and departmental barriers are transcended, exposing the teacher as learner and engaging students in areas of personal interest. Students and teachers deserve a healthy helping of nonfiction and this list is a good starting point.