Monday, January 25, 2016

10 Best Books: Non-Fiction

After hitting 10 years of book reviewing, I've been listing my 10 worst fiction books, my ten worst non-fiction books, and my ten best fiction books.  Here's the final list: 10 best non-fiction books from the past 10 years.

1. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (original review here)

A first hand authentic narrative of the Spanish Civil War would have been invaluable just in and of itself.  But the literary skill that George Orwell brings in re-telling his account make this book not just informative, but a pleasure to read.  Right from the opening page, you know you're in the hands of an author who can suck you in completely with his prose.


2. The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham (original review here)

Who would have ever thought that you could make an engaging narrative history about the Scramble for Africa?  It covers 30 years, involves a cast of thousands, and two whole continents, several wars, and changing allegiances.
And yet, Thomas Pakenham pulls it off brilliantly.  I was sucked into all his stories: the search for Doctor Livingstone, Gordon defending Khartoum, the mysterious Emin Pasha (long rumored to be holding out somewhere in the Sudan with one of Gordon's lost regiments), Cecil Rhodes and his made ambitions, Catholic missionaries facing off against brutal tribal chiefs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,
The best narrative history book I've ever read.

3. The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (original review here)

I don't agree with absolutely everything Paine says.  (And in my original review, I wrote at length on exactly where I disagreed with Paine.)
But there are large sections of this book which just make such clear sense to me--the section on the nature of revelation, and hearsay, and why it's ridiculous that God would choose to reveal himself only to a few people and then rest of history would just be stuck with this book recording those supposed revelations--those sections were just such clear common sense.  You feel like you've finally woken up to the absurdity of religious claims after reading this book.

4. Revolutions of 1848 by Priscilla Robertson (original review here)

Like The Scramble for Africa, this is another subject that you wouldn't think would lend itself to a narrative history.  Over 50 revolutions in several different countries--each separate revolution with it's own cast of characters, it's own version of moderate reformers, radicals, and conservatives.  And yet Priscilla Robertson pulls it off.  She tells great stories in which you feel the romanticism and the idealism of the early days, and also bitterly feel the disappointment and disillusionment of the end.

5. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia by William Shawcross (original review here)

This book has 3 things to recommend it.
1). Every one should read it so that every one knows exactly what war crimes Nixon and Kissinger committed.  (It is an obscenity to justice that Kissinger is still walking about as a free man enjoying his retirement as a respected statesman instead of in jail for war crimes).
2. Every one should read this book so they know how the government works.  (The secret bombing of Cambodia, and the government surveillance of US citizens has all too many parallels to the drone strikes and NSA surveillance of today.)
3. Every one should read this book just because it is so well-written.  Shawcross is a journalist, and he knows how to make his history flow like a story.  It's a fascinating read.

6. Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman (original review here)


When I went to college at a conservative Christian school, I discovered a strange thing there--the professors in the religion department knew all sorts of things about the Bible that were completely different than what I had been told every week in Sunday School for the first 18 years of my life.
That huge disconnect--the disconnect between what scholars actually know about the Bible, and what is taught every week in Sunday School--is what inspired Bart Ehrman to try and write a book to bring modern biblical scholarship to a mass audience.  He also examines the problem of why all this stuff never makes it into Sunday School, even though the pastors all learn about it in seminary.  A fascinating read.

7. At War With Asia by Noam Chomsky (original review here)

The Pentagon will gladly supply, on request, such information as the quantity of ordnance expended in Indochina. From 1965 through 1969 this amounts to about 4.5 million tons by aerial bombardment. This is nine times the tonnage of bombing in the entire Pacific theater in World War II, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki—“over 70 tons of bombs for every square mile of Vietnam, North and South…about 500 pounds of bombs for every man, woman and child in Vietnam.” The total of “ordnance expended” is more than doubled when ground and naval attacks are taken into account. With no further information than this, a person who has not lost his senses must realize that the war is an overwhelming atrocity.” (p. 225)

Oh wow, just....wow...

8. The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (original review here)

Every time I mention this book, I have to distance myself from the politics of the author.  (He's a conservative historian writing about the most influential event in leftist mythology).
But oh, what great story-telling abilities Alistair Horne has.  Whether you're a conservative or a liberal, you can't help but get sucked into this story.  The whole drama of the Franco-Prussian War, and then the whole drama of the Paris Commune.

9. The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (original review here)

When judging favorite books, sometimes a book is valuable not only for the reading experience itself, but what you take away from it afterwards.
This book is like that.  I struggled through parts of it, but I've found the knowledge I gained from it invaluable.  It's like a quick little crash course in the past 50 years of modern linguistics.  (Admittedly not everyone agrees with Pinker, but reading this book will still give you a sense of where the debate begins.)

10. George Orwell: Essays (original review here)

Agree with him or disagree with him, Orwell is always a pleasure to read.  There were several essays in this collection in which I disagreed with Orwell (or didn't have a dog in the fight either way--his criticisms of boy's weekly magazines in England in the 1940s, for example) but I still enjoyed following his arguing style.
That, plus Politics and the English Language, The Sporting Spirit, and Notes on Nationalism should all be required reading for everyone.

Honorable mentions
A couple years ago, I posted a list of all my favorite narrative history books.  Which arguably makes this list somewhat redundant.
This list is slightly different--it attempts to rank the books, and it's not limited simply to narrative histories, but also includes essays, political polemics, books on religion, and books on linguistics.
But, okay, it's largely the same list.
Anyway, not all the books from my favorite narrative history book list made it on my top ten, but they all get honorable mentions:

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport (original review here)

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines (original review here)

Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen (original review here)

The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik (original review here)

The Judgment of Paris by Ross King (original review here)

Three Empires on the Nile by Dominic Green (original review here)

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (original review here)

The Insurrectionist by Jules Valles (original review here)

Monarchy by David Starkey (original review here)

The World that Never Was by Alex Butterworth (original review here)

Rubicon by Tom Holland (original review here)

A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman (original review here)

Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman (original review here)

Moving away from history books to political polemics, I also really loved The Truth With Jokes by Al Franken (original review here).  As with all political polemics, however, it hasn't kept it's topicality well--everything in it is now 10 years  out of date.  But it was a great book for it's time.

Also, I've already mentioned one Bart Ehrman book in the list above, but if you have time for two Bart Ehrman books, than Misquoting Jesus is also pretty good (original review here).

I have a love-hate relationship with The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm (original review here).  I really hate the academic style it's written in, but I have to admit I learned a ton of interesting stuff from it.  

Alright, and that finishes off all my best-of and worst-of lists.  From tomorrow, this blog will return to its regularly scheduled programming.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky with David Barsimian, Conversation, 18 March 2015

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