7 Big, Fat, Epic Nonfiction Books That Are Totally Worth Your Time and Energy

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epic nonfiction

As I get older, the sheer volume of things of which I’m completely ignorant and about which I know nothing increases exponentially with each passing year, and my awe (and terror) at its growing enormity is renewed with every newly revealed cavern of existence’s persistent mysteries. And nothing emphasizes my extremely limited intellect more than the arrival in bookstores every season of lengthy tomes covering giant topics and large spans of time, books whose very size symbolizes the dedication required to expand your education even a single, categorical degree. I mean also it’s just true that nobody could read all these things.[1] But that doesn’t make me feel better because it still means that I won’t. Thus, my stupidity will remain; in fact, it sort of has to, because if I spent my entire life learning all there is to learn about life I wouldn’t actually have any time left to live that life. If you want to look forward, it also means choosing not to look back, or to the images in your periphery. We only have so much time, after all.

So in the interest of narrowing down the hoard of door-stopping tree-killers, I’ve compiled a list of 7 recent mammoth nonfiction books that stretch from the beginning of time to the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, and that cover comedians and filmmakers, heroes and—my personal favorite—heretics. Each one is really long, I’m not gonna lie—the shortest on the list is 425 pages while the longest clocks in at 820—but trust me when I say that they are extremely well-written and also just fun to read, richly absorbing and endlessly edifying. They plunge you into the depths of fascinating figures and revolutions both social and intellectual, from the complex savagery of mass murder and those who commit it, to the vagaries of humor and those who make it, from that which destroys us to that which heals us.

[1] A truism of books in general and thereby making assiduous reading an inherently private enterprise, i.e., because they take a long time to ingest and because there are a bafflingly large number of them in existence, books as cultural currency are way less valuable than more time-friendly activities like movies and music and TV—so if, say, you and I have just met and are having an obsequious conversation, it is far more likely that we’ve seen the same movies and shows than read many of the same books, so if books stubbornly become the topic anyway, everything gets stale almost immediately and it’s awkward and just a bunch of, “Oh, I haven’t read that one, but I heard it’s great,” and, “Yeah, but it was years ago,” and isn’t even necessary in the first place because film and music and TV are just as interesting and not as straining, so I mean basically I’m just asking you not to talk to me about books if you don’t really care, it’s totally cool, I won’t be mad or anything, because to tell you the truth I don’t even really like talking about books that much, it’s a private relationship, like I said, which is why I write about it and don’t necessarily want to talk about it, but anyway where was I, oh yeah, ending the footnote.


Image credits: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock.com, ALEXANDER LEONOV/Shutterstock.com.

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About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.