Best non-fiction books of 2011

I’ve already covered best economics books, best fiction, and the very best books.  General non-fiction remains missing.  It’s been a very good year, and these are the other non-fiction books which I really liked, a stronger list than the year before:

Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.

Daniel Treisman, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.

Frank Brady,  Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.

Javier Cercas, The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination.  In the waning of Franco’s time, how did Spain turn away from military rule and toward democracy?  Can a mediocre man make a difference in history simply by retreating at the right moment?  Can a political life boil down to a single response, under gunfire at that?  Half of this book is brilliant writing, the other half is brilliant writing combined with obscure, hard-to-follow 1970s Spanish politics (does Adrian Bulli understand the life of John Connally?  I don’t think so).  Cercas is a novelist, intellect, and historian all rolled into one, and he is sadly underrated in the United States.  There’s nothing quite like this book.  On top of everything else, if you can wade through the thicket, it is an excellent public choice account of autocracy.

Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: Religion of Protest.

Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life.  This vivid biography brings its subject to life through the extensive use of correspondence and quotation.  The reader gets an excellent feeling of how Bismarck’s government actually worked, his intensity and also his mediocrities, and also the importance of Bismarck in building up Germany as a European power.  The story is as gripping as a good novel.  Sadly, almost no attention is paid to the origins of the welfare state.  Still, this has received rave reviews and rightly so.

Daniel Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts.

Jacques Pepin, The Origin of Aids.

Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.

David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Peoples, and their Regions.

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.  Funny thing is, I read this on Kindle, didn’t have a physical copy to put in “my pile,” had no visual cue as to the continuing existence of the book, and thus I forget to cover it on MR.  I enjoyed it very much.

John Gimlette, Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge.  This book covers Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.  A revelation, I loved it.  Could Gimlette be my favorite current travel writer?

Robert F. Moss, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.

Anna Reid, Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II.

John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists, A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.  I’ll blog about this remarkable book soon.

What is striking is how many “big books” make this list, and that is exactly what you would expect in an age of Twitter, namely that a lot of shorter books are being outcompeted — aesthetically though not always economically — by on-line reading.

Here is the best “best books” list I’ve seen so far, apart from my lists of course.


Non-fiction mostly seems to equal "history". I can spot only one exception in the list above. Wish more non-fiction books that weren't historical made it to these lists. Though I'm damned if I can think of some candidates.

Seems like a diverse list to me. Many of the books are not of the "history" genre, but simply have a history component. It is hard to imagine a serious nonfiction book without at least some history.

It's an excellent list. I wasn't complaining about Tyler's list. Just thinking that most of the non-fiction bestsellers are dominantly historical.

Yeah, it makes eminent sense to write about things in the historical context. My question is whether there is good non-fiction which isn't mostly historical. Can't think of a lot in this bucket.

Fantastic List.

I hope his _Pursuit of Italy_ is better than the last Pink Floyd album.

Great list. If you have enough thoughts on Moonwalking with Einstein to make a blogpost I would like to read it.

Your book recs are the xmas wishlist is not complete without them.

Sorry sir, but J. Cercas is not a so good writer as you seem to think. He is not historian in the plaint sense of the word, because he is not always faithful to facts. His only merit is to be antifrancoist. As for writer, I think he is simply mediocre. For example, "Soldados de Salamina" is a false and bad novel, neither truly historic, nor fiction.

Over the Brady book, I would recommend a book from 2003 Bobby Fischer Goes to War. It's not as complete but I found it more interesting.

The "Moonwalking" book was a good Audiobook read.

Great list, I very often buy books based on your selections. I read the Pakistan book and have one minor quibble with it: the author has an enormous, persistent, and very visible inferiority complex as regards India. I think there must be several dozen sentences in the book along the lines of "Yes, this [ trend/statistic/policy ] is very bad/good in Pakistan, but if you look at the same thing in India you will see is even worse/better." It makes sense to me to place Pakistani realities in context, but the author really carries this to the extreme. I guess, on the bright side, this made me understand better the obsession with India that plagues Pakistan... Other than this, the book seemed comprehensive and (as far as I could tell) unbiased.

Okay, one more quibble: the author did not really need to tell us SO many times about how nice Pakistani highways are (grin)!

I'd add one more:

None of Us Were Like This Before, by Joshua E. S. Phillips

It's easily one of the best nonfiction books I've read in a while. Heartbreaking, but beautiful. Infuriating, yet illuminating. Seminal nonfiction, but told through deeply personal stories. A tremendous read. I really hope more people pick it up -- and soon. It seems esp. timely given the resurgent talk about torture.

i would absolutely, positively second the book "none of us were like this before"'s an amazing book!

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