During the last several years — mostly after I bought my first Kindle — I’ve spent a great deal of time reading, roughly half of it fiction, the other half non. I’ve gotten through hundreds of books and have reviewed the last 200 or so in this blog. It feels like a good time to cast a backwards look and identify those books that remain vivid in my memory — books that helped me understand the way the world works. Though most of the fiction I’ve read has been simply enjoyable, a few have touched me. None, though, have really nestled deep into memory and changed the way I view life and the world. I learn mostly from nonfiction. Whatever that says about my character — so be it.
Here, then, are the 20 nonfiction books that have impressed me the most in recent years. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Those I’ve reviewed are boldfaced and linked.
Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow. A shocking survey of the consequences of America’s so-called War on Drugs and the racism in our justice system
Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. A rigorous and balanced view of both top-down and bottoms-up development policies in the light of field research
Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. History as I like it: painted in broad swaths across the millennia, rejecting the myth that the “West” was destined to rule the world
Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. A brilliantly original view of world history from a geographer’s perspective, ascribing variable levels of development primarily to environmental and geographical factors
Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The case against foreign aid and top-down development, by a former World Bank economist
Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. The liveliest and most insightful of several books on social entrepreneurs
Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The seminal book on understanding “six degrees of separation” and the way networks work
Harden, Blaine, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. A riveting tale of the North Korean gulag, spotlighting the reality of repression in the Kim family’s private kingdom
Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. One of the most troubling books I’ve ever read about the legacy of colonialism: the harrowing story of how the Belgian King destroyed the Congo and murdered millions of its people
Johnson, Chalmers, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. A scholar and former U.S. official demonstrates how the U.S. dominates the world through hundreds of military bases, undermining our nation’s reputation and robbing our society of the means to address pressing social problems
Larson, Erik, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. An eye-opening account of U.S. official anti-Semitism in FDR’s Administration that shackled our Ambassador in Berlin who witnessed the outrageous acts unfolding in Nazi Germany
Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A revisionist view of Native American society in both North and South America, offering proof of huge populations and sophisticated civilizations in the present-day U.S. and in the Amazon Basin
Miller, Brian, and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. A clear-eyed look beyond the bounds of Right-Wing ideology at the immeasurable benefits and services every “self-made man” has received from U.S. society
Mukherjee, Siddhartha, The Emperor of All Maladies. An oncologist’s brilliant history of cancer and of the medical profession’s slowly developing success in treating it
Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. How a former psychiatrist, laboring face-to-face with $1-a-day farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries, helped 17 million families escape from poverty
Priest, Dana, and William M. Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. A Pulitzer-Award-winning Washington Post reporter and her researcher rip the cover from the enormous intelligence establishment built after 9-11
Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A science reporter’s captivating ten-year search to understand the consequences of a medical crime committed in an overtly racist era before the rise of medical ethics
Ward, Vicky, The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers. The most intimate and candid account of how Wall Street played the central role in launching the Great Recession
Wrong, Michela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. A vivid account by a Financial Times reporter of how corruption holds sway even in one of Africa’s most developed economies
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.
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Tagged as Aravind, Ayn Rand, Ben McIntyre, Bill Knudsen, cancer, CIA, cia conspiracy, Cleopatra, cyber warfare, D-Day, Dana Priest, Erik Larson, eye care, geopolitics, Henrietta Lacks, Henry J. Kaiser, hollywood celebrities, John Elkington, John F. Kennedy, Katherine Boo, Lawrence Wright, Lehman Brothers, libertarian ideology, mary pinchot meyer, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, military-intelligence complex, Mumbai, Nazi Germany, Pamela Hartigan, poverty, racism, Rebecca Skloot, Renaissance, Richard A. Clarke, Robert D. Kaplan, rugged individualism, scientology, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stacy Schiff, Stephen Greenblatt, Steve Jobs, The Swerve, Vicky Ward, Walter Isaacson, War on Drugs, William S. Knudsen, World War II