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21st Century Classics: Non-Fiction

Posted on 23rd January 2020 by Mark Skinner

In a digital age of overwhelming information it is still literary non-fiction that carries the strongest hallmarks of authority and independent thinking. The twenty-first century has seen many and varied publications that speak truth to power, illuminate hidden lives and cast established events in a whole new context. Below, we have chosen one title per year of the century so far to stand as a literary and cultural testament to the vibrancy and range of modern non-fiction writing. 

2000

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The book that reinvented confessional memoir writing, Eggers’s boldly titled volume relates how he became both brother and parent to his younger sibling Toph after their own parents died of cancer when the author was in his twenties. Mixing freewheeling, frequently hilarious prose with piercing insight and moving testimony, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes close to being just that.
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2001

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One of the most accomplished politicians never to become Prime Minister tackles the life and legacy of the most iconic British premier in this elegantly penned and exhaustive biography. Sparkling with a wit and grandeur eminently suited to its larger-than-life subject, Jenkins’s monumental tome is the most accessible one volume account of Churchill yet written.
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2002

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With an eye for narrative tension and gripping storytelling, Seierstad’s immersive account of an Afghan family in the wake of 9/11, and the internal and external contradictions of their strict faith and progressive intellectualism, continues to enthral. Opening up the complexities of both the family and the troubled country to Western eyes, The Bookseller of Kabul is a masterly piece of reportage.
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2003

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The man who reinvigorated travel writing transforms dry and academic subjects into compelling prose in this remarkable reinterpretation of science’s key achievements through time. Confronting topics such as geology and particle physics with energy and brio, Bryson’s masterpiece has turned millions on to the wonders of the scientific world.
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2004

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Dylan’s first volume of memoirs does not disappoint the expectant millions. Recounting his early years as an emerging talent in New York, his creative process and his unique view of the popular culture of the time, Chronicles is written with a songwriter’s sense of rhythm and a poet’s eye for language.
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2005

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Whilst it may not be an easy read, Didion’s intensely powerful snapshot of a loving family torn apart in an instant and the painstaking attempts to make sense of sudden tragedy is one of the most profound books ever written about suffering and grief. Cast in lucid, pin-sharp prose, The Year of Magical Thinking is a truly unforgettable reading experience.
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2006

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Utterly uncompromising and deliberately inflammatory, The God Delusion is Dawkins’s impassioned denunciation of any kind of supreme being or divine creator. Deconstructing religious dogma of all stripes with relentless rationalism and cogent argument, this book has become the touchstone for the modern atheist movement.
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2007

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A hand grenade of a book whose aftershocks are still being felt over a decade later, Klein’s expose of those individuals who are cashing in on human tragedy makes for scary and indignant reading. Opening a Pandora’s Box of alarming connections between big business and corrupt politics, The Shock Doctrine chills and fascinates in equal measure.
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2008

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An enthralling slice of true-crime Victoriana that scooped the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher reads like the purest sensation fiction of the period. Revisiting a mystifying murder case from 1860, Summerscale expertly teases out the dark secrets behind the respectable middle-class façade and introduces, in Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, a sleuth worthy of Wilkie Collins.
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2009

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Demick’s endlessly illuminating peek behind the Stalinist curtain of North Korea interweaves six defectors’ compelling stories to build a rounded and authentic picture of daily life inside the Democratic People’s Republic. Structured with sensitivity and poise, Nothing to Envy is a triumphant work of socio-political journalism.
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2010

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Both uplifting and disturbing, Skloot’s extraordinarily assured retelling of the afterlife of a poor black tobacco farmer poses fascinating questions about medical research and institutionalised abuses of power. Investing a hitherto little-known story with the dignity and heft it deserves, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks resounds with urgency and enquiry.
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2011

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Wearing its extensive scholarship extremely lightly, Thinking Fast and Slow elucidates Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman’s intellectual theories about cognition and decision-making in sprightly and dextrous fashion.
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2012

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Character-driven and absorbing, Boo’s blistering work takes an unflinching look at the degradation and poverty of a Mumbai slum, located just metres away from affluence and luxury. Written with a keen journalistic eye, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a rich, rewarding read that shows just what desperate people are prepared to do to survive in a world of injustice and inequality.
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2013

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A pioneering work of economic theory that became a global bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century takes a radical, but meticulously researched, approach to financial equality and the accepted orthodoxy of prevailing economic systems. Making complex models accessible to the general public for the first time, Piketty’s achievement is nothing short of magisterial.
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2014

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An audacious comingling of genres that reinvigorated the nature writing field, H is for Hawk recounts a year in the author’s life as she comes to terms with the loss of her father and trains a young goshawk.
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2015

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Framed as a letter to his son, Coates’s intimate and eloquent dissection of America’s tumultuous relationship with race is an invigorating collection of personal flashpoints that broadened the author’s understanding of racial injustice.
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2016

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One of the most poignant meditations on mortality and terminal illness ever written, When Breath Becomes Air is the record of the last 22 months of neurosurgeon Kalanithi’s life. Deftly identifying universal truths amidst emotional devastation, this is a profoundly rewarding read and a medical memoir to savour.
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2017

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A charged and necessary wake-up call to pervasive, institutionalised racism, Eddo-Lodge’s searing polemic reconstitutes the frame of the argument around race, removing it from the hands of those with little experience of its resonances. From ambient and lazy cultural stereotyping to open hostility, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a clarion call of understanding.
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2018

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Both a fascinating snapshot of survivalist, rural America and an uplifting tribute to the power of learning, Westover’s memoir charts her journey from a bleak Idaho childhood to a Cambridge-educated academic.
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2019

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A passionate condemnation of the misogyny Jack the Ripper's victims have been held in for over a century, The Five tells an engrossing group biography of Victorian womanhood, blighted by poverty and powerless against casual and constant abuse.
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Comments

Philip Talbot

And no William Dalrymple? Shame! View more

Philip Talbot
28th January 2020
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Jeni Ross

Great but why no Robert McFarlane? View more

Jeni Ross
26th January 2020
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