Nonfiction Classics

We’ve spoke here a lot about the idea of a classic. What makes a book a classic? We most recently revisited this topic in early April here, and we have also spoken to this question in 2018 here, and, if you take a look at the comments, you will quickly see that many of us have also discussed this idea frequently on our own blogs, as you can see here, here, and here.

The definitions offered seem to focus on artistic quality and meaning, as well as some element of timelessness. Ruth at A Great Book Study shared a quote that seemed to resonate with many of us: “A classic brings you face to face with greatness.” Jillian writes, “A classic addresses the topic of the human condition in a MAKE YOU THINK AND BREAK YOUR BRAIN kind of way,” and that seems to be part of it, too. Anne Bennett reminds us of the Italo Calvino quote: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

What, then, is a nonfiction classic? What nonfiction books would you consider classics? Do you have more fiction or more nonfiction on your list of classics? Which (nonfiction or fiction) is more timeless? Does one or the other have more literary quality?

After two years of thought and research, Robert McCrum posted his list, The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time in The Guardian. He also reflected on his thought process in creating the list here. Of course, there are many, many other lists of nonfiction classics, like the Modern Library list and the list created from an algorithm of 128 “best of” book lists at The Greatest Books.

I ask these questions as a way of having you take a look at your list in preparation for Nonfiction November. Julie at JulzReads posted on Friday, October 2 sharing details about Nonfiction November. Perhaps you can find a book or two from your Classics Club list to read next month with the group. If not, maybe you can add a classic nonfiction book or two to your list.

What books would you consider to be nonfiction classics?

49 thoughts on “Nonfiction Classics

  1. I don’t have many non-fiction classics on my list, probably because I prefer to read about current affairs there. But there are a few

    Douglass, Frederick “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” – 1845
    Jacobs, Harriet Ann (Linda Brent) “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” – 1861
    Rhoides, Emmanuel (Emmanuel Roidis) “The Curious History of Pope Joan” (gr.: Papissa Ioanna) – 1866
    Marx, Karl “Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie” (Capital. Critique of Political Economy) – 1867
    Elbogen, Ismar; Sterling, Eleonore “Die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland” [The History of the Jews in Germany] – 1935/66

    It depends whether you give us a choice or draw a number, but this is how much I’m prepared.

    Great idea, by the way.

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  2. Great question. I had several come to mind almost immediately, but most have been mentioned already. Two that have not yet been mentioned (as far as I can tell): Democracy in America by Tocqueville, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

    (Thanks by the way for linking to my post on the subject of “great” novels)

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  3. NF books that I consider classics are (but not limited to) primary voices of history, including historical events, people, and ideas.

    For example, I just finished The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings by Olaudah Equiano, written before 1800, about Olaudah’s capture, enslavement, and eventual freedom. He provided a snapshot of the world around him during his life and travels from his first hand perspective and experience that an historian could not have done by just writing a text regurgitating someone else’s words. However, there are exceptions to that last part. I am just partial to primary voices.

    SOME past NF titles that stand out and some on my past CC lists are:

    Confessions [Augustine]
    Walden
    The Confessions [Rousseau]
    A Room of One’s Own
    City of God [Augustine]
    The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (though not a primary source)
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (not a primary source, but the use of primary sources was loud and clear)
    The Journals of Lewis and Clark
    Diary of Anne Frank
    Night
    The Four Voyages [Columbus] (though not the original log book, a copied version written by Columbus’ son)

    Like Jillian said about NF books “overturning conceptions,” I wonder what different personal responses people would have after reading The Four Voyages from a very close source, instead of regurgitating what society has spewed about Columbus every year on Columbus Day (which is this coming Monday!)

    Reading history, especially, from very close sources (if not primary) helps form an idea, an understanding, and a new picture of what it may have been like to live during [Columbus’] time; it helps explain what the character was thinking and maybe provides a WHY he did what he did; it allows for compassion and empathy, to dare to walk in the shoes of someone else, as reading SHOULD DO.

    It should cause the reader to look at herself and compare: what would I do? How could that have been different? And consider, am I really not much better? Who am I to judge? And then you carry that thinking into your real life because there is non-fiction happening all around us. You don’t go violently tear down a Columbus statue because you hate what you think Columbus stood for: violence and hatred! It seems hypocritical. It’s like people who call someone an “Uncle Tom,” when chances are, they never read the book and don’t even know what its message is.

