Saturday, April 18, 2009

Top Ten Non-Fiction Books (Non-Academic)

As promised, I am running through three top ten lists: my favorite academic books, my favorite non-fiction books from outside academia, and my favorite fiction books. Yesterday, I went through my favorite academic books; you can click here to see that list. For the fiction list, you will have to wait a day or two.

Anyways, what follows is an unranked list of the best non-fiction non-academic books.

1. Bill Buford, Among the Thugs

The greatest book I have ever read. No, seriously. I blogged about this brilliant book a few months ago, but the short and sweet story is: this book is about the way crowds and mobs work, about football hooligans and weekends in England and Italy, and casual violence -- all woven together in arresting and captivating writing. If you don't follow my advice this one time, if you don't buy or borrow this book from your local library, if you don't wolf it down the way Harold and Kumar do those burgers at White Castle, then you are dead to me, and you should stop reading this blog. Seriously.

2. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs And Steel

A history of everything. Rather, an explanation of everything -- using basic facts about population settlement and geography as the tools to do so. Awe-inspiring in the breadth of human history covered.

3. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Is there a better writer alive than Gladwell? If there is, I am unaware of their existence. This was Gladwell's best book, at least in my mind, because it didn't straw-man arguments as much as Outliers (does anyone actually believe success is merely the result of talent?) and more engaging than The Tipping Point (which tended to menader at times). And the chapter on the Bronx shooting of Amadou Diallo? Genius. Absolute genius.

4. Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader For A Day

Venkatesh was a sociology PhD student here at U of C, and spent his years here researching the gangs on the South Side. While he has a bunch of academic stuff published on his time living side-by-side with gangs in housing projects, this book is written for a more pop-type audience. It's super interesting, and contains information and anecdotes you really won't be able to find anywhere else. FYI, Venkatesh is now a professor of sociology at Columbia. And Freakonomics blog readers will recognize him as a regular contributor there.

5. David Halberstam, Playing for Keeps

The best book I've ever read on Michael Jordan. The level of research and the number of people interviewed is off the charts -- even Michael's roommates from North Carolina get their moment in the sun.

The book basically tells the story of Michael's life until his second retirement (1999), and the Chicago Bulls' rise from also-ran to dynasty. It's got some really fun anecdotes and is really well written. The only drawback is that it isn't edited particluarly well -- there are a couple of things said again and again -- but that doesn't take away too much from the quality of the book.

6. Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)

Ok, I may be stretching the definition of "non-fiction" here, but whatever, it's my list. Colbert is, well, Colbert. If you enjoy his show, or his ballsy speech at the White House correspondents dinner a couple of years ago, then you will love his book. I understand Colbert is not for everyone, but I don't think I've ever laughed this hard reading a book.

7. Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I'm just going to copy and paste what I wrote about this book a year or so ago:

Truss is a grammar-phile. More accurately, she's a those-who-fuck-up-grammar-phobe. In a hilarious treatise on the state of grammar in today's world, Truss takes aim at all those who write incorrect or badly-written sentences. It's not just a railing against bad writing, however. Truss also describes in great detail the exact ways in which commas, apostrophes, and other punctuation marks should be used.

You should buy/read this book if: you want to laugh for three straight hours, or you're an adult and your grammar is terrible and you need help (ahem, AKS. Ahem).

You should not buy/read this book if: you don't think grammar is all that big a deal, or if you have no sense of humor.

8. Steve Waugh, Out of My Comfort Zone

The best sports autobiography I've ever read. The level of detail and care with which the book mirrors the level of detail and care Waugh took with his own career. It really is quite striking -- especially coming from the laissez-faire culture of preparation that all Pakistani cricket fans are used to -- how dedicated and hard-working this guy was. The determination to get better every single day may be a cliche, but for Steve Waugh, it was a mission statement. And the book has some great stories too. If you're a cricket fan, you have to read this book, if only to see how pathetic your favorite team/player looks when put up against Steve Waugh and his work ethic.

9. Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm

Absolutely and positively the best book I've ever read on Pakistan, its politics, and its history. The best thing about the book is how it appeals to different sorts of people: both those trying to learn something about the country for the first time, as well as area specialists and experts, can learn a great deal from this book. It's written by a former Pakistan correspondent for the BBC, and consequently is written as a long journalistic account than anything else. And its subject-by-subject breakdown is also useful more so than most writers' chronological accounts.

10. Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai

A gripping and powerful account by a woman caught up in China's cultural revolution in the 60s and 70s. Reading personal stories of people facing tyranny and torture in the face is always awe-inspiring to me. One thing that sticks out is the extent to which these people can be completely stoic and unyielding in such circumstances (Survival in Auschwitz is similar in this regard). Anyways, this particular book is about Nien's imprisonment and daily battle with Mao's Red Guards, the torture, hunger and pain she underwent on a daily basis, and how she refused to lose. It almost feels fictional at times -- which I suppose is testament to her struggle, and her courage in conquering it.


bubs said...

I loved Eats, Shoots and Leaves but I also loved this brutal takedown of the book in The New Yorker.

Sputnik said...

