U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The All-TIME 100 Best Non-Fiction Books

That’s “TIME” as in TIME Magazine. And “All-TIME” as in “written in English since TIME started publishing in 1923” (so no surprise appearances from Lucretius, Judah Halevi, Margaret Fuller or J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur).

TIME magazine published their list yesterday. While obviously of limited real significance and predictably full of questionable inclusions and exclusions, this is obvious U.S. Intellectual History fodder, as a starting point both for endless arguments about what should and shouldn’t be on the list and for discussions of what this all says about American thought and culture in 2011.

Have at it! (Complete list after the fold…)

Autobiography / Memoir





Food Writing




Nonfiction Novels



Self-Help / Instructional

Social History



9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Among the names that I’m surprised I don’t see (either in the sense of their belonging on the list, or that they might be expected to show up even if they didn’t belong):

    John Dewey, Robert Nozick, Walter Lippmann, Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek

  2. Has TIME done a list like this before? That would make an interesting comparison.

    Also, why do a list now? TIME isn’t 100 and there doesn’t seem to be anything special about this year, month, day, hour, minute, or second. This seems to be an outgrowth of the 100 people thing, which at least seems to have made some sense when they did it in 1999. (I’m sourcing this to wikipedia, and then just guessing, for what it’s worth.)

    This may be a long way of saying I wonder what the history of newspaper and magazine lists is.

  3. The categories are strange. Weird titles under “social history,” for instance. One hundred most important books of all time, in English of course! But even by the standards of _Time_, isn’t it surprising not to see _The Strange Career of Jim Crow_ under history, or Myrdal’s _American Dillema_, or Ralph Ellison, _Shadow and Act_ or James Baldwin’s _The Fire Next Time_? The list looks like a product of a bunch of editors tossing out titles off the top of their heads, without anyone going back and asking “what might we be missing?”

  4. When I saw _The Closing of the American Mind_ at the top of the “ideas” category, my first thought was, “Q.E.D.”

  5. @Dan: I think you’re probably close to correct when you wrote, “The list looks like a product of a bunch of editors tossing out titles off the top of their heads, without anyone going back and asking ‘what might we be missing?'”

    I say “close to” because the list does look like it’s been carefully, if superficially, “balanced” in various ways (especially between left and right).

    And I agree about those particular omissions (though Notes of a Native Son does make the list, and they seem to have limited everyone to a single book).

  6. It is a strange list. I’ve read Syntactic Structures, for one thing, and though it has probably had an enormous influence on our world, it is something most readers of Time can safely miss. And what is it doing in “Ideas”? It should be in “Science.” The idea of Time subeditors reading it alongside McLuhan and Campbell is faintly humorous. Surely they really wanted a different Chomsky title?

  7. The “ideas” category is almost an absurdity –especially to an intellectual historian. As my advisor says so enthusiastically, “Ideas are everywhere!”

    I was at a party last weekend with one of my housemates, and someone there asked me, “What are you getting your PhD in?”

    I said (unwisely and unhelpfully), “Intellectual history.”

    He got a puzzled look on his face and said, “Well, isn’t all history intellectual?”

  8. Like, in my opinion, every such list, it is weighted toward the more-recent past in a way that distorts the very point of these kinds of endeavors. And I agree with others who have stated the categorizations are kind of odd. Are they just inserted once the list was completed, to help the reader? That would make for apples-to-oranges comparisons. But if the categories themselves actually mattered, then I’d want to know how they decided which categories and how many books would represent them…because the categories seem a little odd.

    Finally, though, I question the use of the word “best.” It looks much more like a list of the most influential such books. As such a list, it’s as good as any other, given that all of them will irritate just about everyone. But as the “best,” I am less confident. A list of the best such books should be more idiosyncratic and debatable, and I’d expect fewer of the books to be ones that I know.

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