Recommended Reading – Non-Fiction

This list could easily run to 25 titles, or 50, or more. I love factual writing. Done right, it calls for curiosity, insight, empathy, humility and the willingness to face (as Orwell puts it) unpleasant facts.

George OrwellDown and Out in Paris and London
Orwell took everything seriously, except himself, which makes this account of his experience as a Parisian kitchen drudge and London tramp insightful and grimly funny.

Susan Faludi
The Terror Dream
A brilliant, audacious polemic that argues America’s post-9/11 self-perception is shaped more by the enemy within than the threat from without.

Germaine Greer
The Female Eunuch
Even if you don’t agree with a word she says Greer is worth reading for the way she says it. Genius writing and bracing politics.

Barbara Ehrenreich
Nickle & Dimed
The essential text on the myth of the American Dream that, worryingly, gets more relevant every year.

Aiden HartleyThe Zanzibar Chest
Intense, disturbing and profoundly insightful first-person account of life as a war correspondent in Africa.

Martha GellhornTravels With Myself & Another
Possibly my favourite travel book of all time. Gellhorn, like Orwell, has no truck with self-pity (“moaning is unseemly,” she notes) which makes these tales of horror journeys perversely enjoyable.

Hunter S ThompsonFear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail
You don’t need to know or care about American politics to be enthralled by Thompson’s account of the 1972 Presidential race. Essential reading in an election year.

Charles BowdenMurder City
Almost hallucinogenic account of a year in Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, where the “War on Drugs” is a catalyst/excuse/smokescreen for a culture of brutality that, Bowden argues convincingly, is the natural end-product of unfettered 21st century globalised capitalism.

Phillip CaputoA Rumour of War
Classic first-person account of the Vietnam War.

David Simon & Ed BurnsThe Corner
Before The Wire Simon and Burns were on the corner, sharing the lives the victims of yet another American war of attrition as they crafted this masterpiece. One of the single best sustained acts of reportage I’ve ever read.

Excerpts On Writing – Hemingway’s Boat Response

Oscar Wilde said he always travelled with his diary because he liked having something sensational to read on the train. My diary is, alas, neither exactly a diary (unless Ryman spiralbounds count these days) nor sensational, but it does go everywhere with me and here are a few scribbled thoughts from my Galway-to-London journey last weekend, dashed off after reading Paul Hendrickson’s latest non-fiction epic Hemingway’s Boat.

12 March
Reading about writing is a dangerous preoccupation, dipping into the fantasy of another’s creative life. Feeling the need of a sense of mission, wanting a clear picture. A clean, well-lighted dream to pursue. A puzzle box so [the] only thing left to do is put together the pieces. Risky.

Read [Hemingway’s Boat] in one great 28 hour gulp (less nine hours sleep and several hours quiet conversation). Jumbled feelings: awe, fascination, curiosity, envy (despite everything) of shining hours on the sea and drinking rum, eating avocados right out of the shell. Fantasy powerful as a Siren call – tie yourself to the mast, my friend – would it be worth it? The high times, the urge to tear up. I’d like to have known more about the bi-polarism, medical stuff. The actual, genetic, biological fact of it, woven into the DNA, making everything dark that little bit less resistible.

The writing is a sustained, beautiful sleight-of-hand peppered with parenthetical rabbits popping out of hats. The delicate, ruthless details (asking the fading old man to disinter his dead wife’s wedding dress), the moments of private meditation. Slipping off to cast for trout the author flexes his own masculinity, as if to say: “I’m not just a gatherer, a teller of tales, I make my own stories too. I’ve tied a few on.”

The constant, tantalising, steady-voiced mingling of verifiable fact (letters, dates, police reports) with compassionate speculation. The sudden veer and shift (“don’t look here, look here“). The intensity of detail: lists of fishing supplies, fish species, concurrent events. Over and over the evocation of water: blue, purple, turquoise, brown, something to do with seaweed, iron content, depth, the sand. Washes through and over the narrative till you can almost feel it, get the cast-off ripple light caught in your eyes.

A book not so much about about a boat as about creation – the things we make deliberately and unwillingly.

Recommended Reading – Essays

I love essays. My favourites I read again and again, letting whole chunks of text leech into my blood. Many of the writers on this list are, or would rather have been, known as great novelists but for me, the mixture of unfiltered insight and immaculate prose found in their essays sings higher.

Joan DidionSlouching Towards Bethlehem I am baffled by the hostility Didion rouses in many commentators. She is berated for writing about silk curtains and sundresses from Madeira, accused in so many words of being brittle and elitest. Reading Slouching I am sure there is no potential criticism, just or otherwise, Didion failed to consider. Her outstanding characteristic is gleaming honesty, and her ruthlessness begins at home.

Hunter S ThompsonThe Great Shark Hunt HST is so much more than Fear & Loathing and I love this collection of his early writings. The dispatches he filed during his year in South America have all his acid humour and righteous outrage, along with a keen moral sensibility that was later blurred by drugs and frustration.

EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy Reading Forster essays in bulk is like eating ice cream, there is a point where it gets sickly, but its so delicious you press on. What shines through is his refusal to accept “how things are” and his absolute prioritisation of the personal over the ideological. If it is a choice between betraying my friend or my country, he writes, I hope I have the guts to betray my country.

Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own Simply one of the finest essays about writing ever written. Beautiful, biting, and superbly argued. The image she evokes of an Oxford dinner is one of my favourite pieces of descriptive writing.

George OrwellFacing Unpleasant Facts Forster, a contemporary of Orwell, noted that George found many things to be unhappy about with the world, and wanted to share them. Something for which the world should be grateful, because Orwell’s ire was never expressed in less than astonishing prose. Who else could write that the Christian conception of heaven resembles “choir practice in a jewellery shop”?

Truman CapotePortraits and Observations Truman Capote is a descriptive genius and an unsparing chronicler of human emotion. Reading his essays is like watching Muhammad Ali warm up. The profile of Marlon Brando is particularly audacious and brilliant.

Natalia GinzburgThe Little Virtues I only “met” Natalia in a writing seminar last year, but she is already an old friend. The essays collected here include Silence, Human Relationships and the title piece, which is probably the best child-rearing advice I’ve ever encountered.

Martha GellhornThe Face of War Gellhorn was a heroic war correspondent. She covered every major 20th century conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. Fierce, fearless, and apolitical in the best way, she excoriates war without sloppy pacifism or jingoism.

Germaine GreerThe Madwoman’s Underclothes Germaine Greer is so provocative people feel the hard edge but tend to miss the sparkle of her diamond sentences. These short pieces are more personal than the majesterial The Female Eunuch, but equally blunt, polemic and rewarding.

Michel de MontaigneComplete Essays Last but far from least, the daddy of all essayists, Michel de Montaigne. I picked him up on the recommendation of Virginia Woolf and there was an instant flash of recognition. He writes about love, fear, sex and death with remarkably modern, mordant glee.

Do you have a favourite essay? Describe it in <140 characters and I'll Tweet the best comments.