Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux review – a writer driven by divided loyalties

These essays shed light on a man eternally at odds with the world

Who is Paul Theroux? This latest collection of essays (following Sunrise With Sea Monsters and Fresh-Air Fiend), which advertises “a kind of autobiography through work”, certainly invites such a question. Yet to the conundrum of the writer’s life, there are few definitive answers. Theroux mostly slips through his readers’ fingers, mixing sleight of hand with smoke and mirrors.

Theroux’s persona as a literary novelist who transformed his prospects overnight with a bestselling travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, is well known and well established. We’re in the presence of a compulsive writer who sometimes maintains: that “I wrote as an act of rebellion”, but also to put food on the table. The substantial bibliography facing the title page of this book catalogues some 30 works of fiction and 18 of nonfiction, mostly travelogues, a notable ...

Behold, America review – the fight for the American dream

Sarah Churchwell’s enthralling study of US political history reveals a nation in a state of constant war with itself

Long before the revolution, there were two Americas, implicitly at odds. The first, sponsored by Walter Raleigh, was fiery, maverick and piratical, based in Virginia, the colony named for Elizabeth I. These freebooters would become the Americans who opened up the frontier to the south and west. The second America, to the north, was inspired by the chillier steel of New England’s Puritan settlement. In 1630, its thin-lipped ideologue John Winthrop declared that this new society should welcome “the eyes of all people upon us” and shine as a beacon of hope – “a city upon a hill”.

Almost four centuries of conflict between the Raleigh and the Winthrop versions of America – one red-blooded and nativist, the other liberal, humane and egalitarian – reached a bizarre climax on 16 June ...

Book clinic: what constitutes ‘well read’?

No two people’s lists are the same, but the Anglo-American greats and the ancient Greeks and Romans are all required reading

Since it is seen as a great accolade for a person to be thought “well read”, I wonder what the minimum requirement might be to be considered thus?
David Handley, Yorkshire

Robert McCrum, author and former literary editor of the Observer
In 1618, two years after Shakespeare’s death, a well-read adult could easily load all the books they had collected on to a decent-sized cart. Not only was there a consensus about what a good library should consist of, it was also quite easy to accumulate the necessary classics in good Renaissance translations.

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Enemies Within review – Richard Davenport-Hines offers a strange new study of the Cambridge spies

The worst thing the five traitors did was to damage the British establishment, not give away its secrets

The British spy story, in fact and fiction, is an Edwardian mash-up of insular paranoia, late-empire adventurism, romantic class-consciousness and schoolboy fantasy. Its heroes, real and imagined, include Ian Fleming, Richard Hannay, Graham Greene, George Smiley, John le Carré and James Bond. Indeed, the entertainments of the double life became so braided into the actual work of SIS, the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, that it became sometimes impossible to distinguish between reality and make-believe.

After the Russian Revolution, SIS was the secret society that attracted a generation of young idealists, future Soviet agents whose names and exploits have passed into folklore as “the Cambridge spies”: Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, who was also employed by the Observer. Their story became the real-life espionage thriller of the ...

The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list

After two years of careful reading, moving backwards through time, Robert McCrum has concluded his selection of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. Take a quick look at five centuries of great writing

1. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
An engrossing account of the looming catastrophe caused by ecology’s “neighbours from hell” – mankind.

2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
This steely and devastating examination of the author’s grief following the sudden death of her husband changed the nature of writing about bereavement.

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How I chose my list of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

What makes a nonfiction classic? Robert McCrum reflects on his two-year odyssey to compile a list of the best 100 nonfiction books in the English language – moving backwards in time to sign off with the 1661 King James Bible

Read Hannah Jane Parkinson’s response to Robert McCrum’s choices here
See the list in full here
No 100: King James Bible: The Authorised Version

Some weeks into the compilation of our nonfiction classics list, one mischievous colleague with a penchant for the arcane posed this wild-card challenge: “So what are you going to do about Betty McDonald?” 

“Who she?”

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 100 – The Authorised Version (1611)

With its vibrant, poetic prose and instantly recognisable passages, the King James Bible has had a shaping influence on the English language

Robert McCrum reflects on his 100 greatest nonfiction books list
See the list in full here

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Related: How the King James Bible shaped the English language

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 99 – The History of the World by Walter Raleigh (1614)

Raleigh’s book, packed with veiled political advice and suppressed soon after publication, is a classic of late Renaissance history writing

“When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London,” writes George Orwell in his As I Please column for 4 February 1944, “he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume, and was at work on the second, when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent inquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about: whereupon, so it is said – and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be – he burned what he had written, and abandoned the project.”

