Greatest (Nonscientific) Nonfiction

While I was off at DAMOP last week, the Guardian produced a list purporting to be the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. Predictably, this includes a tiny set of science titles– five in the “Science” category, two under “Environment,” and one each under “Mathematics” and “Mind.” And that’s being kind of generous about the boundaries of science.

This sort of thing is so depressingly common that it’s almost hard to be outraged about it any more. Almost. Because, really, your list has room for Herodotus, but not Galileo or Newton? The modern world owes vastly more to the early scientists than it does to credulous ancient Greeks, but the idea of using math is evidently a little too scary. And a few of the science-y books they did pick are a little dodgy (*cough*cough*Freud*cough*).

This is partly explainable by the structure of science, which has only occasionally advanced through the publication of books, and rarely celebrates the original books as objects of literature. Almost nobody learns physics by reading Newton– instead, we get it from more modern textbooks that use more elegant notation and, you know, aren’t deliberately opaque. Which means that while the Principia Mathematica is almost certainly one of the most influential nonfiction books of all time, it’s not something that’s read widely as a classic, so even that subset of the intelligentsia that is comfortable with math isn’t likely to vote for it on this kind of list.

But really, to read this list, you’d think that the crowning achievements of human civilization were found in fields like memoir and cultural commentary, rather than, you know, understanding the universe in which we live well enough to make the technologies that free people up to be book reviewers in the first place. And there’s something deeply wrong about that.

15 thoughts on “Greatest (Nonscientific) Nonfiction

  1. One of the problems with any such list is how they decide what belongs on the list and what doesn’t. If you ask a bunch of humanities professors that question, don’t be surprised when the humanities are overrepresented on the list.

    Yes, there are some dodgy titles on that list. I’ve read about ten of them, most from the non-science parts of the list. Under history, I can understand the argument for History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee doesn’t belong on the list. Likewise, under politics, I can understand the argument for The Art of War, which is broadly applicable in many contexts different from the one in which it was written. But The Communist Manifesto, while influential, is atrocious as a piece of political analysis–it doesn’t take much of an understanding of human nature to see that the solution Marx and Engels proposed is unworkable. I’d be more sympathetic to listing that one under economics, because they do identify several of the traps to which capitalism is prone (some of which, arguably, we have fallen into now).

    Speaking of economics, the biggest surprise is that no books from that category made the list. I would think The Wealth of Nations ought to be on any such list–it’s a better choice than many of the books that did make the list.

  2. @Eric: True, but then, for Cultural “Studies” people like the Guardian staff, economics as a field is as shady as science …

  3. I’m greatly disturbed by the concept that a full QUARTER of those books were written within my lifetime. I mean, “Origin of the Species” as the ONLY science/science related book that’s from before WWII??? Really?

  4. It is, after all, the Guardian which thinks “the science” says we are all doomed by melting icebergs. As a “newspaper” it is deprndent on government advertising for its survival and is nothing more than a state propaganda mouthpiece. To be fair to them they are barely worse than the reast of the MSM. But I agree that this list is symptomatic of the Luddite rule we live under.

  5. Brian,

    Histogramming them is even more fun. Over 60% were written in the 20th century. Over 30% were written in the 1960s and 1970s alone. Roughly the same number of “greatest books” were written in those two decades as in all recorded time prior to 1900.

    Anyone want to take a guess at the mean age of the judges?

  6. It would be nice to see a few more science books, but it could have been worse. At least Malcolm Gladwell isn’t in there. As for Principia, in the context of a list published for a general audience, I would expect that “deliberately opaque” would be a disqualifier.

  7. Well, if they are shooting for a general audience, Kant and Hegel shouldn’t be on there any more than Newton.

  8. At least they got The Origin of Species. I suppose the lack of economics is attributable to it being the Grauniad, since the most important economics in book form tends to be more popular with conservatives.

    The Double Helix is eminently worth reading, but why isn’t it in “Memoir” where it belongs? They could replace it with On Growth and Form, which was an important book in biology (if now obsolete) and is a literary classic.

    It’s hard to think of many science books that fit the style of the list, but someone should suggest adding The Two Cultures.

  9. On a more uplifting note; what about science fiction? I wonder if science fiction today still has a draw on young people, attracting them to science, like it did for me back when we were landing on the moon. If we saw a list of top fiction, and it included science-fiction, perhaps we shouldn’t despair?

  10. I think the books were chosen because of their authors rather than their content. Hawking, Dawkins, Darwin, Feynman…

  11. Were they grading them on influence? That is, I can think of a few book there that were hugely influential, even if they aren’t that good.

    Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, for example, is really influential — those of us who grew up in the 70s couldn’t escape it — but reading it now I see it falls into some of the same problems of stereotyping that earlier works did. I’ve actually tried to get through Principia and while I would put it on the list I agree that most people don’t learn science from it. (I wouldn’t say Newton is deliberately opaque, BTW, he was just writing in a 17th century idiom, rather like Darwin was writing in a 19th century one which can look awfully long-winded to us modern readers).

    Anyhow, the influence question will bias things to more recent works a bit as the influence is more obvious.

    One other thing: Marx was working on the same assumptions as Adam Smith — he makes that clear — though I agree that his anthropology/social science falls into the “endless progress forward” trap.

  12. Godel Escher Bach is MATHEMATICS?!?!?! Argh. How about Euclid? Liber Abaci? Disquisitiones arithmeticae?
    And while the Principia is pretty unreadable, Galileo’s dialog books (especially the dialog on two new sciences) are very readable – in Italy they’re part of the literature curriculum because Galileo’s prose is so good.

    The whole list is of course a UK-centred scam, done so that people can feel smarter than the writer.

  13. Wow, I haven’t heard of half of those. Euclid, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Adam Smith are obvious omissions. I don’t see how you can not have the Bible and other religious books though I guess some would argue that they are fiction.

    This seems like a much better list (one guy’s picks) although some are fiction.

  14. So you have heard of Newton and heard of the Principia, but have you ever READ it? It is a terribly influential book, but it is also terrible to read. The use of complicated geometrical arguments rather than the more modern mathematics we know also make it heavy going. In fact, I’d say the only interesting section is early on when he introduces two distinct “vis” as a way to define away Aristotle’s notions about forces needed to remain in motion. It is a clever trick, and I sometimes wonder if it would help teaching mechanics. It might even help grasp ideas like “forces of constraint” in later courses.

    I endorse Feynman’s Physical Law over Newton’s Principia.

    I was struck by the fact that one of the books in the Art category was the textbook for one of my college humanities classes, one that I did not sell back. It only lacks art since 1950.

    Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire should be required reading in every American Empire school if it weren’t such heavy going.

  15. Can’t agree with you on Godel, Escher and Bach, Dami. These books are for a general audience, after all. I read that book as a teenager. Up until then I had not heard of Godel’s theory or ANY kind of theoretical math. It blew my mind.

    I agree with you that they are way too light on math books. And why separate categories for biographies and memoirs, there were an inordinate amount of both.

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