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    1. Primary source material is my favorite. It’s SUCH an adventure. Well, that & biographies. I love trying to discover the truth wedged between all the different perspectives. I love immersing in the culture of another era — its attitudes, its beliefs, & seeing who people truly were, how we are similar, where we came from.

      I love this line in your remarks: “there is non-fiction happening all around us.” YES. We are protagonists walking through books filled with historical filters the future will find puzzling. One benefit of reading history is to realize those filters exist.

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    2. Reading classic history also allows us to see patterns of thought and behavior. Recognizing these should give us the opportunity to see those patterns we like and find ways to cultivate them as well as to observe patterns we don’t like and explore ways to limit these in our world today.

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  4. The difficulty with making any kind of a list of non fiction classics is that the scope is so broad. How can you compare a play with a memoir, a collection of poetry with a book on political thought? In the lists you mention they are all lumped in with each other. How is poetry even classed as non fiction (as in the Guardian list)? They are not works of fact or opinion…

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    1. In this sense, nonfiction is taken to mean anything that is not a novel. In (most) libraries, books are broadly classified as either fiction or nonfiction, and nonfiction is anything with a Dewey number. In truth, all fiction books would be included with numbers, too, via Dewey’s system, but the number of fiction books was so big that they had to be pulled out of the system, though poetry and plays stayed within it. That has led to this odd situation.

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  5. Your post made me look at what nonfiction titles are on my current list. Here they are, if this can inspire anyone:
    Xavier de Maistre Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre (1794)
    Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience (1849)
    Robert Louis Stevenson Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879)
    Marcel Proust Days of Reading (1905)
    Owen Barfield History in English Words (1926)
    Virginia Woolf* A Room of One’s Own (1929)
    Edmund Wilson Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931)
    George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

    And on my first list were:
    Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck
    A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
    Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
    Le dictionnaires des idées reçues, by Gustave Flaubert

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  6. I’ll second The Diary of a Young Girl and Man’s Search for Meaning, both phenomenal memoirs.

    Another I’d mention is Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. It’s a great primary source, historically speaking, but you can also read it as a soldier’s memoir by someone who struggled greatly with their actions and their conscience. He was way before his time.

    Permanent Record by Edward Snowden will likely be considered a nonfiction classic someday. He describes how some of us felt coming of age during 9/11 and/or its aftermath, plus the technological changes both good and bad. Of course, it’s also historically significant in its description of the US government’s infringement on privacy.

    I think there will always be something timeless about primary sources. It’s true that historical information and perspectives change over time, but primary sources remain fixed pieces of data and that keeps them valuable, even if they’re flawed or inaccurate.

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  7. I think I’ve only read 1 non-fiction on my list so far and that’s Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, which I would definitely say is a classic. It asks a timeless question about humankind and is written in the most beautiful prose. It makes you sad, happy, angry, disbelieving and more.

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  8. I’ve got eleven non-fiction books on my classics club list of which I’ve read six, the most recent being Mary Wollstonecraft. (I really need to blog about that!)

    I’ll throw out a few more I thought were great: William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Francis Parkman’s France and England in North America, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, and if those are all too serious, Lytton Strachey. Of what Jillian suggested and I had read, I agree, even including Grant, which surprised me when I read it.

    Not sure I think of poetry and drama as non-fiction, though clearly McCrum does. But is Shakespeare non-fiction? Not like the others we’ve mentioned.

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    1. The only way to think of plays and poetry as nonfiction is as not-a-novel, the way I described in another comment. In the minds of many, these are included in nonfiction because they are to be found within the nonfiction sections of most libraries.

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  9. I had forgotten this interesting challenge. I will post on what is on my TBR shelves and what I consider classics. How does a classic non-fiction book stay classic? It depends on the subject for sure. I read mainly historical non-fiction. Historical data always changes with times and new discoveries or new research. There are other areas where the data does not change that much. But even biographies can change when more information about the subject is known, or times change so you can speak more openly about certain aspects of a person’s life.
    From my own shelves, two books come into my mind. They are of course favourites of mine. That is Barbara Tuchman’s ‘A Distant Mirror’ about the tumultuous 14th century. The other one is rather new. It is Christopher Clark’s book about the start of World War I, ‘The Sleepwalkers’. A book like the last one can still find new research, but it is so thoroughly researched already, so I think it will stay updated for years to come. Tuchman’s book I read about 30 years ago, so there might be new information on the subject. I still think her thorough look at this historical part of Europe will still be valid today.
    See you in Non-fiction November.

