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100 Best Non-Fiction Books (in Translation) of the 20th Century … and Beyond


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 translated into 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 the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books in English of the 20th Cen. and Beyond.)

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.

April, 2004


Anna Ahkmatova: My Half-Century: Selected Prose

Louis Althusser: For Marx

Roald Amundsen: The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1912

Antonin Artaud: Theater and Its Double

Theodor Adorno: Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life

Philippe Aries: The Hour of Our Death: Wester Attitudes Toward Death

Erich Auerbach: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space

Roland Barthes: Mythologies

Georges Bataille: Eroticism: Death and Sensuality

Hanna Batatu: The Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi Revolutions: Some Observations on Their Underlying Causes and Social Character

Andre Bazin: Orson Welles: a Critical View

Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex

Walter Benjamin: Illuminations

Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks

Marc Bloch: Feudal Society

Franz Boas: Chinook Texts

Jorge Luis Borges: Other Inquisitions

Pierre Bourdieu: Acts of Resistance

Fernand Braudel: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II

Bertolt Brecht: The Development of an Aesthetic

Andre Breton: Manifestoes of Surrealism

Luis Bunuel: My Last Sigh

Walter Burkert: Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth

Roger Caillois: Man, Play and Games

Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Cornelius Castoriadis: Political and Social Writings

Alexander V. Chayanov: Theory of Peasant Economy

Le Corbusier: Towards a New Architecture

Curnonsky: Traditional French Cooking

Euclides da Cunha: Rebellion in the Backlands

Salvador Dali: The Secret Life of Salvador Dali

Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle

Jacques Derrida: Of Grammatology

Marcel Detienne: Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology

Rene Dumont: Stranglehold on Africa

Sergei Eisenstein: Film Form

Mircea Eliaade: The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion

Norbert Elias: The Civilizing Process

Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth

Hassan Fathy: Architecture for the Poor: an Experiment in Rural Egypt

Elie Faure: History of Art

Marc Ferro: Cinema and History

Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison

Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality: an Introduction

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Paulo Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Sigmund Freud: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

Sigmund Freud: Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality

Karl von Frisch: The Dancing Bees: an Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee

Birute Galdikas: Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo

Eduardo Galeano: Memory of Fire

Mohandas Gandhi: Gandhi: An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth

Jean Genet: Prisoner of Love

Vo Nguyen Giap: How We Won the War

Andre Gide: Travels in the Congo

Sigfried Giedion: Mechanization Takes Command

P.V. Glob: The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved

Andre Gorz: Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology

Serge Guilbaut: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art

Ernst Hans Gombrich: Art and Illusion

Antonio Gramsci: Prison Notebooks

Ernesto “Che” Guevera: Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, 1956-58

Gustavo Gutierrez: A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation

Heinrich Harrer: Seven Years in Tibet

Arnold Hauser: The Social History of Art

Martin Heidegger: Being and Time

Martin Heidegger: What is Called Thinking?

Maurice Herzog: Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8,000 Meter Peak

Werner Herzog: Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Thor Heyerdahl: Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno: The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Johan Huizinga: Autumn of the Middle Ages

Luce Irigary: This Sex Which Is Not One

Teiji Itoh: The Gardens of Japan

Hans Jonas: The Gnostic Religion

Carl Jung (Introduction): I Ching or Book of Changes

Carl Jung, with Aniela Jaffe: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Alain Danielou (Translator): Kama-Sutra: Complete and Unexpurgated Translation

Lilikala Kame’Eleihiwa: A Legendary Tradition of Kamapua’a: The Hawai’ian Pig-God

Jan Kott: Shakespeare Our Contemporary

Richard von Krafft-Ebing: Psychopathia Sexualis

Petr Kropotkin: The Conquest of Bread

Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

Vladimir Lenin: The State and Revolution

Georges Lefebvre: The Coming of the French Revolution

Henri Lefebvre: Critique of Everyday Life

Miguel Leon-Portilla: The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

Claude Levi-Strauss: Tristes Tropiques

Carlo Levi: Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

Primo Levi: The Periodic Table

El Lissitsky: Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution

Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime

Konrad Lorenz: Man Meets Dog

Georg Lukacs: History and Class Consciousness

Patrice Lumumba: Lumumba Speaks: The Speaches and Writings of Patrice Lumumba

Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution?

Alma Mahler-Werfel: The Diaries

Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau: The Works of the People of Old: Na Hana a Ka Po’E Kahiko

Mao Tse-Tung: On Guerilla Warfare

Subcomandante Marcos: Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiques of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapista Army of National Liberation

Herbert Marcuse: Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry into Freud

Marcel Mauss: The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

Rigoberta Menchu: I, Rigobeta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

Maurice Merleau Ponty: Sense and Non-Sense

Dmitry Svyatopolk Mirsky: A History of Russian Literature: From Its beginnings to 1900

Arne Naess: Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy

Franz Neumann: Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-44

Kenzaburo Oe: Hiroshima Notes

Erwin Panofsky: Perspective as Symbolic Form

Vilfredo Pareto: The Mind and Society

Pele: My Life and the Beautiful Game

Vladimir Aioakovlevich Propp: Morphology of the Folktale

Wilhelm Reich: Character Analysis

Jean Renoir: Renoir, My Father

Alain Robbe-Grillet: For a New Novel

Nawal el Saadawi: Memoirs from the Women’s Prison

Jean-Paul Sartre: War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phony War, 1939-40

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Words

Ferdinand de Saussure: The Course in General Linguistics

Gershom Gerhard Scholem: Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah

Gaynor Sekimori (Translator): Hibakusha: Accounts by Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Sei Shonagon: Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

Georg Simmel: The Philosophy of Money

Peter Sloterdijk: Critique of Cynical Reason

Georges Sorel: Reflections on Violence

Konstantin Stanislavski: An Actor Prepares

N.N. Sukhanov: The Russian Revolution, 1917: an Eyewitness Account

D.T. Suzuki: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

Dennis Tedlock (Translator): Popol Vuh: the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life

Robert Thurman (Translator): Tibetan Book of the Dead

Niko Tinbergen: Curious Naturalists

Ernst Troeltsch: The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches

Leon Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution

Francois Truffaut: The Films in My Life

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters

Immanuel Velikovsky: Worlds in Collision

Paul Veyne: The Roman Empire

Franz Werfel: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Simone Weil: The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind

Karl August Wittfogel: Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations

Peter Wollen (Editor): On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: Situationist International, 1957-1972

Stefan Zweig: A World of Yesterday

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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