The 100 best nonfiction books: No 89 – A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe (1727)

Readable, reliable, full of surprise and charm, Daniel Defoe’s Tour is an outstanding example of what has become an established literary genre

Daniel Defoe, who also features in our previous series, the 100 best novels (No 2), with Robinson Crusoe, was first and foremost a great reporter, who marshalled the English language to describe the variety and wonders of a changing world: Defoe’s astonishing career spanned the making of the society that came to call itself, with a certain insular pride, Great Britain.

Defoe is great, too. With his near contemporaries Swift, Johnson and Pope, he is one of those English writers who invented our literary tradition, and whose work resonates down the centuries. As a writer in many genres, he embodies the spirit of the English amateur, and some of his nonfiction is suffused with a quasi-lyrical sensibility.

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Man Booker prize 2017: from Abraham Lincoln to Brexit Britain

The ‘transcultural’ shortlist offers riches galore by first timers and old masters

What do book prizes have to do with serious literature? On the long view, the answer is: not much. Even the immensely distinguished Nobel prize, which has just delighted many British readers with its choice of Kazuo Ishiguro, has logged some pretty forgettable selections. Who, for instance, still reads Rudolf Christoph Eucken (1908), Karl Adolph Gjellerup (1917), Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939) or Nelly Sachs (1966)?

In the arts, prizes will always be a lottery. Posh panels are just as vulnerable as the rest of us to the vagaries of taste. The joy of reading is that it’s free from the thought police. Books live and die in the hearts and minds of readers. Still, for close on 50 years, Man Booker’s quixotic efforts have made surprisingly good sense of a difficult, even impossible enterprise.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 88 – A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729)

The satirist’s jaw-dropping solution to the plight of the Irish poor is among the most powerful tracts in the English language

Jonathan Swift, “the gloomy dean”, was a great satirist, a Tory essayist and poet, renowned for Gulliver’s Travels, whose work has not only remained almost continuously in print, but also influenced writers as varied as Thackeray and Orwell. He is also one of a select handful of writers who also appeared in the Observer’s 100 top novels.

When he died in 1745, Swift was buried in his native Dublin with the celebrated epitaph “ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit” (where fierce indignation cannot further tear apart his heart), inscribed on his tomb.

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My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’

Last week, the British novelist was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. His first editor at Faber recalls the rise to greatness

One minute, the old friend I know as “Ish” was sitting at his kitchen table, doing emails, having not yet showered or washed his hair. Half an hour later, the world’s media was snaking up the path to his house in Golders Green, north London. “How on earth did they know where I lived?” he puzzled, reviewing a day of “bizarre” events. It was, he says, not until the news was confirmed by the BBC that he began to compose himself to address the great honour bestowed upon him by the Swedes.

Last Thursday, Kazuo Ishiguro – a writer I’ve known for close on 40 years – was awarded the 2017 Nobel prize for literature. Precisely at noon, among its gilt-and-white mirrors, the Swedish Academy’s spokeswoman stepped in front of the ...

The 100 Best nonfiction books: No 87 – A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1739)

This is widely seen as philosopher David Hume’s most important work, but its first publication was a disaster

The career of the Scottish philosopher David Hume is a parable of the writing life that speaks with eloquence about the strange and inexplicable progress of ideas in the marketplace of free debate. His career, moreover, is one that runs almost to the day he died, in 1776, just after the outbreak of the American revolution.

Hume was born and educated in Edinburgh, the son of a successful lawyer, and acquired a fierce appetite for philosophy at a precociously young age. After a mental breakdown as a student, and despite limited personal means, he spent three years of private study in France. Thereafter, he worked for four years on A Treatise of Human Nature. It was his first major work as a philosopher, and it bore the unwieldy subtitle “Being an Attempt ...

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling – review

This affectionate life of Anthony Powell succeeds in restoring the reputation of the witty postwar novelist

Anthony – Tony – Powell was born in 1905, part of a brilliant generation that included Eric Blair, AKA George Orwell (1903), Evelyn Waugh (1903), Malcolm Muggeridge (1903) and Graham Greene (1904). Among these headstrong Edwardian boys, inside-outsiders all, Powell, who outlived them, is the least colourful and the most English: phlegmatically reserved, aloof and nonconformist. He was, in the heyday of his 12-volume masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time, very much a a contender, but has now been eclipsed.

In posterity’s cruel audit, A Dance lingers as a curiosity in secondhand bookshops, while its author is almost as neglected, outshone by Orwell, Waugh et al. Hilary Spurling’s authorised biography arrives in the nick of time to remind us of her subject’s quiet genius. Addressing Powell’s “work, life and loves”, hers ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 86 – A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (1755)

Dr Johnson’s decade-long endeavour framed the English language for the coming centuries with clarity, intelligence and extraordinary wit

British national self-confidence boomed throughout the 18th century, with that familiar mix of pride and insecurity. Now, more than ever, the educated English reader needed a dictionary. In the new world of global trade and global warfare, a language that was becoming seeded throughout the first British empire required an authoritative act of definition by a vigorous and practical champion. Enter Dr Johnson.

Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield in 1709, was a pioneer who raised common sense to heights of genius, and a man of robust popular instincts whose watchwords were clarity, precision and simplicity. The Johnson who challenged Bishop Berkeley’s solipsist theory of the nonexistence of matter by kicking a large stone (“I refute it thus”) is the same Johnson for whom language must have a daily practical use, and a ...