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 Orwell – Down 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 Hartley – The Zanzibar Chest
Intense, disturbing and profoundly insightful first-person account of life as a war correspondent in Africa.
Martha Gellhorn – Travels 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 Thompson – Fear & 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 Bowden – Murder 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 Caputo – A Rumour of War
Classic first-person account of the Vietnam War.
David Simon & Ed Burns – The 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.