I am now commenting on your blog post. First, however, I would like to point out that your 3:0 ratio of traded comments is overstated. For one, your first comment was 1/3 nitpicking, 1/3 legitimate comment and 1/3 fishing for compliments. I will count that as .333 of a real comment. Your second comment is a plug for your upcoming blog post and, much to my surprise, a deflection of the compliment that you previously solicited. I won't count the former but I'll count the latter for .666 of a comment. Your third comment was a misplaced seven words- I will give you no credit for that. Thus is sum, you have achieved one real comment. Thus with this post, we are now equal.

Seriously though, I enjoyed your list. I'm a little surprised that a biography of Michael Jordan could be #5- What's so interesting about him? I mean, I enjoyed Lance Armstrong's biography but he had cancer and perseverance to make it interesting (still it would never make a top ten list). Does Jordan have similar things that I'm unaware of?

I disagree with you on the Tipping Point vs. Blink distinction. At the end of Tipping Point, I felt that I could say something new about how the world worked. By the end of Blink, I felt like everything was a wash because the second half of the book canceled the first part.

I haven't read 8-10, but since I have been persuaded by your book-judging ability over the past few years, I'll check them out...

Ahsan said...

Sputnik: Don't bother checking out the no.8, because you're American, and Americans don't understand cricket (even those born in Australia).

As for your percentage breakdown of my comments on your blog, I was NOT fishing for compliments, but merely credit. Similar to the way you try to convince to give your favorite band a try -- if your friend ends up going to their concerts, you want to remind them where it started. Wouldn't you feel the same way if I suddenly fell in love with Lousiv XIV?

As for the Michael Jordan book, Micahel Jordan was my favorite athlete growing up. He holds a special place in my heart, and I suspect, many others.

Fair enough on Blink. But I think his main point was: trust your instinct when you've been trained, and don't when you haven't. Have you read Outliers yet? I have it; you can borrow it any time.

Anonymous said...

G, G, and S is a very good read. I found Diamond's comparison of medieval China vs. Europe very interesting and his (plausible sounding) explanation for why China got kind of stuck technologically and Europe didn't. Favorite line,"History followed different courses for different people because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves."

Blink is a unbelievably interesting book.I really enjoyed the look into how we made up my mind about someone or something, or get a bad feeling, with out perhaps knowing why. "My subconscious knows why, it just doesn't always let me know." It is truly amazing to imagine how much can be told by the contours of the facial muscles. I found it to be truly fascinating how much emphasis our minds give to both the words and facial expressions that carry them. Both are so intrinsic to understand and communicate.It is a nice stepping stone to learn more about those snap judgments that we make every second in the 'Blink of an eye'.

somethingrichandstrange said...

seeing as i've enjoyed several books on this list (buford, gladwell, venkatesh, colbert, truss and jones), it seems reasonable to assume that you'd like non-academic, non-fiction books that i might recommend. you should give suketu mehta's 'maximum city' a shot.

Omar said...

I'm really glad to see Owen Bennett-Jones on the list. The guy is a fantastic journalist and writer. I've been fortunate enough to have met him once and for an outsider, his insight into the 'Pakistani way' of things is fascinating.

Ahsan said...

Oba: You met Owen Bennett Jones? When? And how?

AKS said...


Thank you for the link.


You need to read the New Yorker piece, it explains exactly why my grammar is bad. It has everything to do with the fact that the British are awful grammarians and since I've only ever studied under the British system of education, it is natural that my grammar should suck. Mind you I got a 97 in O-Level English.

Omar said...

Dude, I met him at Karachi Airport back when I was in college, I think my sophomore year. He's a tall motherfucker. So being all journalism student I had to go up to him and talk...he was really cool, I mean he seemed really busy and stuff and had a bunch of Pakistani handler types with him. But he was quite gracious, and we just talked about news gathering and reporting live and stuff like that. I was pretty awestruck. He's one of those guys who talks without ever saying "ummmmm"...once.

supe said...

impossible. do people who never say ''mmmmm'' really exist - outside of TV and film?

i remember eye of the storm being recommended to be about 2 years ago by an italian journalist upon me telling him where i'm from. it was the most uncomfortable icebreaker ever. i felt a tad insulted, as if he'd said: ''oh so you're black? there's this brilliant book you should read about the slave trade.''
and then i responded with something bitchy about italy. cringe.

now that i've read this review, i think it sounds brilliant. will seek it out, then i'll know for sure if he was being mean or just friendly.

Aalya G said...

i came across this blog a few days ago just around the same time i was looking to expand my library and bought 4 of the 10 books you recommended. just started reading eats, shoots and leaves, the first of the 4 and its brilliant! Thanks for the list and i look forward to the fiction one.

Aalya Ghee.

Anonymous said...

AB: Waiting on fiction. Are you ever going to have time to get down to it?

Ahsan said...


I doubt it. I mean, I suppose I could find the time but I'm not really that interested anymore. I suppose I could just make a top ten list without giving any explanation of the whys and hows. But that would be boring and stupid. (Yes, yes, setting up the obvious joke of "So it would fit right in with everything else you say, then!").