What is considered a classic? When you assess this, you may automatically turn to highly regarded works of fiction, not even contemplating the vast array of non-fiction available. It can be hard to define what constitutes a classic when analysing it through a non-fiction lens. However, these works are equally prevalent and deserve equal attention and admiration. Here we discuss five influential non-fiction classics to change your classic fiction only perception, extending your ever-growing TBR (to be read) list.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most highly acclaimed of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies. Since its publication in 1969, Angelou’s memoir has been recognised not only as an informative and necessary work of non-fiction but as a literary masterpiece.
The way Angelou writes about her experiences, as a young black girl living in the rural South in 1930s America, is poignant and often hard-hitting. Her memoir relays the heartfelt and heartbreaking moments that helped to define her childhood and sense of identity growing up. Angelou frankly discusses how her experiences of racism, abandonment and sexual abuse shaped her self-perception, but also peppers her writing with humour and stresses the importance of familial bonds and the hopeful journey to self-liberation. Angelou’s writing has a lyricism and depth which has drawn readers in for decades, undoubtedly making it a non-fiction classic. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s definitely one you should be putting on your TBR list.
A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay, setting out the argument that women require dedicated space, both literal and figurative, in which to write, given the male dominance of the literary tradition. Woolf’s essay, like much of her work, explores how female creativity and thought functions differently to men’s.
Contrasting the supposed veneration of women by male writers with how women are controlled and mistreated in fiction, Woolf explores the concept of a woman as a “queer, composite being”, and how this affects the art that women can produce. She discusses enforced limits on female creativity and opportunity, both past and present. She writes a critical and historical account of previous female writers, retroactively claiming their space in the literary tradition, just as she argues for space for their literary descendants.
A Room of One’s Own remains a humorous and seminal text and will change how you read female authors forever: a non-fiction must-read.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë
The Life of Charlotte Brontë was written posthumously in 1857 by a dear friend and contemporary writer Elizabeth Gaskell.
It explores Brontë’s life through word of mouth, a series of letters and Gaskell’s perception of her friend. It should, however, be taken with a pinch of salt. Gaskell was writing in the Victorian period and preserving her friend’s reputation was of the utmost importance.
Brontë’s thoughts, opinions and behaviour were altered to fit with the traditional idea of Victorian femininity, perpetuating the “Brontë myth”, where we observe the sisters as being reclusive and innocent creatures of the wild, which they certainly were not.
The fact a whole book was written on an ordinary woman – a parson’s daughter from a little village in West Yorkshire – is what makes it so extraordinary. It helped immortalise Brontë as one of the great English writers and encouraged a mass interest in the family. It predates a lot of biographies that typically follow years after the author’s death, making it an iconoclastic non-fiction classic.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s reputation has been cemented by his 1513 political treatise The Prince. Some view the piece as satire, a critique of Renaissance rulers; others take Machiavelli’s advice at face value as a guide for a calculating king, described by Bertrand Russell as the original “handbook for gangsters.” Machiavelli is often misquoted, in his insistence that a great leader would find it better to be feared by his subjects than loved by them, leaving out the crucial addendum that this should only be “if you cannot be both.”
Despite its amoral reputation, concerning the takeaway message that corrupt ruling is acceptable if it ensures survival, contemporary thinkers, such as Jared Diamond (whose work we explore below), believe it should still be considered. In amongst his morally ambiguous advice, Machiavelli promotes the awareness of chance, that a strong leader can anticipate and solve any problem that comes their way. This invaluable advice influences politicians, businesspeople and academics alike to this day, making The Prince an unmissable non-fiction classic.
Germs, Guns and Steel
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is as iconic as non-fiction classics can get. This significant piece of writing has changed the way many people view society and global history. Diamond argues that global development was unequal because of disparities in geography, biology and opportunities, showing that natural endowments explain the differences in fates of different regions, rather than any inherent superiority in different groups.
This classic takes 13,000 years of world history, explaining why societies developed in the way they did, in a writing style that is both accessible and engaging. Diamond shows that history-based non-fiction does not have to be convoluted or ridden with specialist terminology, an important lesson for aspiring academic and scholarly publishers alike.
Though many critics accuse Diamond of decorating bad ideas in compelling storytelling, the book becoming an instant non-fiction classic shows that Guns, Germs and Steel is incomparable and a must-read.