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A response to the 100 best nonfiction books list: ‘Some I agree with, some I’d add, and some I’d hoof right off the field’

The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson on Robert McCrum’s choices<p>• Robert McCrum reflects on his 100 best nonfiction books list<br>• See the list in full here<p>As listicles of The Best… proliferate, I’m often reminded of the Arctic Monkeys lyric, “there’s only music/ so that there’s new ringtones”. Part of …

Books

How I chose my list of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

What makes a nonfiction classic? Robert McCrum reflects on his two-year odyssey to compile a list of the best 100 nonfiction books in the English language – moving backwards in time to sign off with the 1661 King James Bible<p>• Read Hannah Jane Parkinson’s response to Robert McCrum’s choices here<br>• …

Books

The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list

After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, Robert McCrum has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing<p>Robert McCrum reflects on his 100 greatest nonfiction books list<br>• The 100 best novels written in …

Books

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 100 – The Authorised Version (1611)

With its vibrant, poetic prose and instantly recognisable passages, the King James Bible has had a shaping influence on the English language<p>• Robert McCrum reflects on his 100 greatest nonfiction books list<br>• See the list in full here<p><i>In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the</i> …

Bible

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 99 – The History of the World by Walter Raleigh (1614)

Raleigh’s book, packed with veiled political advice and suppressed soon after publication, is a classic of late Renaissance history writing<p>“When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London,” writes George Orwell in his As I Please column for 4 February 1944, “he occupied himself with …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 98 – The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)

This compelling and occasionally comic study of melancholy became cult reading in the 17th century and has inspired artists from Keats to Cy Twombly<p>From the eccentric compulsion of its full title onwards (<i>The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes,</i> …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 97 – The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)

The first edition of Shakespeare’s plays established the playwright for all time in a trove of some 36 plays with an assembled cast of immortal characters<p>In 1612, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, the playwright Thomas Heywood, published <i>An Apology for Actors</i>, in which he expressed a patriotic …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 96 – Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne (1624)

The poet’s intense meditation on the meaning of life and death is a dazzling work that contains some of his most memorable writing<p>On the eve of his daughter’s wedding, in late November 1623, the poet John Donne was struck down by a mysterious “relapsing fever” (so-called because the patient often …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 95 – Areopagitica by John Milton (1644)

Today Milton is remembered as a great poet. But this fiery attack on censorship and call for a free press reveals a brilliant English radical<p>Throughout England and Europe, the 17th century was notable for its violence, instability and profound social upheavals. On the continent, a whole generation …

War

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 94 – Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)

Thomas Hobbes’s essay on the social contract is both a founding text of western thought and a masterpiece of wit and imagination<p>According to the 17th-century historian and gossip John Aubrey, Thomas Hobbes “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than …

War

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 93 – Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658)

Sir Thomas Browne earned his reputation as a ‘writer’s writer’ with this dazzling short essay on burial customs<p>Sir Thomas Browne is one of those major-minor figures in the story of these great books, a writer whose afterlife vindicates the power of an enchanted, idiosyncratic, and – the gift that …

Literature

The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time: No 92 – The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660)

A portrait of an extraordinary Englishman, whose scintillating first-hand accounts of Restoration England are reported alongside his rampant sexual exploits<p>One day in December 1659, a young civil servant and Cambridge graduate named Samuel Pepys went to the shop in Cornhill in the City of London, …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 91 – The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

Thomas Cranmer’s book of vernacular English prayer is possibly the most widely read book in the English literary tradition<p>In anticipation of English prose after the Commonwealth, I had initially found the temptation to include Robert Hooke’s extraordinary <i>Micrographia</i> (1665) next in this sequence …

Books

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 90 – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)

Eloquent and influential, the Enlightenment philosopher’s most celebrated work embodies the English spirit and retains an enduring relevance<p>This celebrated essay, available to its first readers in December 1689, though formally dated 1690, could hardly be more topical today. It is an examination of …

Books

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 89 – A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe (1727)

Readable, reliable, full of surprise and charm, Daniel Defoe’s Tour is an outstanding example of what has become an established literary genre<p>Daniel Defoe, who also features in our previous series, the 100 best novels (No 2), with <i>Robinson Crusoe</i>, was first and foremost a great reporter, who …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 88 – A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729)