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    1. I wonder if there are fewer books of nonfiction than fiction that are widely considered to be classics. Very old science texts might be seen as completely irrelevant today, for example, and very old history books might seem to come from a point of view that neglects and marginalizes other points of view.

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    2. I get to read Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror for the WEM history project, and probably will get to it next year. I was told I “would love it.” So we’ll see.

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  10. This is such a great question — & thank you for asking it. I haven’t really thought about it & have just had a glance through my own “read” list to see which non-fiction works I’d class as “classic.”

    They are: Walden by Henry David Thoreau, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An America Slave, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Night by Elie Wiesel, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft.

    What, then, is a nonfiction classic? What nonfiction books would you consider classics? Do you have more fiction or more nonfiction on your list of classics? Which (nonfiction or fiction) is more timeless? Does one or the other have more literary quality?

    I would consider everything I listed above a non-fiction classic — because it seeks to overturn ideas in its generation & reorder the reader’s thinking, & because it does so intelligently. Even the Grant book does that by overturning conceptions about both Grant (that he was an unintellectual butcher & alcoholic) & the war itself. He does the latter by depicting the war as inevitable, terrible, & full of scenes of deep humanity, as in when he describes the response by Northern soldiers at the fall of Vicksburg (having fought for so long, when the Confederates finally surrendered, the Northern soldiers not only silently honored the moment — but offered the starving men their own food as they passed.) The memoir also covers Grant’s own deep respect for Lee when the older man surrendered at Appomattox, & Grant’s disgust with the purposes of the Mexican War.

    In Walden the book is ostensibly about getting away from civilization & surviving alone, but at a deeper level, it is about opening your eyes and seeing — everything. Every detail. And thereby seeing your own world more deeply — noticing injustice, thinking things through. A Room of One’s Own is a staple work of feminist literature: it impacted the ages. So did A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Each work built on prior works, responded to its age & the writings before it, to say ENOUGH and suggest something new. Night and Man’s Search for Meaning, The Diary of a Young Girl, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Testament of Youth — these works take terrible experiences & suggest humanity has the strength, tools, & capacity to overcome humanity’s very worst circumstances. The authors write of human life & extend a feather of humanity & hope not only into their own eras, but into the next, & the next, & the next.

    I think non-fiction classics do what fiction classics do: they last, & they shake up the human desire to sink into comfortable thinking. They scream ENOUGH! OPEN YOUR EYES. They do not settle into lethargy.

    I don’t think one is more timeless than the other. Each is a product of its own era & speaks to the ages as well as its peers. For me, poetry is the most timeless.

    Another super-tough question would be — how does poetry achieve its classic status? I’d be tempted to say IT BREAKS YOUR BRAIN too, but how can we tell when it’s breaking our brain because it has said something monumental, & when it’s breaking our brain because it is simply incomprehensible. 🙂 (I am joking. But truly. Poetry is quite undiscussed & scary. I know what I like but have never thought about WHY. Except that it seems so well-written, & seems to have a theme & a purpose that goes deep & surprises me. My favorites (Ariel, Leaves of Grass, John Brown’s Body, The Wasteland) do everything I say non-fiction classics do above — but in the language of poetry — which makes the message deeper, harder to find, better-won when at last it is discovered.

    As for my list? I think I have a lot of fiction on my list. But I also have poetry, drama, biographies, memoirs, letters, essays. I consider it classic when it surprises me by making me think in a new way. I think the writing style contributes to that effect: is it folksy, a little scattered, then suddenly surprising? Probably purposeful. It doesn’t have to be precise & lovely to be good writing. It needs to do its job, which is to show you a different door, & open the world’s eyes to humanity’s terrible and lovely potential. Whether fiction, poetry, drama, prose — its whole role is to look you in the eye until you cannot help but admit that possibly you are a tad close-minded & ought to have a think. And thereby influence the ages.

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    1. I like this a lot: “…because it seeks to overturn ideas in its generation & reorder the reader’s thinking, & because it does so intelligently….” We as humans tend to get frozen in thought, and, when that happens, something that was alive dies. I seem to need a continual infusion of fresh ways of seeing that reading brings me.

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      1. Thank you! I couldn’t take it on either, ha ha! But I feel it would be relevant for the club. Maybe if no one wants to “instruct” on the topic, it could just be an open thread for sharing our budding ideas & collective experience. As in, have we read any poetry for the club? Have we any one our lists — & such.

