The canon has not closed on the below list—how could it?—but as of the moment that this post went to press, the below encompasses all of the non-fiction books on which a Superfluous Man has conferred five-stars on Goodreads.com.
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, by Jacques Barzun. A masterpiece by a literary lion in winter, this book is Prof. Barzun’s magnum opus. I will never forget the thrilling day when I read Roger Kimball’s review in The New Criterion and sprinted to the Yale Bookstore to purchase a copy with three minutes to spare before closing. If there were a liturgical calendar for Europhilia, this would be its Holy Scripture. Alas, unavailable in Kindle edition as of this writing, but worth clicking the “Tell the Publisher: I’d like to read this book on Kindle” button every day until Harper relents.
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, by Bradley K. Martin. An impossible to put down, 1,000 page tour de force chronicling the lives of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, if for nothing else than the tales of gulags, famine, Hennessy cognac imports, jet ski races, and one very real “human” bed. “When General Kim Jong Il shouts to the mountains / Lightning strikes and valleys shatter! / With General Kim Jong Il’s wondrous strategy / Enemy lines collapse and our foes wail!”
Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger. The greatest book on sports penned in my lifetime (pace, fans of Eight Men Out or A Season on the Brink). Bissinger’s penetrating report on Texas high school football and small town America will remain in print for the rest of my lifetime and beyond. The movie and television serial demean Bissinger’s accomplishment.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson. A book purchased by every Chicagoan, and read with pleasure and profit by most. Larson, like a latter-day Sagan, recalls the glory and the gory of the “Hog Butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; / Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders,” circa 1892.
The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, by Ken Gormley. Few writers could delve into a subject as fraught as l’affaire Lewinsky with Mr. Gormley’s grace, fair-mindedness, erudition, and patriotic shame, let alone any law professors. The book’s jacket puts it succinctly: “Ten years after one of the most polarizing political scandals in American history, author Ken Gormley offers an insightful, balanced, and revealing analysis of the events leading up to the impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton.”
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington. With the possible exception of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Prof. Huntington’s trenchant work is surely the most willfully misunderstood volume (and title) in recent decades.
Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, by John W. Dower. The locus classicus of modern Japanese studies, a penetrating study of the Japanese phoenix’s most wrenching period. From Potsdam and Hiroshima to pan-pan girls and the “Peace Constitution,” Mr. Dower surveys the chastening of a great nation in the wake of self-inflicted disaster.