The 5 Best Non-Fiction Books I Ever Read


Here we go again.

I recently put together a list of fiction titles – The 5 Best Fiction books I Ever Read.  Apart from being fun to write, I thought that list would be a good way to introduce some excellent books to people who perhaps hadn’t heard of them before.  Sharing the love and all that.  I think most of the books on the fiction list were pretty recognisable.  Or at least the authors were.

Less so with this one perhaps.  Still, I hope the list below might be of interest, particularly if you’re into the whole history/biography/philosophy/spiritual section of the bookstore.  If so, dive in.  Everything below comes highly recommended.


Think On These Things (Krishnamurti – 1964)


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

I read a lot of Bruce Lee biographies back in the day.  And one name that kept cropping up in these books was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was a big influence on Bruce Lee’s philosophical outlook.  Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was an Indian philosopher and speaker, and he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.

This is a very practical book.  It’s not airy-fairy in the slightest bit.  It contains the results of question and answer sessions that Krishnamurti participated in with Indian school students.  In his answers, he tries to teach the children how to live their lives simply and freely, and to impart upon them the true value of education which is about more than just getting the right qualifications to get a job.

Krishnamurti was the guy who told people to follow their passion long before modern self-help gurus found out it was cool to do so.  He was also an astute observer of people – he saw through the emptiness of celebrity culture,  namely the desire that so many of us have to escape ourselves and be someone else.

Think on These Things is a wonderful read.  It’s a practical book about awakening.  And if you’re willing to ask yourself some hard questions about your life, it’ll blow your mind.


Crazy Horse – The Strange Man of the Oglalas (Mari Sandoz – 1942)


‘Now more than ever the Oglalas spoke of Crazy Horse as their Strange Man.’

A unique biography of one of my favourite historical figures.  Crazy Horse was a warrior of the Oglala Sioux tribe in the late nineteenth century.  He was indeed the ‘Strange Man’ of the title.  He was different to other people in his tribe – an introvert living within an extrovert culture, light-skinned, someone who was quiet and considered a little odd by his peers.  “He was a very quiet man except when there was fighting,” his close friend He Dog said of Crazy Horse.  Indeed, Crazy Horse was revered as a warrior and he played a decisive role in defeating Custer at the infamous Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

This book uses an interesting rhythmical style of prose, which is reminiscent of Native American speech patterns.  Reading it gives you a sense of hearing first-hand accounts of Crazy Horse from the people who knew him.  In fact, it reads more like a biographical novel than a traditional work of non-fiction.  But it’s not a fabrication by any means.  Sandoz spent a lot of time researching this book and camped near the reservations in the 1930s, so that she could conduct meticulous interviews with those who had known Crazy Horse, who died in controversial circumstances in 1877.

It’s both a fascinating and tragic story that, as well as looking at Crazy Horse, traces the heartbreaking decline of the Native American people at the hands of the whites.  Well worth a look.


An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor (Michael Smith – 2000)


‘Each successive frostbite on a finger was marked by a ring where the skin had peeled off, so that we could count our frostbites by the rings of the skin – something after the woodman telling the age of a tree by counting concentric rings.’

I love reading about the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.  

This period began in the late nineteenth century with the idea that the South Pole was the world’s last great wilderness waiting to be conquered by the civilised world.  Scott and Shackleton are probably the two most recognisable names associated with this historical era, but what about Tom Crean?  The big Irishman travelled to the South Pole with both Scott and Shackleton on their most famous expeditions (he was one of the last men to see Scott alive on the fateful 1910-1912 expedition and he was also one of the standouts on Shackleton’s famous Endurance voyage.)

In fact, Crean spent more time in the Antarctic than either of his famous bosses.  But he was a quiet man who didn’t keep a diary and thus his heroic exploits were mostly forgotten when he settled back down in Ireland to run a pub.

