The Non-Fiction 100

The 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century

EDITOR’S NOTE: “The 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century” appeared in the May 3, 1999, issue of National Review.

Earlier this year, Random House announced that it would release a list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. The publisher had enjoyed success (and controversy) with its 100 best novels; now it would do this. Here at National Review, we decided to get a jump on them by forming our own panel and offering our own list. Under the leadership of our reporter John J. Miller, we have done so. We have used a methodology that approaches the scientific. But-certainly beyond, say, the first 40 books-the fact of the books’ presence on the list is far more important than their rankings. We offer a comment from a panelist after many of the books; but the panel overall, not the individual quoted, is responsible for the ranking. So, here is our list, for your enjoyment, mortification, and stimulation.


Richard Brookhiser, NR senior editor; David Brooks, senior editor of The Weekly Standard; Christopher Caldwell, senior writer at The Weekly Standard; Robert Conquest, historian; David Gelernter, writer and computer scientist; George Gilder, writer; Mary Ann Glendon, professor at Harvard Law School; Jeffrey Hart, NR senior editor; Mark Helprin, novelist; Arthur Herman, author of The Idea of Decline in Western History; John Keegan, military historian; Michael Kelly, editor of National Journal; Florence King, author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady; Michael Lind, journalist and novelist; John Lukacs, historian; Adam Meyerson, vice president at the Heritage Foundation; Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things; John O’Sullivan, NR editor-at-large; Richard Pipes, historian; Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Stephan Thernstrom, historian; James Q. Wilson, author of The Moral Sense.


1. The Second World War , Winston S. Churchill

Brookhiser: “The big story of the century, told by its major hero.”

2. The Gulag Archipelago , Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

Neuhaus: “Marked the absolute final turning point beyond which nobody could deny the evil of the Evil Empire.”

3. Homage to Catalonia , George Orwell

Herman: “Orwell’s masterpiece-far superior to Animal Farm and 1984. No education in the meaning of the 20th century is complete without it.”

4. The Road to Serfdom , F. A. von Hayek

Helprin: “Shatters the myth that the totalitarianisms ‘of the Left’ and ‘of the Right’ stem from differing impulses.”

5. Collected Essays, George Orwell

King: “Every conservative’s favorite liberal and every liberal’s favorite conservative. This book has no enemies.”

6. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper

Herman: “The best work on political philosophy in the 20th century. Exposes totalitarianism’s roots in Plato, Hegel, and Marx.”

7. The Abolition of Man, C. S Lewis

Brookhiser: “How modern philosophies drain meaning and the sacred from our lives.”

8. The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset 

Gilder: “Prophesied the 20th century’s debauchery of democracy and science, the barbarism of the specialist, and the inevitable fatuity of public opinion. Explained the genius of capitalist elites.”

9. The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. von Hayek

O’Sullivan: “A great re-statement for this century of classical liberalism by its greatest modern exponent.”

10. Captiaism and Freedom, Milton Friedman

11. Modern Times, Paul Johnson

Herman: “Huge impact outside the academy, dreaded and ignored inside it.”

12. Rationalism in Politics, Michael Oakeshott

Herman: “Oakeshott is the 20th century’s Edmund Burke.”

13. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph A. Schumpeter

Caldwell: “Locus classicus for the observation that democratic capitalism undermines itself through its very success.”

14. Economy and Society, Max Weber

Lind: “Weber made permanent contributions to the understanding of society with his discussions of comparative religion, bureaucracy, charisma, and the distinctions among status, class, and party.”

15. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt

Caldwell: “Through Nazism and Stalinism, looks at almost every pernicious trend in the last century’s politics with stunning subtlety.”

16. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

Kelly: “For its writing, not for its historical accuracy.”

17. Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson

Lind: “Darwin put humanity in its proper place in the animal kingdom. Wilson put human society there, too.”

18. Centissimus Annus , Pope John Paul II

19. The Pursuit of the Millennium , Norman Cohn

Neuhaus: “The authoritative refutation of utopianism of the left, right, and points undetermined.”

20. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

Helprin: “An innocent’s account of the greatest evil imaginable. The most powerful book of the century. Others may not agree. No matter, I cast my lot with this child.” Caldwell: “If one didn’t know her fate, one might read it as the reflections of any girl. That one does know her fate makes this as close to a holy book as the century produced.”

