Having written exclusively on antiquarian books at BTC, we thought it would fun if I commented on Time Magazine’s recently posted All-TIME 100 Best Nonfiction Books. The title neatly states its bias: the 100 “best and most influential” nonfiction books in English published since 1923, the year Time began. My bias for old times is perhaps best stated in the title of the nonfiction book I’m currently reading: Why Lenin? Why Stalin? by Theodore H. Von Laue. This influential book from the 1960s isn’t on the list, but it is not as untimely as the title suggests. Von Laue, or Theo as he was known at Clark University, writes in the preface to the second edition (1971): “Now we have entered a new era. Anxiety, sometimes heightened to panic, is creeping ever more deeply into our decisions. The model of liberal-democratic America has been blackened…”
The Time list is divided into sixteen subject categories ranging from “Autobiography” to “War.” The two largest are “Autobiography” and “Ideas” with twelve and eleven works respectively. “Self-Help” and “Sports” are smallest, each with only two titles. The performing and fine arts, photography and architecture, are practically excluded altogether. Only rock-and-roll and the cinema are represented (Mystery Train by Greil Marcus and The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris) under “Culture,” along with E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. And rightly so, God-damn it! American cinema of the late 60s and early 70s is our cultural highpoint. Even Spielberg made an edgy film about a tank truck gone wild before being abducted by aliens, and returning to enrapture us all with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial!
Overall, most titles reflect the American experience since the second world war, seen mainly through the eyes of memoirists and biographers, historians and essayists. The selections are roughly balanced to appeal to both liberal and conservative Time readers, and many are relatively recent to reflect current events. Thus Black Boy by Richard Wright pairs neatly with Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father is of the moment.
As is to be expected, the list is inclusive and most selections are widely known; even the more recent titles are by now uncontroversial. If Obama’s memoir can help him win a second term, then I’m all for it. The selections in “Health” are particularly strong, with the boldest choice being And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. What is surprising are the omissions. In keeping with my focus on men only, how can a “best and most influential” survey with a postwar American bias fail to include The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, or Edmund Morris on Theodore Roosevelt or Reagan?
Most egregious of all is the omission of Philip Roth’s classic 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” which deserves to stand on its own as a book. Not only did Roth inspire the distinctly American genre of “nonfiction novels” – Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer all made the list in that category – it is still the best distillation of the current American reality, dominated as it now is by Rupert Murdoch and Rapture Ready Republicans. We need Spielberg to resurrect Jaws and let’s be done with it!
In the meantime, for those of us left behind, by far the best of the Bests is “10 Best Writings on Booze,” recently posted by The Daily Beast. First on this list is E.B. White (who also made the Time list with The Elements of Style):
“Trexler knew what he wanted, and what, in general, all men wanted … He was satisfied to remember that it was deep, formless, enduring, and impossible of fulfillment, and that it made men sick, and that when you sauntered along Third Avenue and looked through the doorways into the dim saloons, you could sometimes pick out from the unregenerate ranks the ones who had not forgotten, gazing steadily into the bottoms of the glasses on the long chance that they could get another little peek at it.” –The Second Tree From the Corner
*For the terminally curious, (as Daniel Traister at UPenn nicely put it) here are four other lists that make for interesting comparisons:
The Modern Library’s 100 best non-fiction (1998)
The National Review’s 100 best non-fiction books of the century (1998)
Time Literary Supplement’s 100 most influential books since the war (2008, subscription required)
The Guardian’s 100 greatest non-fiction books (June 14, 2011)