|Umberto Eco, who writes that ‘the list is the origin of the culture’.|
The 100 best nonfiction books of all time
Robert McCrum launches the Observer’s definitive 100 works of nonfiction – key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are
Monday 25 January 2016 05.44 GMT
nother book list? Yes and no. When we completed our 100 best novels in the English language last August, you did not have to be one of its fiercest critics – there were a few of those – to recognise it was still a job half done. Plainly, the English literary tradition is rich in great works of poetry and prose that are not novels. The King James Bible of 1611, for instance, is every bit as influential as the greatest novelists of the past 300 years, from Austen to Waugh. Indeed, as the 100 best novels series drew to a close, we began to wonder what a complementary list of 100 great English-language nonfiction titles might look like.
So this new list is really part of a continuing investigation, a quest for the classic titles that form the core of Anglo-American literary culture: the 100 key texts that have had a decisive influence on the shaping of the “Anglo-American imagination”, economically, socially, culturally and politically.
Next week, with what we are calling “the 100 best”, we will begin to identify some essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture. Braided together, and alongside our parallel list of great fiction, these books will add up to an explanation of who we are and how we got here.
The 100 novels series uncovered all kinds of fascinating inner connections, a dialogue between different writers across time and space. We hope a similar conversation will emerge within this list. One half-acknowledged truth about the Anglo-American literary and intellectual tradition is the deep mutual debt shared by many of its principals.
Thus, Jefferson acquires added meaning from Locke, Boswell took inspiration from Hume, Orwell owes a debt to Swift and Jack London and almost everyone looks over their shoulder at Shakespeare. To borrow his description of Autolycus (in The Winter’s Tale), our national playwright was a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, denounced in his own time as a plagiarist (“an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers”), a writer of genius keenly alert to an extraordinary mix of cadences, ideas and emotions.
Stepping outside the Anglo-American circle for a moment, it was Umberto Eco, the author of The Infinity of Lists, who writes that “the list is the origin of the culture”. He adds that culture wants “to make infinity comprehensible” and “to create order – not always, but often”. Homer and Shakespeare have this in common: neither is afraid of a catalogue, either in The Iliad or in the history plays. “We like lists,” says Eco, rather mysteriously, “because we don’t want to die.”
As with the 100 best novels, each chosen writer, however prolific, will be represented by just one emblematic title. Charles Darwin, to cite an obvious example, will be identified as the author of On the Origin of Species, though many readers have a special fondness for The Voyage of the Beagle. As before, the list will be confined to English language titles. There will be allusions to Marx, Freud, Descartes and Montaigne, but their books must await another series. This list will also be strictly chronological, but with this difference. This time... we are going backwards, moving from the present day to the distant past, from classics in the making to outright masterpieces.
The countdown starts here. Our first choice, No 1, will be The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, published in 2014. Now read on...