21. The Great Terror, Robert Conquest

Herman: “Documented for the first time the real record of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. A genuine monument of historical research and reconstruction, a true epic of evil.”

22. The Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge

Gilder: “The best autobiography, Christian confession, and historic meditation of the century.”

23. Relativity: The Special and General Theory, Albert Einstein

Lind: “The most important physicist since Newton.”

24. Witness, Whittaker Chambers

Caldwell: “Confession, history, potboiler-by a man who writes like the literary giant we would know him as, had not Communism got him first.”

25. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn

26. Mere Christianity , C. S. Lewis

Neuhaus: “The most influential book of the most influential Christian apologist of the century.”

27. The Quest for Community , Robert Nisbet

28. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed

Helprin: “The infinite riches of the world, presented with elegance, confidence, and economy.”

29. Up in the Old Hotel , Joseph Mitchell

30. The Everlasting Men , G. K. Chesterton

Lukacs: “A great carillonade of Christian verities.”

31. Orthodoxy , G. K. Chesterton

O’Sullivan: “How to look at the Christian tradition with fresh eyes.”

32. The Liberal Imagination , Lionel Trilling

Hart: “The popular form of liberalism tends to simplify and caricature when it attempts moral aspiration-that is, it tends to ‘Stalinism.’”

33. The Double Helix , James D. Watson

Herman: “Deeply hated by feminists because Watson dares to suggest that the male-female distinction originated in nature, in the DNA code itself.”

34. The Feyman Lectures of Physics , Richard Phillips Feynman

Gelernter: “Outside of art (or maybe not), physics is mankind’s most beautiful achievement; these three volumes are probably the most beautiful ever written about physics.”

35. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers , Tom Wolfe

O’Sullivan: “Wolfe is our Juvenal.”

36. The Myth of Sisyphus and the Other Essays , Albert Camus

37. The Unheavenly City , Edward C. Banfield

Neuhaus: “The volume that began the debunking of New Deal socialism and its public-policy consequences.”

38. The Interpretation of Dreams , Sigmund Freud

39. The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Jane Jacobs

40. The End of History and the Last Man , Francis Fukuyama

41. Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker

42. The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter

Herman: “The single best book on American history in this century, bar none.”

43. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes

Hart: “Influential in suggesting that the business cycle can be modified by government investment and manipulation of tax rates.”

44. God & Man at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr.

Gilder: “Still correct and prophetic. It defines the conservative revolt against socialism and atheism on campus and in the culture, and reconciles the alleged conflict between capitalist and religious conservatives.”

45. Selected Essays, T. S. Eliot

Hart: “Shaped the literary taste of the mid-century.”

46. Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver

47. The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs

48. The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom

49. Ethnic America, Thomas Sowell

50. An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal

51. Three Case Histories, Sigmund Freud

Gelernter: “Beyond question Freud is history’s most important philosopher of the mind, and he ranks alongside Eliot as the century’s greatest literary critic. Modern intellectual life (left, right, and in-between) would be unthinkable without him.”

52. The Struggle for Europe, Chester Wilmot

53. Main Currents in American Thought, Vernon Louis Parrington

King: “An immensely readable history of ideas and men. (Skip the fragmentary third volume-he died before finishing it.)”

54. The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johann Huzinga

Lukacs: “Probably the finest historian who lived in this century. “

55. Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg

Neuhaus: “The best summary and reflection on Christianity’s encounter with the Enlightenment project.”

56. The Campaign of the Marne, Sewell Tyng

Keegan: “A forgotten American’s masterly account of the First World War in the West.”

57. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Hart: “A terse summation of the analytic method of the analytic school in philosophy, and a heroic leap beyond it.”

58. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Bernard Lonergan

Glendon: “The Thomas Aquinas of the 20th century.”

59. Being and Time, Martin Heidegger

Hart: “A seminal thinker, notwithstanding his disgraceful error of equating National Socialism with the experience of ‘Being.’”

60. Disraeli, Robert Blake

Keegan: “Political biography as it should be written.”

61. Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt

King: “A conservative literary critic describes what happens when humanitarianism over takes humanism.”