Fortunately Michael Smith wrote this book at the turn of the twenty-first century and it brought Crean into the limelight sixty-two years after his death in 1938.  And the world has certainly embraced the Irish hero over the last sixteen years.  Since the book’s publication, a statue has been erected outside his pub, The South Pole Inn, in Anascaul, Ireland.  Songs have been written about him and stage plays and documentaries have been produced.   

This guy was incredible – a proper old-school hero and a born survivor.  He also lived a fascinating life of adventure in the most inhospitable place on the planet.  Enough said.  You should read this.


Awareness – (Anthony De Mello – 1990)


‘Don’t ask the world to change….you change first.’

Anthony De Mello (1931-1987) was a Jesuit priest and a psychotherapist from India.  This book is a collection of personal stories, parables and anecdotes which are designed to help the reader better understand issues of perception and awareness.  

Although he was a Jesuit, there are many Christians who’ll tell you to stay away from Anthony De Mello and Awareness.  The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith even censured De Mello and his teachings after his sudden death in 1987.  Their line is that De Mello’s philosophy dabbles too much with the likes of Taoism and Buddhism, and that it strays too far from traditional Christian teachings.

This book is not intended as a Christian manual.  It is religious in the truest sense, but it’s free of traditional religious agenda.  It’s a book for everyone, but only if you think you’re ready to go head to head with some challenging ideas that might twist your melon.  Awareness will make you think hard.  The first time I read this, I couldn’t just put the book down and get it out of my head and move onto something else.  It made me a little bit dizzy in terms of how I perceived both myself and the world around me.

Some people hate this book with a passion.  Others, like me, love it.  Depending on who you ask, it’s either a pile of crap or a life-changer.  It is of course, entirely dependent upon the reader but if you’re interested in philosophical/spiritual literature and you’re willing to slip outside your comfort zone and read something provocative, then I highly recommend Awareness.


Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto (Anneli Rufus – 2008)


‘People say the desert is desolate. Yet for me it’s very much alive, full of surprises. As soon as I see those wide-open spaces, I can breathe’.

I’m a loner.  I have no problems socialising and I’ll even go out of my way to say hello to strangers in the street.  There are friends and relationships, but in all honesty I prefer to be alone.  Almost forty years of life has taught me that there’s nothing wrong with me – it’s just my nature to be like that.  But still, people in our society feel the need to correct people like me, or to force us into a more group-orientated mindset because they think it’s what I need to be a healthy and well-balanced individual.  As I like to say, that’s the equivalent of taking the goldfish out of the aquarium and chucking it into the hamster cage.

If you’re a loner, this book is a nice companion in a world where the mantra is that ‘humans are social animals’.  Anneli Rufus’s book disputes this particular mantra and is quick to remind us that it’s okay to be a loner.

One of the things covered in the book is the unfortunate misuse of the word ‘loner’ by the media.  It has become the stock term for lazy reporters to use when gun-wielding psychopaths go on mass killing rampages.  I got so pissed off with this that following the murder of twelve people in a Colorado cinema in 2012, in which the gunman was repeatedly described as ‘a loner’ by the media,  I wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Independent called ‘The Loner Myth’.  The gist of this piece (which Anneli Rufus read for me before I published it) was that there’s a difference between loners and outcasts.  Real loners choose to be alone and are at their happiest in this state of being.  Outcasts, on the other hand, crave acceptance and when they get rejected, they retreat into a forced isolation and subsequently fester and boil over with resentment.  But hey, why let the truth get in the way of lazy reporting, right?

The book is a great read, but it’s not perfect.  It can be a little too defensive sometimes, and it’s often written in an ‘Us vs Them’ way.  I say we shouldn’t try to be too competitive about these things – live and let live and all that.  Still it’s a gem nonetheless and if you’re a loner struggling to be yourself in a pack-minded society, then this is a great addition to your bookshelf.


Honourable mentions (lots so I’ll keep it to a minimum!)

