Reading List: “Essentials” of Mid-Century Nonfiction

IMG_7690Editor’s Note: this list was originally conceived for an independent study, which has obvious parameters–so let’s flesh it out, including individual essays as well as books.


  • John McPhee, Coming Into the Country
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
  • Steven Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin
  • Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
  • Phillip Lopate, Against Joie de Vivre
  • Gay Talese, Unto the Sons
  • Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song
  • Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men
  • Paul Theroux, Old Patagonian Express
  • Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
  • Joan Didion, The White Album


Do you have independent study reading lists that you’d be willing to share with the community? Send them to us and we’ll post them to our blog!

6 thoughts on “Reading List: “Essentials” of Mid-Century Nonfiction

  1. Looks like the earliest here is Carson (1962) and the latest is Lopate (1989). “Mid-century” definitely isn’t the best label–what this seems to suggest to me as I look at it and try to discern the connective tissue of this list is that it looks post-genteel essay and pre-(1990? Lopate seems to mark a shift in nonfiction). New Journalism, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” emphasis on the 1960s-1970s? That’s what it looks like to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Mid-Century is misleading, I agree. If it were really midcentury, you’d have to include Hersey’s HIROSHIMA.

    Joseph Mitchell’s UP IN THE OLD HOTEL appeared in 1991, but the newest work in in it was from 1964.

    Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD surely revolutionized cnf, at the time– though subsequent disclosures make that hard to include…

    I’d plump for Richard Rodriguez’s DAYS OF OBLIGATION, a work of genius

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In furniture and home design, “mid-century” usually refers to mid-1930s to mid-1960s, so if we were going with that as a time period, I’d add E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Mary McCarthy Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Maybe an earlier Mailer — Armies of the Night?


  4. I was thinking about this overnight, trying to see beyond titles to what this period, if it is a period, is about–what separates it from what comes after. (And if anybody has a better title for what this reading list is really about, I’m all ears.)

    Seems like this is the time where we really start to question truth and fact, the nonfiction novel and new journalism. (Mailer, Capote, etc.) where we hadn’t questioned it before. It also seems like the beginning of science and nature writing (Carson, Gould, Dillard), where we didn’t have sustained attention to the natural world in nonfiction.

    The late 1980s is where we get Best American Essays, the late 1990s is where we get nonfiction literary journals)–and I wonder if the next evolution of nonfiction came in experimenting with form on the page. Ned, you’ve done the most work on this–what do you think?


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