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100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (and Beyond) in English
As the clock clicked down on the arrival of the new millennium, Alex and I were bemused at the spate of “100 best of the century lists” pouring forth from the New York Times, the New Yorker, Salon, the Guardian and other liberal publications. The lists were predictable and not many of the entries remained on our groaning shelves. So we decided to compile our own catalogue of the best books written in English and, later translated into English, during the 20th Century. We spent weeks whittling it down to roughly 100 titles for each. These became reading lists for like-minded CounterPunchers and proved two of the most popular pieces we’d ever run on the website, even pricking the interest of many librarians who were forced to confront the gaps in their own collections.
Over the decade, those pages were up on the site they attracted well-over two million unique visitors. Then disaster struck. During the Great Transformation of the CounterPunch website to a Word Press platform, those lists were mangled beyond recognition. I remember calling Alex and telling him to cautiously look at the wreckage. He clicked on the page, gasped and even sniffled a bit. “It’s the burning of the Alex…andria library all over again!” he quipped. Neither of us had the energy to recreate the lost pages.
Since then we’ve received many pleas to resurrect those lists, the most recent coming from an old pal of ours whose book had earned a spot in the top 100. Finally, I relented. I spent the last couple of weeks reviewing the entries and some old email exchanges with Alex about books that we both admired, which had been published in the intervening years. So we now present once again our 100 best non-fiction books published in English in the 20th century (with a few important additions), along with the introduction we wrote for our book Serpents in the Garden. (Click here to read our list of books in translation.)
Jeffrey St. Clair
Serpents in the Garden
We edit CounterPunch, the popular radical website and magazine. We have fun doing it and we spend a lot of time laughing, as we chat on the phone between Petrolia, in Humboldt County, northern California, and Oregon City, Oregon, perched over the Clackamas River, a few hundred miles north across the Siskiyous, in a whole different weather system.
In the Sixties and Seventies, respectively, we both read English at college, Cockburn at Oxford, St. Clair at American University. English is a discipline that says, or used to say before the critical theorists seized power and put pleasure to the sword, that it’s okay to enjoy reading books and okay to put off more or less permanently what you’re going to do when you grow up: yet another definition of being a journalist or pamphleteer. We both like the blues and food and there’s a lot about both in CounterPunch. We both think that a big part of being radical in the best sense of the word is in enjoying, promoting, defending art and the spirit of freedom and pleasure and craft skills embodied by the arts. By the quality of life, art and freedom that radicals commend, so will radicals prevail.
You want to know where we stand? A few years ago we asked ourselves, and some friends, what we would include in the hundred best non-fiction books in the original English, published in the twentieth century—more or less. The library we’d send to other planets, or to George W. Bush (although we know Laura the Librarian is doing her best…) Then we asked ourselves and our friends about books in translation and music and films. But more of that later.
Culture, music, art, architecture and … sex. In the sixties the right thought the left had the best drugs and the best sex. Now? Well, the left sort of won that battle. These days the right knows its okay to have a good time and sneers at the left for staying at home to read up on theories of surplus value. But there are always subversive and revolutionary perspectives to be enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. And in the battle to return to that delightful piece of real estate, there were heroes thus far unsung, many of them writers. For every pleasure we enjoy, there’s a martyr in our past who paid the price.
Now for that reading list, so you can get acquainted with us.
AC / JSC
Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire: a Season in the Wilderness
Louis Adamic: Dynamite: A Century of Class Violence in America, 1830-1930.
Philip Agee: Inside the Company: CIA Diary
Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa & Murray Silverstein: A Pattern Language: Towns, Building and Construction
Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colored-Blindness
Kenneth Anger: Hollywood Babylon
Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
David Arora: Mushrooms Demystified: A Guide to the Fleshy Fungi
James Baldwin: The Devil Finds Work
Reyner Banham: Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
John Berger: Ways of Seeing
Jack Black: You Can’t Win
Robin Blackburn: The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
Joseph Borkin: The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben
Jim Bouton: Ball Four
Richard Boyer & Herbert Morais: Labor’s Untold Story
Marshall Bradley, Fern Bradley & Barbara Ellis: The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
