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!
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.”
Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.
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.
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.
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.