Stephen King: On Writing (Stephen King)

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi (William Scott Wilson)

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life  (Jon Lee Anderson)

The Fearless Harry Greb (Bill Paxton)

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Vincent Van Gogh)

Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (Rupert Sheldrake)

Mindfulness: (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion (Clay Moyle)

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)


The 5 best Fiction Books I Ever Read


I’m not saying the five best fiction books ever.  All that ‘the best’ stuff is subjective anyway.  I’m not saying these are the greatest pieces of literature either – whatever that’s supposed to mean.  These are just my personal favourites and so to me, they’re all of the above and more.

There are no major spoiler alerts in the description.  You’ve probably heard of most of these books, but that’s not the same as having read them.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to check them out.  I hope so.

In no particular order:


1/ The Razor’s Edge (W. Somerset Maugham – 1944)


The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.”

An old fashioned book with a timeless meaning.

Larry Darrell returns to the United States after witnessing the carnage of the First World War in Europe.  He has no interest in getting a job and wallowing in American postwar prosperity like everyone expects him to do.  Larry is now only interested in pursuing the ultimate questions – about life, meaning and the existence of evil in the world.  It’s a journey that brings him into conflict with the materialism of modern society and importantly, with the people around him who know him, but no longer understand his choices.

I love how Larry’s spiritual path contrasts with the people around him.  He’s a laughing stock to some, a bum to others, but time proves which – of all the characters in the novel – has made the wisest choices in life.  While the majority of the other characters have spent their life pursuing material wealth and social prestige,  Larry the loafer has been searching for something much more valuable.

Today there are many self-help/spiritual books, as well as other novels that espouse a similar message to the one in The Razor’s Edge.  But this book was published back in 1944 and it was promoting the tenets of Eastern Philosophy about ten years before The Beat Generation came along.  And long before the hippies arrived on the scene in the 1960s.

If that isn’t a good enough reason to check out the book then consider this – Bill Murray loves The Razor’s Edge.  You may or may not know that he stars in the 1984 film version of the novel and that he only agreed to make Ghostbusters for Columbia in return for them financing this – his passion project.  Ultimately the 1984 movie is flawed and I think Murray is a little miscast as Larry, but it’s still an interesting watch and worth checking out.  But as always, read the book first.


2/ I Am Legend (Richard Matheson – 1954)


“He stood there for a moment looking around the silent room, shaking his head slowly. All these books, he thought, the residue of a planet’s intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the potpourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing.”

Robert Neville is the last man.  The rest of humankind has been wiped out by an unknown plague and yet Neville is not alone.  The post-apocalyptic world that he lives in is now full of vampires who have emerged in large numbers in the aftermath of the plague.  It’s a tough break and Neville is doomed to live out his days in a terrible routine of necessary survival chores by day (safeguarding the house/vampire slaying), while at night he listens to classical music as the vampires surround his house, demanding that he come outside.

This is a great horror/post-apocalyptic story that captures the psychological struggle of day-to-day life as the last person in the world.  And going by this, it’s not a lot of fun.

I love that I Am Legend is a short book.  It clocks in at about 25,000 words, which makes it a pretty slim novella by most standards.  That means it can easily be read in a sitting or two and so no excuses about not having the time to read it.

I Am Legend would make a great movie but so far (over three attempts) no filmmaker has really captured the essence of the book.  The Last Man On Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price is the most faithful adaptation.  The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston has some interesting moments, but it strays a little from the book.  Okay it strays a lot!  The vampires in that movie are weird albino mutants of some sort.  It’s got a pretty good soundtrack though, I will say that.

Less said about the Will Smith movie the better.

This one’s all about the book.  It’s a classic.  Read it if you haven’t already.


3/ The Body (Stephen King – 1982)

the body

“I’ll see you.”
He grinned. ‘Not if i see you first.”

