Monday, April 11, 2005

FAVORITES: Some Nonfiction I Love, Part I

If I wait until I have thought of and filled out all the categories, I'll be 90 when I post this. (Damn. I'm more than halfway there. Hmmm.) So I've decided to post this in bits and pieces.

So, here are some of my favorite books, conveniently sorted into categories. With notes, naturally. These are not The Best. They're the ones I return to over and over, seeking wisdom, comfort, laughter, whatever it is that books give me.


John Keegan, The Face of Battle -- Fascinating look at how ordinary soldiers experienced battle -- what they saw, heard, felt -- in three of the great battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme in WWI. Keegan writes elegant prose, and the ideas are astonishing. There are also a couple of chapters looking at historiography and the future of battle. Try to get one of the editions with photographs.

Priscilla Robertson, An Experience of Women. Well-written history with plenty of insight into both culture and character. It covers women's lives in Italy, France, Germany, and Great Britain during the 19th century. I also treasure it because it was one of the first books I ever worked on. (Also one of the most perfectly presented mss. I've ever handled.)

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror. Such a classic it's almost embarrassing to include it, but I like Tuchman's writing, and the period fascinates me.

Carolly Erickson, Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. I've done a lot of research into this period, and this book covers the ground thoroughly, from political movements to personal lives.

Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots and The Weaker Vessel (or anything else, really). She's a much better writer of history than of mystery.

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. The last czar and his family epitomize the tragedy of disconnection. Essentially pleasant, well-meaning people who genuinely wanted the best for their country, they nevertheless could not understand the implications of their behavior or perceive the damage they were doing, and they died for their ignorance. I find the DNA discussions (and the implications of identifying the Romanovs' bodies) absolutely riveting.

Norman MacLean, Young Men and Fire. Lyrical, dark, tragic, compulsively readable.


Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (and anything else). Oliver Sacks sees his patients in humanistic, spiritual, and scientific frameworks. This triple view gives rise to extraordinarily nuanced and profound writing about what it means to think, to feel, to remember, to forget.

Richard Preston, The Hot Zone. It's terrifying! It's educational! It will make your breath come short! Oh, and his other books -- American Steel, for example -- are equally good.

Dr. X, Intern. I know it's outdated. I read it when it was new (say, about 1965), and he'd been a practicing doctor for a while then. But this account of an intern's training (taken from a series of taped diary entries) has the immediacy and impact of watching it all happen live. A friend tells me that this book was written by Dr. Alan E. Nourse, who became a science-fiction writer. That information (which is readily confirmed by a Web search on Nourse) has solved a mystery that lasted forty years. Now I feel weirdly happy.

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