Raleigh ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 98 – The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)

This compelling and occasionally comic study of melancholy became cult reading in the 17th century and has inspired artists from Keats to Cy Twombly

From the eccentric compulsion of its full title onwards (The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Partitions with their severall Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up), Burton’s masterpiece is garrulous, repetitive and often exasperating, but strangely addictive. I imagine that some readers of Karl Ove Knausgaard will understand the fascination of this book.

Ostensibly a medical study of melancholia, a subject first captured in a celebrated engraving by Dürer in 1514, it becomes a sublime literary doorstop (some 1,400 pages in my paperback edition) that exploits every facet of its subject, to explore humanity in all its paradoxical complexity, drawing from the science of the ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 97 – The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)

The first edition of Shakespeare’s plays established the playwright for all time in a trove of some 36 plays with an assembled cast of immortal characters

In 1612, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, the playwright Thomas Heywood, published An Apology for Actors, in which he expressed a patriotic sentiment about the English language, boastful at the time, which now seems unexceptional:

Our English tongue, which hath been the most harsh, uneven and broken language of the world... is now continually refined, every writer striving in himself to add a new flourish unto it; so that it is grown into a most perfect and composed language.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 96 – Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne (1624)

The poet’s intense meditation on the meaning of life and death is a dazzling work that contains some of his most memorable writing

On the eve of his daughter’s wedding, in late November 1623, the poet John Donne was struck down by a mysterious “relapsing fever” (so-called because the patient often died during convalescence) and reduced to many weeks of frailty, in which he was “barred of my ordinary diet, which is reading”.

What exactly it was that Donne suffered from, and survived, is not known. Some say typhus. The patient himself believed that he was on his deathbed, that the illness reflected his own sinfulness and amounted to a divine rebuke. His response was at once pious and literary: he asked for pen and paper in order to record, for himself, the experience of this “emergent occasion”. (He also wrote Hymne to God my God, in my Sicknesse.)

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 95 – Areopagitica by John Milton (1644)

Today Milton is remembered as a great poet. But this fiery attack on censorship and call for a free press reveals a brilliant English radical

Throughout England and Europe, the 17th century was notable for its violence, instability and profound social upheavals. On the continent, a whole generation became traumatised by the thirty years’ war. In England, the civil war divided the country and executed a king. There are some moments when, as is happening again now, the forces of history seem to be on the march. In England, several writers (notably Browne, Burton, Hobbes and Marvell) who lived through these dangerous times produced work that is clearly influenced by the experience of chaos, conflict and revolution.

John Milton is perhaps most notable of these. Born the son of a scrivener in Cheapside, London, in 1608, and educated at Cambridge, he devoted many years in mid-life to the ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 94 – Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)

Thomas Hobbes’s essay on the social contract is both a founding text of western thought and a masterpiece of wit and imagination

According to the 17th-century historian and gossip John Aubrey, Thomas Hobbes “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.” As a great thinker, Hobbes epitomises English common sense and the amateur spirit, and is all the more appealing for deriving his philosophy from his experience as a scholar and man of letters, a contemporary and occasional associate of Galileo, Descartes and the young Charles Stuart, prince of Wales, before the Restoration.

Hobbes himself was born an Elizabethan, and liked to say that his premature birth in 1588 was caused by his mother’s anxiety at the threat of the Spanish Armada:

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 93 – Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658)

Sir Thomas Browne earned his reputation as a ‘writer’s writer’ with this dazzling short essay on burial customs

Sir Thomas Browne is one of those major-minor figures in the story of these great books, a writer whose afterlife vindicates the power of an enchanted, idiosyncratic, and – the gift that holds one key to the success of the writing life – deeply humane imagination. Browne’s reputation among admirers as various as Johnson, Coleridge, De Quincey, Lytton Strachey and, most recently, WG Sebald confirms him as an early example of “the writer’s writer”.