David Brower: For the Earth’s Sake
Norman O. Brown: Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History
Robert Byron: The Road to Oxiana
Rachel Carson: Silent Spring
E. H. Carr: What is History?
Samuel B. Charters: The Country Blues
Andrew Cockburn: The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine
Claud Cockburn: I, Claud
William Cronon: Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Elizabeth David: French Provincial Cooking
Alexandra David-Neel: My Journey to Lhasa
Vine DeLoria, Jr.: Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
Angie Debo Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place
E.R. Dodds: The Greeks and the Irrational
W.E.B. DuBois: The Souls of Black Folk
Havelock Ellis Studies in the Psychology of Sex
William Empson: Seven Types of Ambiguity
Encyclopedia Britannica: 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
Shulamith Firestone: The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution
M.F.K. Fisher: How to Cook a Wolf
Henry Watson Fowler: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Roger Fry: Cezanne: A Study of His Development
Northrop Frye: An Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays
Alex Haley & Malcolm X: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Myles Horton: The Long Haul: An Autobiography
Carole Gallagher: American Ground Zero: the Secret Nuclear War
Martha Gellhorn The Face of War
Dan Georgakas: Detroit: I Do Mind Dying
Stephen Jay Gould: The Mismeasure of Man
Robert Graves: The Greek Myths
Alice Hamilton: Exploring the Dangerous Trades
E.C.S. Handy & Elizabeth Handy: Native Planters in Old Hawaii: Their Life, Lore and Environment
Gerald Hanley: Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis
Jane E. Harrison: Themis: A Study in the Social Origins of Greek Religion
Anthony Heilbut: The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times
Seymour Hersh Kissinger: The Price of Power
George Leonard Herter & Berte Herter: Bull Cook: Authentic Recipes and Practices
William Hinton: Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village
Richard Holmes: Shelley: the Pursuit
Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society
Ernest Jones: The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud
Leroi Jones: Blues People: Negro Music in White America
Alvin Josephy, Jr: The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest
Walter Karp: The Politics of War
Pauline Kael: For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies
Robin D.G. Kelley: Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original
John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
Alfred Kinsey, et al.: The Kinsey Report on Human Sexual Behavior
Richard Erodes and John Fire Lame Deer: Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions
D.H. Lawrence: Etruscan Places
Meridel Le Sueur: North Star Country
Peter Linebaugh: The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century
Albert Bates Lord: The Singer of Tales
Norman MacLean: A River Runs Through It
Fitzroy McLean: Eastern Approaches
Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art
Carey McWilliams: Factories in the Fields: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California
Norman Mailer: Advertisements for Myself
Leo Marx: The Machine in the Garden
Peter Matthiessen: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
H.L. Mencken: Prejudices: A Selection
Henry Miller: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare
C. Wright Mills: Listen, Yankee: the Revolution in Cuba
Jessica Mitford: The American Way of Death
Edwin Morse: Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings
Robert Motherwell: Dada Documents and Manifestoes
Lewis Mumford: Technics and Civilization
Paul Oliver: Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues
Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
Doug Peacock: Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness
Roger Tory Peterson: A Field Guide to the Birds of North America
Kim Philby: My Silent War
Ezra Pound: ABC of Reading
Charles Ramsey & Harold Sleeper: Architectural Graphic Standards
John Richardson: A Life of Picasso
Bertrand Russell: Autobiography
Edward Said: Orientalism
G.E.M. de Ste. Croix: The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
Ken Saro-Wiwa: A Month and a Day: a Detention Diary
Nancy Scheper-Hughes: Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil
Robert Sherrill: The Gothic Politics of the Deep South
Lincoln Steffens: Shame of the Cities
Lawrence Stone: Sex, Family and Marriage in England: 1500 to 1800
Ida Tarbell: The History of the Standard Oil Company
Bertha Thompson: Sister of the Road: An Autobiography of Box Car Bertha
E.P. Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class
Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
David Thomson: A Biographical Dictionary of Film
Douglas Valentine: The Phoenix Program
Helen Vendler: The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Gordon Wasson: Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality
Geoffrey Wolff: Black Sun: the Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby
Frances Yates: The Art of Memory