Five Books that Changed our World

It puzzles me that Harvard offers no courses on non-fiction narrative. I like novels, but why the English department offers nothing on non-fiction as literature (except in the context of writing courses) seems a travesty of judgment.

If I were to pick five non-fiction narratives to build a course around, I think I would choose these:

  • “History of Standard Oil,” Ida Tarbell. Published in 1904, it established trusts as a thing that needed beating down by nothing less than the federal government. It made John D. Rockefeller infamous (and richer than ever), and established journalism that brooked power.
  • “Hiroshima,” John Hersey. A narrative from 1946 that still evokes awe amongst journalists, and chronicles the human effect of perhaps the most impactful technology of the 20th century.
  • The “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby,” by Tom Wolfe, 1965. I’m tempted to put Joan Didon’s excellent “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” instead, because of its connected narrative threads. But Wolfe’s style provoked more imitators (perhaps because it was easier to imitate than Didion) and I think a non-fiction narrative class needs to look at something by Wolfe. The nonfiction novel trend of the ’60s also merits mention, notably Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Mailer’s “Army of the Night” and Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
  • “All The Presidents’ Men,” Woodward and Bernstein, 1974. Sparked the end of trusting in the powerful, and inspired a generation. Maybe two.
  • “The Perfect Storm,” Sebastian Junger. The book that confirmed narrative non-fiction as the most important kind of long-form writing at the end of the 20th century.

All of them electrified readers and writers alike, and I think established important cultural markers just like great novels. I’d take this class.

2 thoughts on “Five Books that Changed our World

  1. A few more. They influenced, electrified and inspired me in my youth, anyway:
    “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote
    “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” Hunter S. Thompson
    “The Diary of a Young Girl,” Anne Frank
    “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Alex Hailey

  2. Thanks, Howard. Maybe I’ll get to teach that. i think it would be interesting to contrast Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (fictional journalism) with Armies of the Night (a nonfiction Novel)

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