My top 20 nonfiction picks

For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

The seminal role of a long-forgotten  ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy

A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built  Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.

The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward

An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.

Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake

A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “My top 20 nonfiction picks

  1. Stacey B.

    Thank you for these recommendations! All of these books have such variety! I am really looking forward to adding some of these to my summer reading list 🙂 I also have a book to share by author Dipak Basu entitled “Mission to Teach” (http://missiontoteach.org/). It is a non-fiction memoir about his brave and amazing daughter, Jhumki Basu. During the last decade of Jhumki’s life, as her teaching career took off and her battle with cancer raged on, her father was her confidant and her strength. He learned about the state of education in American public schools and of cancer care which provided him with unique insight into his daughter’s life and work. In her relatively short time here she developed ground-breaking teaching techniques that were rooted in her own experiences as a teacher in struggling city schools. She did not let the cancer slow her down and she made a difference in her student’s lives and fellow teachers. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a little inspiration! Perhaps you can add this to your next list

  2. Harry

    Mel,     Just a word of appreciation for the great resource that you are for me.  I loved The Swerve and Mary’s Mosaic. A couple of other good ones: Sean Carroll, The Particle at the End of the Universe, Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind.  Also,  Philipp Blom,A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment, and David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.                              Keep on reading,                                                      Harry Britt               .    

    • Thank you so much, Harry! It’s great to hear from you. If you’re the same Harry Britt I knew in San Francisco politics a lifetime ago, then I should say “hear from you again.” Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll check them out.

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