Examples of truly great nonfiction in languages other than English?
I hunger for nonfiction because I love learning and because I long to expand my life, my experiences, my thought — all of them so sadly limited. One particular obsession of mine lately is to find truly great nonfiction in languages other than English. It’s not that there’s a lack of it in English (quite the opposite) but rather a nagging suspicion of Western (American-European) parochialism, of missing out on great works and different perspectives I can’t even imagine.
The surprising thing, though, is how hard it is to found it. I have no trouble finding truly great, truly unique fiction in many languages but my trawlings for worthwhile nonfiction turn out almost always empty.
Perhaps it’s a matter of nonfiction not being as readily exportable and thus translated to other languages. Perhaps there’s just not a English market for translated nonfiction. Perhaps English just sucks into it most modern nonfiction writers, whatever their native language. Perhaps whoever wants to be widely read these days chooses to write only in English. Perhaps nonfiction in other languages is “remade” rather than “subtitled” into English. Perhaps I need to be introduced to it by a native speaker. Perhaps nonfiction as we now conceive it is a very modern meta-genre. Perhaps nonfiction is a Western thing. Perhaps nonfiction needs a massive community of hundreds of millions of wealthy, educated speakers to foster the few who will read it, let alone write it. Perhaps I’m so drenched in the Anglosphere that I only get it‘s version of who’s relevant. Perhaps just as Greek, Latin, Chinese, Arab, or French had their golden nonfiction age, this is English’s. Perhaps.
Lacking an answer, my guess these days is that English nonfiction is, personally, by far the only worthwhile modern nonfiction in the world.
But I’m still looking. And so, dear Interwebs, please help me out, what examples do you know of truly great nonfiction in languages other than English?
Anything goes, as long as it’s general, nonlocal, non-culturally-specific (say, no books on Kohdo, the Japanese art of smelling incense, or on the cuisine in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) but to give you a more specific idea of what I’m looking for, here are some subjects dear to my heart and some outstanding representatives within them (with the few items in languages other than English bolded):
- Economics ) — think Daniel Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, PJ O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich;
- History ) — think Peter Watson’s Modern Mind and Ideas, Mitchel Waldrop’s The Dream Machine;
- Philosophy ) — think Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves;
- Reference ) — think Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oxford Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary, Diccionario Maria Moliner;
- Biology ) — think Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, cognitive science (think Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs);
- Neuroscience ) — think Jeff Hawkins’s On Intelligence;
- The Singularity ) — think Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, Hans Moravec’s Mind Children;
- Computer science ) — think David Hillis’s Pattern in the Stone, Charles Petzold’s Code, Peter Norville’s Ambient Findability, Doug Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect;
- Philosophy/language/cognitive & computer science ) — think Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher and Bach;
- Aphorisms ) — think Jorge Wagensberg’s Si la naturaleza es la respuesta…;
- Essays ) — think Alfred N. Whitehead’s Aims of Education, Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters, Fernando Savater’s A Decir Verdad;
- Information Design ) — think, of course, of Edward Tufte’s masterful works;
- Comics ) — think Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, The 9/11 Report: a graphic adaptation, Rius’s works;
- Artificial Intelligence ) — think Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind;
- Interface design ) — think Jef Raskin’s The Humane Interface, Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things;
- Design ) — think Cristopher Alexander’s Notes on the synthesis of form;
- Journalism ) — think John Battelle’s The Search;
- Business ) — think anything by Peter Drucker;
- Medicine ) — think Atul Gawande;
- Language ) — think Claude Piron’s La Bona Lingvo, George Lakoff’s Metaphors we live by, Giles Fauconnier’s The Way We Think;
- Selfhelp ) — think Efrain Bartolome’s Educacion Emocional, Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people, Harry Browne’s _How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World;
- Finance ) — think The Essays of Warren Buffet;
- Sociology ) — think Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Guillermo Oliveto’s El Futuro Ya Llegó;
- Psychology ) — think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, Ellen Langer’s Mindfulness, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog, Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self;
- Biography ) — think Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, Sam Walton’s Made in America;
- Mathematics ) — think Michael Spivak’s Calculus, Tobias Dantzig’s Number;
- Education ) — John Holt’s How Children Fail, Guillermo Jaim Etcheverry’s La Tragedia Educativa, Seymour Papert’s The Children’s Machine;
- Programming ) — think The Pragmatic Programmer, The Little Schemer;
- Technology ) — think Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control;
- Periodicals ) — think The Economist, The New York Times;
- Video ) — think TedTalks, Helvetica, David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth;
- Animation ) — think The Crisis of Credit Visualized, Trusted Computing, The Machine;
- And other wonderful, unclassifiable stuff ) — think James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, El Retorno del Cangrejo Parte IV, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Evolving Self.
Extra points (not-at-all-necessary but cool parameters):
- the book is less than 200 years old. One extra point if also less than a 100 years old. A further extra point if also less than 50 :)).
- from a non-Western language (like Japanese!),
- third culture-ish,
- NOT yet translated into English.