7 Great Nonfiction Books
1. Timebends – Arthur Miller
“A character is defined by the kinds of challenges he cannot walk away from. And by those he has walked away from that cause him remorse.”
I often find that the rigid chronological structure of biographies makes them a little dull to read. This book is an exception, an autobiography as delicately crafted as any of Miller’s plays, deftly skipping around in time, flowing from theme to theme. Just don’t expect a tell-all account of his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Much to his credit, Miller treats her memory with far more respect than others have shown, giving us glimpses of the real woman behind the icon without lurid details. He gives his own life the same treatment, warts and all. Except for, as I recently found out, his fourth son, the disabled child he left in an institution, referenced in this Vanity Fair article. This missing chapter just adds to the contradictions and mystery of the man, someone who fought for their sense of what was right, but then hid the existence of their own child.
2. Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
The definitive book on the British Isles and their strange inhabitants, written by an American from Des Moines. Insightful and funny in equal measure, a comedic psychoanalysis of an entire nation contained within a travelogue.
3. The Box – Marc Levinson
This book tells the story of something we take for granted, the humble shipping container. In fact, its invention laid the foundations for the trade boom and the globalized world we live in now. Although slow in places and full of obscure details, this book is strangely engaging. The story it tells of workers helpless in the face of rapid technological change is a familiar and universal one.
4. Treasure Islands – Nicholas Shaxson
“It’s the battleground of the rich versus the poor, you versus the corporations, the havens against the democracies – and in each battle, unless you’re very rich, you are losing.”
An eyeopening guide to the murky world of offshore banking and tax havens. Very apt in the wake of the release of the Panama papers.
5. Dispatches – Michael Herr
“We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.”
The gritty everyday truth behind the history books and the headlines. The definitive book on Vietnam. To my mind, the definitive book on the realities of war.
6. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee – Dee Brown
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
One of the saddest books I’ve ever read. A carefully researched and beautifully written account of colonization from the perspective of the colonized. Particularly relevant to me, living in a country that’s still coming to terms with its colonial history.
7. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton
“In the Banda Islands, ten pounds of nutmeg cost less than one English penny. In London, that same spice sold for more than £2.10s. – a mark-up of a staggering 60,000 per cent.”
I’ve read this magical book five or six times. An action packed history of the battle to control the spice trade, culminating in the titular character’s brave stand, a stand that changed the course of history. Perfectly paced, brilliantly researched, and well worth reading.