A bit early for Christmas.
Calvin Trillin.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Ideas

The next category to consider on the old Time 100 Best Nonfiction list is something they call "Ideas." The books are as follows:

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom
The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama
Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson
The Nature and Destiny of Man, by Reinhold Niebuhr
Orientalism, by Edward Said
Syntactic Structures, by Noam Chomsky
A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls
Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Now here's a list that really put me to shame: I've read a total of two of them, and I didn't really understand those. And again I'm a bit stymied by the category: it seems almost like philosophy, but the Bloom title seems more like cultural criticism or current affairs, while Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems like kind of a lightweight compared to the rest. Maybe I'm wrong on that, but I don't really know what the Time editors were shooting for here. And I out-and-out laughed at the idea of making it through the Chomsky and the Niebuhr: not likely in this lifetime (for me, anyway). Although I should read the Joseph Campbell and McLuhan titles; I've always wanted to.

So again I'm forced to cobble a few choices into a category I don't understand. I'm not a huge philosophy reader, and if I'm looking for Ideas books I tend to go to a category that I think of as "Making Sense..." (As in, Making Sense...of ourselves; Making Sense...of each other; Making Sense...of our culture, etc.) Others have sometimes labeled these books Big Think, or Bright Ideas, or many other names. I suppose we could all be honest and call them "NF Books That Don't Really Fit Anywhere Else," but that wouldn't be as catchy. Another thing I find interesting about this category is that many of these types of books are emphatically NOT narrative...but people read them recreationally (or not really based on subject) anyway. But that's a different fight for a different day: "Why I hate the term narrative nonfiction" (and the tangential argument "Why I hate the term sure bet"). For now? My Ideas list:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. Of course it's become totally cliche now, to read a Malcolm Gladwell title, but you really should read this one anyway. It's an interesting read, about how sometimes an attention to detail can have a larger effect on the big picture than you might think, and it's an important title to know, because like Roger Putnam's Bowling Alone, it's been cited ad nauseum in other books and reviews.

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. An interesting look at how Americans are sorting themselves into communities where everyone looks like each other. Kind of the anti-melting pot scenario, if you will. An interesting topic and a well-written book. Perhaps this one should be Investigative instead, but it felt more like an academic book you could actually understand than it did a work of journalism.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. I'd never heard of him before, but evidently Jaron Lanier is a big name in the study of artificial intelligence. That made it much more interesting to read this book (although I'd like to read it again and see if I could understand more of it), cautioning about where we're headed with the technology we choose and use.

The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory, by Lori E. Amy. I reviewed this one a while ago; it knocked me over. Full of interesting questions about violence, gender roles, family dynamics, and how we treat one another not only in our families but in the larger world.

Anything by John Kenneth Galbraith; I find him fascinating. (And no, as long as we're on the subject of economics, I will not be suggesting Freakonomics, I think Steven Levitt plays fast and loose with his research.)

Two other authors who come to mind are Jacques Barzun and Christopher Lasch, but I've honestly never made it all the way through any of their works.

And that's all I've got? Ideas? Ideas on Ideas books? Anyone?

You'll notice my list is decidedly less intellectual than Time's. That'll happen. I suppose some Michel Foucault should be on it somewhere, for one thing. But I never did manage to cultivate an appreciation for Michel Foucault, even in college. (Fun true story to prove how dumb I am: the one class for which I was supposed to read Foucault was an introductory library school class, and my professor kept referring to monographs. And I always thought, what the fuck are you talking about? Even after I'd looked it up and knew it meant book I still got sidetracked EVERY SINGLE TIME the prof said "mongraph," with this on a loop in my brain: "Why are you saying monograph? Couldn't you just say book? Or scholarly book, just to change it up sometimes?" It struck me as so stupid, you go for 18-22 years with everyone calling them books, and all of a sudden you're supposed to call them monographs. And by the time I was done thinking about it, he'd be done explaining Foucault and I would have missed it. Sigh.)