The satirist’s jaw-dropping solution to the plight of the Irish poor is among the most powerful tracts in the English language<p>Jonathan Swift, “the gloomy dean”, was a great satirist, a Tory essayist and poet, renowned for <i>Gulliver’s Travels</i>, whose work has not only remained almost continuously in …

Literature

The 100 Best nonfiction books: No 87 - A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1739)

This is widely seen as philosopher David Hume’s most important work, but its first publication was a disaster<p>The career of the Scottish philosopher David Hume is a parable of the writing life that speaks with eloquence about the strange and inexplicable progress of ideas in the marketplace of free …

British Philosophy

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 86 – A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (1755)

Dr Johnson’s decade-long endeavour framed the English language for the coming centuries with clarity, intelligence and extraordinary wit<p>British national self-confidence boomed throughout the 18th century, with that familiar mix of pride and insecurity. Now, more than ever, the educated English …

Language

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 85 – Common Sense by Tom Paine (1776)

This little book helped ignite revolutionary America against the British under George III<p>The American revolution was always a rhetorical as well as a political upheaval. The Founding Fathers transformed a mood of sullen opposition into a convulsion of revolutionary fury as much in print as on the …

Literature

100 best nonfiction books: No 84 – The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)

Blending history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, the Scottish intellectual single-handedly invented modern political economy<p>1776 was an annus mirabilis for English and American prose, a year to compare with 1859 (Darwin’s <i>On the Origin of Species</i>; Dickens’s <i>A Tale of Two Cities</i>; Mill’s <i>On</i> …

Economics

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 83 – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776-1788)

Perhaps the greatest and certainly one of the most influential history books in the English language retains its power today<p>The most celebrated history book in the English language has its own famous founding myth:

Literature

100 best nonfiction books: No 82 – The Diary of Fanny Burney (1778)

Fanny Burney’s acutely observed memoirs open a window on the literary and courtly circles of late 18th-century England<p>“Dear diary” is a literary commonplace. Diaries, or journals, will be the one factual genre to which any reader can relate. Moreover, in English life and letters, which often …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 81 - The Federalist Papers by ‘Publius’ (1788)

These wise essays clarified the aims of the American republic and rank alongside the Declaration of Independence as a cornerstone of US democracy<p>When the president of the United States is a corrupt and lazy, narcissistic clown and Alexander Hamilton has become the subject of a smash-hit hip-hop …

Thomas Jefferson

100 best nonfiction books: No 80 - The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White (1789)

This curate’s beautiful and lucid observations on the wildlife of a Hampshire village inspired generations of naturalists<p>The Rev Gilbert White was that now extinct species, the unmarried Oxbridge don in holy orders. A lifelong curate and a fellow of Oriel College, White devoted himself to observing …

100 best nonfiction books: No 79 – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (1789)

The most famous slave memoir of the 18th century is a powerful and terrifying read and established Equiano as a founding figure in black literary tradition<p>Black literature begins with the slave memoirs of the 18th century. Equiano’s <i>Interesting Narrative</i> is the most famous of these, especially once …

100 best nonfiction books: No 78 – Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790)

Motivated by the bloody uprising across the Channel, this passionate defence of the aristocratic system is a landmark in conservative thinking<p>On 4 November 1789, the celebrated dissenting minister Richard Price, whose teaching at Newington Green, north London, had exerted a profound influence on …

100 best nonfiction books: No 77 – The Life of Samuel Johnson LLD by James Boswell (1791)

This huge work is one of the greatest of all English biographies and a testament to one of the great literary friendships<p>Like some of the greatest titles in this list, James Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson, the most famous biography in the English language, had a protracted, tortuous and tortured …

100 best nonfiction books: No 76 – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

This radical text attacked the dominant male thinkers of the age and laid the foundations of feminism<p>The term “feminism” did not exist when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this short book (just 98pp in my Vintage Classics edition) and some critics have resisted its author’s identification with the …

Literature

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 75 – The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)

The US founding father’s life drawn from four different manuscripts combines the affairs of revolutionary America with Franklin’s private struggles<p>Benjamin Franklin’s face – on banknotes, letterheads and civic documents – is an ageless icon of the American revolution, at once benign but cunning, …

Books

100 best nonfiction books: No 74 – Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa by Mungo Park (1799)

The Scottish explorer’s account of his heroic one-man search for the river Niger was a contemporary bestseller and a huge influence on Conrad, Melville and Hemingway<p>Mungo Park’s <i>Travels</i> is a classic of English exploration literature – a contemporary bestseller whose influence lingered throughout the …

Literature