47. PRESENT AT THE CREATION by Dean Acheson
A Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir by a former secretary of state and architect of government foreign policy during World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and the Korean War. Foreign Policy revisited the memoir in 2017, writing that “Acheson stood like a ringmaster at the center of a complex diplomatic and political circus. . . . This is a must-read book not only for historians, but also for anyone interested in national policy, diplomacy, or military strategy. It is essential, especially today, to understand how America came to play the central role in the world, and the consequences of failure.”
48. THE GREAT BRIDGE by David McCullough
The Great Bridge reveals the saga behind the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge: one of the oldest suspension bridges in the world and a beautiful feat of engineering. The Los Angeles Times praised The Great Bridge as “a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument.” Newsday wrote that The Great Bridge is “a stupendous narrative about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a cast of thousands (give or take 100), whose major characters come alive on the page as authentically, as creatively, as would their fictional counterparts if one had the imagination to dream up such a yarn.”
49. PATRIOTIC GORE by Edmund Wilson
A survey of American Civil War literature, with thumbnail portraits of various novelists, poets, and diarists. Wilson read many forgotten memoirs and novels in an attempt to find the best Civil War literature—he wanted Northerners to read Southern literature, and vice versa. Wilson also included unknown writers, including women and some African Americans, in his survey. The result is a wide-ranging look at how the United States chronicled the Civil War.
50. SAMUEL JOHNSON by Walter Jackson Bate
The son of a bookseller, Samuel Johnson is considered one of the greatest minds in English history. He was a well-known critic, political commentator, and the author of Rasselas, and later A Dictionary of the English Language (which reigned supreme until the Oxford English Dictionary was published a hundred years later). Published in 1977, Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson won an astonishing array of prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A marvelous book about a genius who literally defined the English language.
51. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the “brilliant, painful, important” (New York Times) story of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated and controversial figures. Malcolm talks frankly about his conversion to Islam, his fight against racism, his belief that “American society makes it next to impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color difference.” Eloquent, brutally honest, and humorous, this book is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1964.
52. THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe
Published in 1979, The Right Stuff contrasts the first astronauts (also known as the “Mercury Seven”) with the Edwards AFB test pilots. A portrait of the space age and a pulse-pounding look at daring pilots and courageous astronauts, The Right Stuff was called “an exhilarating flight into fear, love, beauty and fiery death” (People), “superb” (The New York Times), “breathtaking” (Los Angeles Times), and “the best book I have read in the last ten years” (Chicago Tribune). The 1983 film The Right Stuff, starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, and Dennis Quaid was based on this book.
53. EMINENT VICTORIANS by Lytton Strachey
Eminent Victorians debunks old myths of high Victorianism by revealing the chauvinism, hypocrisy, and not-so-stiff upper lips that characterized many of its heroes from the self-seeking ambitions of Cardinal Manning to the neuroticisms of Florence Nightingale. The famous mathematician Bertrand Russell read the book while he was imprisoned in Brixton for his antiwar campaigning, and wrote that: “I often laughed out loud in my cell while I was reading the book. The warder came to my cell to remind me that prison was a place of punishment.”
54. WORKING by Studs Terkel
Bestselling oral histories are rare, but when Working was published in 1974, it struck a chord with readers. A series of interviews with different workers, from parking attendants and gravediggers to prostitutes and brokers, Terkel explored what work means to the individual, and how our self-worth is often tied to what we do, and how we feel about what we do. There is little to no plot, but Terkel’s portraits of men and women are deeply moving.
55. DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Styron
A work of great personal courage and a literary tour de force, this bestseller is Styron’s true account of his descent into a crippling and almost suicidal depression in 1985. The author of Sophie’s Choice, Styron is perhaps the first writer to convey the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery. A short and incredibly powerful memoir of despair and inner strength.
56. THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION by Lionel Trilling
Published at the beginning of the Cold War, Trilling’s thoughts on Huckleberry Finn, the Kinsey Report, and F. Scott Fitzgerald challenged many commonly held beliefs of postwar America and had an immense impact on Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, and others. Upon publication of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling became the United States’ most recognizable intellectual—a fact he hated. He wrote in a journal, “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world. This thought makes me retch.”
57. THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Winston Churchill
The Second World War is Winston Churchill’s six-volume memoir from the end of World War I to the end of World War II. Though this is a personal account, British law prevented many wartime files—as well as many top secret missions—from being openly discussed. As such, The Second World War is patchy in places, and far from objective in others; nevertheless, it is a chronicle of a crucial period, written by one of the key men of that era.
58. OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen
“In Africa,” Isak Dinesen would later comment, “I learned how to tell tales.” First published in 1937, this memoir is a reminiscence on the years the author spent living on a coffee plantation in Kenya. It is a nostalgic picture of African colonial life and the characters that populated it. Written after her return to her native Denmark, the descriptions of the Africa she knew are an evocative portrait of the country she had once called home.
59. JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME by Dumas Malone
This massive six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson was published over the course of thirty-four years: the first volume was published in 1948, and the sixth in 1982. Praised as a “masterly achievement of scholarship” by The New York Times Book Review, the book has fallen out of favor, due to its extreme length. Nevertheless, Malone’s dedication to his subject is remarkable: he lost his eyesight in 1977, but continued work on the biography for another five years. At over 3,000 pages, this is a daunting read but likely an exciting one for anyone who felt that Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power was too easy.
60. IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN by William Carlos Williams
Published in 1925, In the American Grain was Williams’s attempt to “get inside the heads of some of the American founders or ‘heroes,’ if you will, by examining their original records.” Beginning with the Vikings and including Ponce de Lyon, Cotton Mather, Aaron Burr, and Abraham Lincoln, this unorthodox approach to U.S. history involves Williams writing as his heroes, in order to understand what being American means. Short but complicated, this is a thought-provoking take on U.S. history.
61. CADILLAC DESERT by Marc Reisner
Subtitled “The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” this 1986 book explores the history of the American West through a single lens: the human demand for water. The most precious natural resource of all, water determines how cities grow, and which ones die—a fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Reclamation Bureau were keenly aware of. Ultimately, their efforts to control the flow of water continue to have serious long-term effects on water quality. Tales of corruption, price rigging, and “water wars” abound in this eye-opening book.
62. THE HOUSE OF MORGAN by Ron Chernow
Written by the author of Alexander Hamilton, the National Book Award–winning The House of Morgan is the story of J. P. Morgan’s empire, from its beginnings as his father’s company to the crash of 1987. Along the way J. P. Morgan bailed out the United States government; his son helped finance World War I; and subsequent generations helped finance World War II and pioneered the hostile takeover. More than a story of a company, this is a guide to the key people and events of the twentieth century.
63. THE SWEET SCIENCE by A. J. Liebling
Named “The Greatest Sports Book of All Time” by Sports Illustrated, this collection of essays is a taut, beautiful homage to the sport of boxing. Written between 1951 and 1955, Liebling’s pieces covered some of the greatest fights of the twentieth century: Louis-Savold, Cerdan-Marciano, Ray Robinson-Turpin, Robinson-Maxim, and Marciano-Walcott, to name a few. Liebling created moving portraits of the boxers and their trainers, and paid attention to boxing lore and history. The result is a tribute to the golden days of American boxing.
64. THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES by Karl Popper
A work of political philosophy that explores, among other things, the dangers of fascism, The Open Society raised eyebrows because Popper criticized Plato, Hegel, and Marx. However, Popper defended his argument by saying that his “motive was not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men.” Upon its publication in 1945, Bertrand Russell praised the book as “a vigorous and profound defense of democracy, timely, very interesting, and very well written.”
65. THE ART OF MEMORY by Frances A. Yates
The Art of Memory is a history of human memory before the printed page made storing and referencing information simple. What mnemonic systems and tricks did other civilizations use to remember information that we can jot down with a pen? The answers are surprising. For example, a Roman lawyer pictured a man lying in bed holding a cup in his right hand and the testicles of a ram in his left to remember details of a poisoning case. Other systems used puns, or a memory structure (ie, Sherlock Holmes’s “memory palace”) to store vast amounts of information. A groundbreaking look at what the human mind is capable of, sans paper.
66. RELIGION AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM by R. H. Tawney
This historical work argued that the rise of Protestantism made industrial organization possible in Europe. Indeed, two tenets that we now consider essential to modern capitalism—hard work and the importance of individuals—are foundational aspects of the Protestant faith. However, Tawney was no fan of capitalism, declaring that: “The revolt of ordinary men against Capitalism has had its source . . . in the straightforward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.”
67. A PREFACE TO MORALS by Walter Lippmann
Written in 1929, and addressed to the nonreligious, A Preface to Morals argues that humanist values—as espoused by thinkers like Plato, Confucius, and Buddha—are eternal, while religious values rely on outdated understandings of government, law, and social custom. Lippmann is renowned as a leading thinker of the twentieth century; he won two Pulitzer Prizes, helped found The New Republic, created modern journalism as we understand it, coined the term “stereotype,” influenced President Woodrow Wilson, and feuded with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
68. THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE by Jonathan D. Spence
A history of the Chinese revolution told through the letters and testimonials of different Chinese authors and essayists. Foreign Affairs praised Spence for bringing “the past 100 years of the Chinese revolution to life with a novelist’s flair and an historian’s grounding in fact” and called the book “intellectual history of the first order.” Spence also includes women writers as well, bringing their often overlooked voices to the fore.
69. THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS by Thomas S. Kuhn
Before Kuhn, it was believed that science advanced by gathering data, with each new data point contributing to the upward trajectory of human knowledge. But Kuhn argued that scientific progress was actually dependent on short, explosive periods where scientists discarded old models, or “paradigms,” in favor of new ones. These revolutions, in turn, were dependent on social change. The idea that science could depend on irrational social forces was widely scoffed at by scientists. But Kuhn’s ideas have seeped into the mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that terms like “the Copernican Revolution” are accepted labels for periods of time.
70. THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW by C. Vann Woodward
Based on a series of lectures that Woodward delivered at the University of Virginia, The Strange Career of Jim Crow discusses the history of segregation. Woodward argues that Jim Crow was not an inevitable result of slavery, the Civil War, or even the Reconstruction era; the fact that Jim Crow laws were enacted in the 1890s, a quarter of a century after the Civil War ended, was part of Woodward’s proof. This slim volume (150 pages) was hugely influential when it was published in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. dubbing it “the historical bible of the Civil Rights movement.”