Fifty Best Non-Fiction Books of the Twentieth Century

I love book lists.  I love bibliographies.  I love those listings and rankings that purport to tell us the best books, the most important books, the essential books.  Book lists are about the closest thing in my life to participation in a competive sport.  When I see a list, I begin doing a few mental stretches, take a few deep breaths, and plunge into the fray.  Every book list is a fight, a contest, a disputation.  “Why is that on the list?” and “I can’t believe they left off such and such” and on it goes.

The Intercollegiate Review, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, posted the “Fifty Best Books of the Century.”  (A follow-up is the “Fifty Worst Books of the Century.”)  I have enjoyed the books and articles from ISI for quite a few years.  I generally like what they say and promote.  Note that their list, made up by several ISI scholars, has several restrictions:  1.  It is confined to 20th Century Books.  2.  It includes only non-fiction.  3.  It is only books that were originally published in English.  Read their comments here.  I will post my comments below.

By the way, this list really makes me feel illiterate, backwards, and uneducated.  That is a pretty good assessment of my life.  I will be trying, however, to master at least a few more of the selections they have included.

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

I started this book last summer and finished it this summer.  Often quoted and included on many lists of classics, The Education of Henry Adams is interesting at points, confusing at other points, eloquent, and yet full of complaints about life, education, politics, and society.  I am still unsure as to the overall message.

2. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1947)

I have read this several times.  It is not one of my favorite Lewis books, but it is often quoted.

3. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)

This is a revered book by many.  I have read and used portions of it.

4. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (1932, 1950)

I still cringe over not buying a collection of Eliot’s essays at an antique store some years back.  I have read his Christianity and Culture and admire much of his poetry.

5. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (1934–61)

Is Toynbee still read and noticed?  I have some of his books.  Also, I read C. Gregg Singer’s study of him some years back.

6.  Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

Even though I have read of this book often, I don’t have it.  But I need it,

7. Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (1945)

I have this book.  I think Barzun’s Dawn of Decadence is a great book.  It would be on my list.

8. Walter Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (1975)

Don’t have it, but I am starting to plod through the classic work Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

9.  Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry (1938)

I have an treasure a couple of copies of this book.  ANYTHING by Cleanth Brooks is on my list of essential books.  Warren was also great.

10.  Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)

It’s funny (although I am not laughing) how history majors are never instructed on the topic of history.  I have a book by Butterfield and wish that I had Keith Sewell’s study of Butterfield.

11.  G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)

Great, yes, really great.  Why are there not more college courses on Chesterton?

12.  Winston Churchill, The Second World War (1948–53)

I have this set, but have only read the more condensed one volume version.  Churchill is the only historian to win the Nobel Prize for literature.  I still lament not buying a nice set of Churchill’s biography of Marlborough that I once found at an estate sale.

13. Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy (1946–53)

Often recommended.  I do not have any of the multi volumes in this set.

14.  Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950)

Anything by Dawson is on my list and most are on my shelf.  I even try to get the original Sheed and Ward editions.

15.  Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (1992)

Don’t have it, but it is on my wish list.

16.  Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958–74)

Read it and loved it.  Got to hear Mr. Foote speak some years back.  Great set of books.

17.  Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (1934–35)

All of Freeman’s biographies (on Lee, Lee’s Lieutenants, and George Washington) are prizes to be sought and won.

18.  Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)

Friedman was a great economic thinker.  Probably banned from the White House today.

19.  Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1972)

I have read and prized several of Genovese’s books, but don’t have this defining work.

20.  Frederick von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960)

I did not find this in my study.  I feel like a bum.

21.  Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)

Don’t have it.

22.  Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

Don’t have it, but have seen it referenced many times.

23.  Paul Johnson, Modern Times (1983)

Anything by Paul Johnson is a high priority.  Read this book when it first came out.

24.  John Keegan, The Face of Battle (1976)

Keegan was the best of military historians.  Have it and have read it.

25.  Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953)

I have this book and quite a few others by Russell Kirk.  He was a leading founding father of the modern conservative movement.

26.  Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (1936)


27.  Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981)

Huh, again?

28.  Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (1948–81)

I would love to have this set.  I had the hope a few months back that my friend John Barach would be able to snatch it up for me for a trifle, but alas.

29.  H. L. Mencken, Prejudices (1919–27)

Mencken is a favorite infidel amongst many Christians.  He is wonderful for hit acidic wit and conservatism.

30.  Thomas Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain (1948)

I have this book, and I first learned of Merton in a biographical book on several brilliant Catholics (which included Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy).

31.  Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941)

Have it, but only have read bits and pieces from Niebuhr.

32.  Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (1953)

My friend Andrew Sandlin like the author and book.  I have it.

33.  Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (1978)

I would have listed Mystery and Manners, but I enjoyed O’Connor’s letters as well.  Her fiction, and remember this list is only non-fiction, is essential.

34.  George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1952)

He wrote more than 1984 and Animal Farm.  I need this book.

35.  Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (1983)

I have several of Percy’s books, both fiction and non-fiction.

36.  Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)

Never heard of it.  [IMPORTANT UPDATE AS OF JULY 28:  I now have this book.  Found a nice paperback copy for a buck.  Read some reviews and decided it was worth the dollar and more.]

37.  Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966)

Have heard of it and the author, but do not have it.

38. George Santayana, Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography (1944)

No knowledge of this book.

39.  Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)

Need it.

40.  Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1953)

I have only indirect knowledge of Leo Strauss, an influence on many conservative thinkers.

41.  William Strunk & E. B. White, The Elements of Style (1959)

Have it, have read it several times, and have taught it several times.

42.  Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950)

Trilling was an influential literary critic in the 1950s.  Need it, but don’t have it.

43.   Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (1920)

Another gaping hole in my historical training.  On the other hand, you cannot study American history without absorbing bits and pieces of the Turner thesis.

44.  Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (1952)

I need some of Voegelin’s works and some summaries of his imporance.

45.  Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

Read it and taught it many times.

46.  James D. Watson, The Double Helix (1968)

I read almost no science.  Yet another glaring fault.

47.  Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore (1962)

Indirectly very familiar with this study.

48.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953)

Only have secondary understanding of Wittgenstein.  Greg Bahnsen, I miss you!

49.  Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979)

I recently passed up a nice copy of this book.

50.  Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)

Even though I have read a lot about the 1950s and 60s, I have not read this book.



2 thoughts on “Fifty Best Non-Fiction Books of the Twentieth Century

  1. Recommend Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Gives a philosophical history of the enlightenment project to justify morality in the wake of the ditching of special revelation. This project ended according to the author when Nietzsche exploded all foundationalisms.

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