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        1. Ha ha — that said, I haven’t even read much poetry. And most of the ones I have read, I appear to have never written about. I shared paintings rather than writing about Ariel (I couldn’t think what to say!), & of John Brown’s Body only shared a bunch of quotes from the poem I’d liked. I have read a ton of Leaves of Grass but never in order, & never journaling anything. All I remember is the interesting idea that the “leaves” are like people, & together they make a lawn. Ergo, democracy is a good thing — and American democracy seems to be the topic of the poem. Of The Wasteland I wrote nothing. I only remember that the lines were electric and related to the feeling of loss after World War One. Ha ha! THAT IS ALL. 😛

          So possibly I’d be totally useless in such a conversation. 😉

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    2. “I think non-fiction classics do what fiction classics do: they last, & they shake up the human desire to sink into comfortable thinking. They scream ENOUGH! OPEN YOUR EYES. They do not settle into lethargy.”

      “I don’t think one is more timeless than the other. Each is a product of its own era & speaks to the ages as well as its peers. For me, poetry is the most timeless.”

      Yes, and yes!! (Although I have yet to really delve into poetry…but I am excited to do so.)

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  11. I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood on my Classics Club list. The quality of the writing makes the book a classic in my opinion, but I believe In Cold Blood is also considered to be a classic because it brought the ‘non-fiction novel’ genre to the world’s attention.

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    1. I agree with you, I think this is a classic, for the reasons you mention above. I have still not read it, but it is on my list. I did grab it the other week from a second-hand shop. Unfortunately, the text was so small I gave it up.

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        1. I love the idea that the beautiful writing contrasts the subject matter: that’s a really interesting point. Almost like to make beauty of our potential ugliness? As in, how we write of a topic can color how we feel about it. Such is the power of literature.

          I own this book, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it yet because the subject matter intimidates me. I don’t want to read a deep study of a brutal murder. I’d far rather read about the Alcott sisters & cozy jaunts to the lake to see Laurie. 😉

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          1. Jillian, my advice to anyone preparing to read In Cold Blood is not to read it before bedtime, not during Christmastime, and don’t watch the film after you read the book. The story is seared into my brain, and I am haunted by it all these years later. Having said that, it is regretful because it is magnificent narration, and [I] wish all non-fiction was retold in this manner. You would even like the Harper Lee connection in all of it, too. But, you already know, it is extremely difficult content.

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            1. There was a book out a couple years ago about Harper Lee’s participation in a separate case involving murder, & everyone thought I’d jump on it, but I shrank away from it for the same reason. I just don’t find such a topic at all to my taste. I likely will read In Cold Blood as I own a copy, but everything in me is disinclined to the idea.

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          2. I was completely unfamiliar with the events of In Cold Blood and had previously thought the story was fiction. When I finished I felt intrigued by the story (which was on the other side of the world and a long time ago, although for the people who live in Holcomb, it probably seems more current). The clarity and beauty of his writing left me feeling equally intrigued by Truman Capote.
            The Little Women stories are my go-to when I want comforting, too. Or Anne of Green Gables 🙂 They are such a happy escape.

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            1. Time & distance wouldn’t help for me, though full disclosure: I’m from the States. I just rather go to Victorian London & prance about the streets with Dickens humming Christmas carols, ha ha!

              I did finally watch the movie Capote last year, so that’s a step! It’s about the writing of In Cold Blood. Once I watched the movie, I went to my copy of In Cold Blood & thought “This is the time! I can read it.” Then I read two lines & thought, “Nope, not the time.” I think it’s the medium combined with the subject matter: the world is so dark & books are you & the author & the topic in a room together looking one another in the face. I’d a sight rather walk with Thoreau through some autumn forests & think about humanity’s possibilities than hash over some brutal act that should never have happened & doesn’t sing my blood with poetry.

              I know it is me. I stand alone. 🙂 I will read him one day. I own the book.

              Of Capote’s work, I have read & very much recommend his collection A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor. I wrote (eight years ago when I read it), “[These stories are] a kitchen with a stove, ‘fruitcake weather,’ cutting down the Christmas tree, homemade gifts between penniless friends, Odd Henderson and the cameo, sick days spent in bliss at Miss Sook’s skirt dusting the furniture, and kites on a winter sky.” 😉

              Oh, yes! Anne of Green Gables is an excellent cozy one!

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