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Non-Fiction Classics

By Magali Prel, Megan Powell, Mia Walby and Natasha Smith

The genre of ‘classic’ is often synonymous with fiction novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The past has given us many great works of fiction that still entertain to this day. However, non-fiction classics that are full of interesting and revolutionary ideas are often forgotten or put on the back seat. From philosophical essays to memoirs, authors from the past give readers a glimpse into lives long gone and musings on life and discuss how new ideas could revolutionise the way humans think about life. 

The Concept of Anxiety by Søren Kierkegaard 

Kierkegaard is known as the founding father of existentialism. The Concept of Anxiety was first published in 1844 and describes the nature and form of anxiety and how it leads to freedom and the ability to find subjective truth in life. His ideas often attempted to contradict Christian dogma and focused on re-establishing one’s relationship with religion and faith. Kierkegaard was adamant that one controls their own meaning through actions and choices, a fundamental principle of existentialism.

Death and angst are two concepts that Kierkegaard focuses on greatly in The Concept of Anxiety. He believed that no one truly understands the meaning of death, which is essential to living life with passion. The more aware one is of their mortality, the more motivated they are to do something with their life. Angst, on the other hand, is what Kierkegaard describes as an unfocused fear. Humans understand the choices they face but also understand the uncertainty of exercising these choices wisely. Anxiety shows one the possibility of something that could be. Anxiety is knowing that one has freedom. 

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan, published by Thomas Hobbes in 1651, is one of the most well-known political texts of our time and depicts a desired structure of society. Hobbes argues that if the state is to properly function and succeed, it must be ruled by an absolute sovereign, with its citizens bound by a social contract. 

For Hobbes, the state of nature, which refers to a society with no sovereign or bonds between people, is the most irresponsible and dangerous possibility. There is no higher power, order or justice system, which causes a state of war and a lack of trust among individuals, who then have the potential to act in their own interest. 

The capacity for violence is too great, so an overarching authority is essential to maintaining stability amongst citizens. This is the social contract where citizens surrender certain rights to the state in exchange for security. Hobbes’ beliefs on the importance of individual liberty helped shape the foundation of modern liberal democracies, as well as influencing realism within international relations, which focuses on conflict and competition between states.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In his seminal 1966 work In Cold Blood, Truman Capote reconstructs the true story of the senselessly barbaric - and profoundly tragic - 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in Kansas. 

While Capote’s frequently gorgeous prose is novel-like, ultimately, it is non-fiction. With Capote describing it as ‘New Journalism’, capturing the hybridity of its genre-straddling form, he helped redefine non-fiction and true crime works. 

Providing painstaking thought and description in laying out the story and its players, especially the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, Capote spent years conducting interviews and carefully researching the case. 

In attempting to get to the kernel of the crime, Capote forged a close relationship with Perry in particular. A work which asks us to think carefully and deeply about justice, morality and the ethics of embroiling ourselves in the story of true crime and humanity, it endures as a testament to the power of nuanced literary journalism.

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

Life on the Mississippi details Mark Twain’s days as a steamboat pilot. Published in 1883, Twain’s memoir recounts his life before the American Civil War and takes his readers on his journey down the Mississippi River. 

It is highly contextual in detailing the history of the river and places readers at the heart of the subject. There are some creative liberties, leading the memoir to feature some fictitious qualities, but it lends a hand in pulling the reader into Twain’s life and career on the steamboat. 

The memoir is important in revealing key themes of life and society at the time, especially with the second half of the memoir following Twain’s trip after the war from St Louis all the way down to New Orleans, during which he compares the trip to that from his piloting days. 

There are themes of technological advancements that outline societal anxieties, alongside cultural and societal progress and change, as observed by Twain in detailing the advancement of the railroad and urban life. A key travel guide, Life on the Mississippi earned Twain his reputation and esteem as a serious writer.



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