I have to do a separate Stephen King list sometime.  He’s my favourite author and this list might easily have been a list of SK books.  But for now I’ll only pick one and so I’m going to go with The Body.  Pennywise, Kurt Barlow and Roland Deschain will all have to wait.

What struck me about The Body when I first read it is how faithful the film adaptation – Stand By Me – is to the source material.  Yep, like many people in this instance – and of my generation – I saw the film before I read the book.  And I can definitely say that the book and film are in sync with one another, unlike say Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining – great film but it goes in its own direction and King didn’t like it.  Therefore it’s not surprising that it’s Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s faithful adaptation of The Body, that is Stephen King’s favourite film version of all his books. 

The Body is the story of four young boys who go looking for the fresh corpse of Ray Brower – a boy their own age who’s apparently been struck and killed by a train.  It sounds like a horror story, but it’s not.  It’s a coming of age tale and in my opinion, a perfect one at that.  The novella is contained within a collection called Different Seasons.  Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and The Breathing Method are also featured in this outstanding collection.

You’ll love this beautifully written story.  Especially if you were ever twelve.


4/ The Count of Monte Cristo   (Alexandre Dumas – 1844)

“All human wisdom is contained in these two words -“Wait and Hope.”


It’s big, old and richly detailed.  But don’t let that put you off.  

The novel begins in 1815.  Edmond Dantès is a young merchant sailor who has everything going for him in life.  He’s handsome, intelligent, and on the brink of being made captain of his ship.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, he’s engaged to the beautiful Mercédès.  So what could go wrong?  Well, everything as it happens.  Shortly after arriving back in port in Marseilles, Dantès is framed by his jealous rivals as a Bonapartist traitor.  He is arrested and subsequently imprisoned in the Château d’If, where he spends the next fourteen years of his life.  There he meets and befriends the mysterious Abbé Faria, who educates the young sailor in the sciences, philosophy and languages.  Faria informs Dantès about a vast treasure which is located on the barren island of Monte Cristo.  When Dantès finally escapes from prison, he goes after the loot and becomes filthy rich.  Immediately afterwards, he starts plotting revenge on those who betrayed him.

The Count of Monte Cristo was originally serialised in Journal des Débats in eighteen parts between 1844 to 1846.  It’s interesting to note that Dumas based his story on a true revenge tale, which was taken from the Parisian police archives.  I think everyone should read this book.  It’s fun and it’s BIG!  But if you don’t like lugging a doorstop sized book around with you then get the digital version.  I have a beautiful big hardcover version of this, but it’s on my Kindle too as the digital copy is super cheap.  See here for the e-book.  But whatever – whether it’s digital, paperback or hardback, this is still a classic.    


5/ The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (Neil Gaiman – 2010)


“The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one way only, and that way is treacherous and hard. And if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside.”

This is a wonderful little novelette by Neil Gaiman.  It’s an atmospheric, dark and often claustrophobic story in which a Scottish dwarf (yes, a Scottish dwarf) hires a guide to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle, a cave which is reputedly filled with gold.  

The story is set in Scotland and Gaiman was apparently inspired to write it by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the old Hebridean legends that he most likely heard whilst there.  It’s a story that (for me anyway) isn’t so much about the external landscape (which is beautifully written) but the internal landscape of the two men journeying to the Misty Isle.  There’s so much going on underneath the surface – credit to the author for such excellent characterisation .  It’s riveting stuff and it lingered long in my mind after reading – this for me is the sign of a special story.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is also one of the most evocative stories that I have ever read.  I could literally see every scene in my head playing out like a movie.  Neil Gaiman has done incredible things in this little story.  If you only read one novelette about a Scottish dwarf in your lifetime, make it this one.


Reducing it to five books was always going to be tough.  So although I regret nothing, I’m doing the honourable mentions things.

These go to:

Tenth of December (George Saunders)

Watchmen (Alan Moore)

Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk),

Under the Skin (Michel Faber),

Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville)

And just about anything by Roald Dahl.