Three Best Nonfiction Books Ever

June 10, 2011

There are many nonfiction books that come to mind when the word “best” comes along, but the “best-ever” designation requires a good deal of agonizing. There are the works of David McCullough, of which my favorite is “Mornings on Horseback,” a moving account of the transformation of Teddy Roosevelt from asthmatic child to robust symbol of the rough-and-ready life, and of course books by the late David Halberstam, especially “The Best and the Brightest,” about the men who brought you the Vietnam War. I’d have to include “Praying for Sheetrock” by Melissa Fay Greene, a charming story of a little-known civil rights battle in coastal Georgia, and the tiny but big-hearted “Longitude” by Dava Sobel, who took a forgotten but hugely important moment in history — the development of the marine chronometer that made accurate navigation possible — and brought it back to life. But there are three books that I keep returning to time and again for stylistic and narrative counsel:

1In Cold Blood , by Truman Capote (1965). Capote’s book about the murder of a Holcomb, Kan., family by two drifters remains just as compelling as it was when first published. His voice conveys neither judgment nor anger, but rather a kind of veiled delight with the people and places he came across in his research, which only heightens the horror. He begins, for example, by depicting the town of Holcomb in a charmingly off-hand manner, as if he were a cheerful uncle describing his own home­-town over Thanksgiving dinner. Questions persist as to whether Capote fictionalized portions of the book and much to my sorrow he provided no source notes, but “In Cold Blood” continues today to serve as a model for anyone seeking to write truth as story.

2 The Guns of August , by Barbara Tuchman (1962). Whole libraries have been written about World War I, but Tuchman’s account remains the most captivating of the lot. That first paragraph describing the parade of dignitaries at the funeral of King Edward VII is one of the most beautiful, most ominous passages in prose. Tuchman lets us know her view of things — how idiotic the march toward war truly was — and succeeds because her prose is so deftly spiked with bitters and lemon. The book is dense with phrases that light the imagination, as when she describes “the red edges of war” spreading over the world, or demolishes one German commander as a man whose “training had not quite reached the adequate.”

3 A Night to Remember , by Walter Lord (1955). This book returned the Titanic to national consciousness. The story advances under its own steam, as it were, with readers experiencing each day, each moment, as if we were there on the Atlantic with all those other poor souls. Whenever I read it — and I’ve done so at least four times — I find myself hoping that maybe this time the ship will not sink. As Lord writes in the acknowledgments, “This book is really about the last night of a small town.”

Erik Larson is the author of “In the Garden of Beasts” and “Devil in the White City.”

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