62. The Elements of Style , William Strunk & E. B. White

A. Thernstrom: “If only every writer would remember just one of Strunk & White’s wonderful injunctions: ‘Omit needless words.’ Omit needless words.”

63. The Machiavellians , James Burnham

O’Sullivan: “Burnham is the greatest political analyst of our century and this is his best book.”

64. The Reflections of a Russian Statesman, Konstantin P. Pobedonostsev

King: “The ‘culture war’ as seen by the tutor to the last two czars. A Russian Pat Buchanan.”

65. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin

66. Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene D. Genovese

Neuhaus: “The best account of American slavery and the moral and cultural forces that undid it.”

67. The ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound

Brookhiser: “An epitome of the aging aesthetic movement that will be forever known as modernism.”

68. The Second World War, John Keegan

Hart: “A masterly history in a single volume.”

69. The Making of Homeric Verse, Milman Parry

Lind: “Genuine discoveries in literary study are rare. Parry’s discovery of the oral formulaic basis of the Homeric epics, the founding texts of Western literature, was one of them.”

70. The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, Angus Wilson

Keegan: “A life of a great author told through the transmutation of his experience into fictional form.”

71. Scrutiny, F. R. Leavis

Hart: “Enormously important in education, especially in England. Leavis understood what one kind of ‘living English’ is.”

72. The Edge of the Sword, Charles de Gaulle

Brookhiser: “A lesser figure than Churchill, but more philosophical (and hence, more problematic).”

73. Robert E. Lee , Douglas Southall Freeman

Conquest: “The finest work on the Civil War.”

74. Bureaucracy , Ludwig von Mises

75. The Seven Storey Mountain , Thomas Merton

Neuhaus: “A classic conversion story of a modern urban sophisticate.”

76. Balzac , Stefan Zweig

King: “On the joys of working one’s self to death. The chapter ‘Black Coffee’ is a masterpiece of imaginative reconstruction.”

77. The Good Society , Walter Lippmann

Gilder: “Written during the Great Depression. A coruscating defense of the morality of capitalism.”

78. Silent Spring , Rachel Carson

Lind: “For all the excesses of the environmental movement, the realization that human technology can permanently damage the earth’s environment marked a great advance in civilization. Carson’s book, more than any other, publicized this message.”

79. The Christian Tradition , Jaroslav Pelikan

Neuhaus: “The century’s most comprehensive account of Christian teaching from the second century on.”

80. Strange Defeat , Marc Bloch

Herman: “A great historian’s personal account of the fall of France in 1940.”

81. Looking Back, Norman Douglas

Conquest: “Fascinating memoirs of a remarkable writer.”

82. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres , Henry Adams

83. Poetry and the Age, Randall Jarrell

Caldwell: “The book for showing how 20th- century poets think, what their poetry does, and why it matters.”

84. Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont 

Brookhiser: “What has become of eros over the last seven centuries.”

85. The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk

86. Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder

87. Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson

88. Henry James, Leon Edel

King: “All the James you want without having to read him.”

89. Essays of E. B. White

Gelernter: “White is the apotheosis of the American liberal now spurned and detested by the Left (and the cultural mainstream). His mesmerized devotion to the objects of his affection-his family, the female sex, his farm, the English language, Manhattan, the sea, America, Maine, and freedom, in descending order-is movingly absolute.”

90. Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

91. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe

92. Darwin’s Black Box, Michael J. Behe

Gilder: “Overthrows Darwin at the end of the 20th century in the same way that quantum theory overthrew Newton at the beginning.”

93. The Civil War, Shelby Foote

94. The Way the World Works, Jude Wanniski

Gilder: “The best book on economics. Shows fatuity of still-dominant demand-side model, with its silly preoccupation with accounting trivia, like the federal budget and trade balance and savings rates, in an economy with $40 trillion or so in assets that rise and fall weekly by trillions.”

95. To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson

Herman: “The best single book on Karl Marx and Marx’s place in modern history.”

96. Civilisation, Kenneth Clark

97. The Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes

98. The Idea of History, R. G. Collingwood

99. The Last Lion, William Manchester

100. The Starr Report, Kenneth W. Starr

Hart: “A study in human depravity.”


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