Sunday, September 06, 2009

Ten nonfiction books that help us understand the world

A few years ago, I read Anna Quindlen’s little book, How Reading Changed My Life. In the back of her book she includes a series of book lists one of which is titled, “Ten nonfiction books that help us understand the world.” Here is Quindlen’s list in its entirety:

1. The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

2. The Best & the Brightest by David Halberstam

3. Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick

4. Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

5. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

7. How we Die by Sherwin Nuland

8. The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos

9. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

10. The Power Broker by Robert Caro

Recently, I read Tom Bissell’s book, The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnamfor Citizen Reader's Book Menage. While reading the book, I kept thinking this book belongs on my list of books that helped me understand the world. The book is actually a memoir about Bissell’s relationship with his father, a Vietnam veteran, but he includes a substantial amount of historical data that he blends in with his travelogue (he returns to Vietnam with his father 40 years after his father left) and family biography. He includes the politics and history surrounding the war, incorporates many of its debates; whether the war was winnable, what Ho Chi Minh’s real motivations were and why America’s leaders lied so often and even touches on how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than thirty years later.

I admit, I had read very little about the Vietnam War prior to reading this book and was too young to comprehend the war when I was growing up. This book has given me a better understanding of the Vietnam War, its aftermath and Vietnam itself.

To date I can think of only one other book I would add to my list:

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies:
Jared Diamond explores why certain societies were able to develop and dominate over others. He argues it was more about environmental factors; being born in the right place at the right time than intelligence and ingenuity. This book gave me a greater understanding of human history and how the modern world came to be.

In Henry Alford's book "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)," Charlotte one of Alford's interviewees has an epiphany moment when she read historian Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. “Previously, I thought I was well-informed,” she said, “but I had no idea the extent to which the defense department runs the government." I'm sure this book is on her list of books that helped her understand the world.

I'm curious what books have helped you understand the world?


  1. Savvy! I am so glad the Bissell made your list of books that increased your understanding. I too was blown away by his scholarship and the very readable (if horrific) prose he used to describe the fall of Saigon and the war in general. If you've not seen it, the multiple-part Vietnam War special that was produced by PBS is well worth it; I think it was simply called "Vietnam" and it should be available from your local library.

    There are very few weeks when I don't think at least once about John Bowe's book "Nobodies," about modern slave labor, and his description of the labor and goods situation we have going in today's free trade world. I'd say that helped me understand the world, or at least distill what I had always believed but couldn't quite articulate.

    William Langewiesche's "Cutting for Sign" was also a memorable read, and an impressively objective take on immigration (Langewiesche is one of the very few NF authors I know who arguably comes very close to true objectivity.) And "Random Family," by Adrian LeBlanc, about poor families and women in the Bronx. Unbelievable stuff. A hard read but definitely one that left you knowing more than it found you.

  2. CR,
    "Nobodies," is a great choice. I can't believe I didn't think of it myself. Before reading this book, I never would have fathomed how terrible workers could be treated; all to save the American consumer and companies such as Cargill a few extra pennies.

    I’ve added the other two to my reading list.

  3. Well, as one of your older readers, I'd have to add Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique."
    Also, "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America - by Ronald Takaki.

  4. Grace,
    I love that "The Feminine Mystique" is on your list. I've been meaning to read it for years; you've inspired me to finally do so.

  5. Wow, In Cold Blood. That would help one understand the damage that unrestrained masculinity can bring about.