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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
April, 2004

 

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

Jack Anderson:  Confessions of a Muckraker: The Inside story of Life in Washington During the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Years

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

Frank Bardacke: Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farmworkers Union

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

Harry Braverman Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degredation of Work in the Twentieth Century

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?

Allan Chase:  The Legacy of Malthus: the Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism

Samuel B. Charters:  The Country Blues

Noam Chomsky:  The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians

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

John Dower:  War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War

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

Paul Goodman:  Growing Up Absurd: the Problems of Youth in the Organized Society

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

Christopher Hill: The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution

William Hinton: Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village

Richard Holmes: Shelley: the Pursuit

Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society

Harold A. Innis:  The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History

C.L.R. James:  The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

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

Gabriel Kolko: Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience

Andrew Kopkind:  The Thirty Years’ War: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, 1965-1994

Frank Kofsky:  Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948: A Sucessful Campaign to Deceive the Nation

Richard Erodes and John Fire Lame Deer: Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions

R.D. Laing:  The Divided Self: an Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

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

Alfred McCoy: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade

Carey McWilliams: Factories in the Fields: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California

Norman Mailer: Advertisements for Myself

Dave Marsh: Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made

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

John Moody: The Masters of Capital: a Chronicle of Wall Street

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

R.R. Palmer: Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

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

Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation: the Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Ezra Pound: ABC of Reading

David H. Price: Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists

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

Thomas Szasz: The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct

Ida Tarbell: The History of the Standard Oil Company

Keith Thomas: Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England

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

Edmund Wilson: To the Finland Station: a Study in the Acting and Writing of History

Geoffrey Wolff:  Black Sun: the Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby

Donald Worster Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West

Frances Yates:  The Art of Memory

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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