Browne himself, whose life spanned the 17th century, was a learned, proto-Romantic, nomadic figure with a scholarly, metropolitan pedigree. He told John Aubrey (No 54 in this series) that he had been born in Cheapside, educated at Oxford, then “spent some years in foreign parts” before joining the college of physicians. He also proudly reports that he ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 93 – Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658)

Sir Thomas Browne earned his reputation as a ‘writer’s writer’ with this dazzling short essay on burial customs

Sir Thomas Browne is one of those major-minor figures in the story of these great books, a writer whose afterlife vindicates the power of an enchanted, idiosyncratic, and – the gift that holds one key to the success of the writing life – deeply humane imagination. Browne’s reputation among admirers as various as Johnson, Coleridge, De Quincey, Lytton Strachey and, most recently, WG Sebald confirms him as an early example of “the writer’s writer”.

Browne himself, whose life spanned the 17th century, was a learned, proto-Romantic, nomadic figure with a scholarly, metropolitan pedigree. He told John Aubrey (No 54 in this series) that he had been born in Cheapside, educated at Oxford, then “spent some years in foreign parts” before joining the college of physicians. He also proudly reports that he ...

The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time: No 92 – The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660)

A portrait of an extraordinary Englishman, whose scintillating first-hand accounts of Restoration England are reported alongside his rampant sexual exploits

One day in December 1659, a young civil servant and Cambridge graduate named Samuel Pepys went to the shop in Cornhill in the City of London, where the stationer John Cade sold paper and pens, and bought himself a paper-covered notebook too fat for his pockets and took it home to his lodgings in Westminster. There, having ruled in red ink a left-hand margin down some 282 pages, he was ready. Thus it was that on 1 January 1660 the 27-year-old Pepys made his first diary entry:

“Blessed be God, at the end of the last year, I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain [in 1658, he’d endured an operation for the removal of a stone], but upon taking of cold. I lived in ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 91 – The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

Thomas Cranmer’s book of vernacular English prayer is possibly the most widely read book in the English literary tradition

In anticipation of English prose after the Commonwealth, I had initially found the temptation to include Robert Hooke’s extraordinary Micrographia (1665) next in this sequence almost overwhelming. This, after all, was a Restoration publishing sensation described by Samuel Pepys as “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life”. But, with this series approaching its conclusion, space is at a premium and Hooke must join my list of regrets. Besides, The Book of Common Prayer is, arguably, the most influential and widely read book in the English literary tradition, from Cranmer to the Beatles.

The Book of Common Prayer emerged from medieval religious practice as a vernacular aid to devotion. The first prayer books with the Litany in English (probably the work of Thomas Cranmer) appeared in 1544, with ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 90 – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)

Eloquent and influential, the Enlightenment philosopher’s most celebrated work embodies the English spirit and retains an enduring relevance

This celebrated essay, available to its first readers in December 1689, though formally dated 1690, could hardly be more topical today. It is an examination of the nature of the human mind, and its powers of understanding expressed in brilliant, lapidary prose: “General propositions are seldom mentioned in the huts of Indians: much less are they to be found in the thoughts of children.”

In the first two books, the argument moves through the source of ideas, the substance of experience (the origin of ideas), leading to a discussion of “the freedom of the will”: “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. In book three, Locke proceeds to discuss language, and in book four he defines knowledge as our perception of the agreement or disagreement between ideas.

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100 best nonfiction books: No 80 – The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White (1789)

This curate’s beautiful and lucid observations on the wildlife of a Hampshire village inspired generations of naturalists

The Rev Gilbert White was that now extinct species, the unmarried Oxbridge don in holy orders. A lifelong curate and a fellow of Oriel College, White devoted himself to observing flora and fauna at large in the natural world, a sequence of observations for which he became world famous.

In 1755, after the death of his father, he returned to the family home in Selborne, settling for comfortable obscurity in a remote Hampshire village, an enviable career move. On the face of it, the passage of his declining years would be tranquil and serene, with no greater vicissitudes than bad weather or poor harvests.

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The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness review – England’s sheepish secrets

Robert Winder follows up his excellent Bloody Foreigners with a fascinating attempt to find the sources of Englishness

In times of national crisis, it sometimes helps to put things into words. In 1941, declaring that “highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”, George Orwell sat down to compose The Lion and the Unicorn, a classic essay on “the English genius”. He observed, with his usual astringency, that “We call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion”, and wondered how to make sense of this patchwork. Orwell also painted a sentimental picture of a prewar world: “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of early morning”, a description that’s become the butt of satire.

Almost 80 years on, with Brexit battles raging across the airwaves, there’s a mini-boom ...