This much is true
For most of us stuck inside the house and reaching for a book to pass the time, the default choice is probably a work of fiction. A thriller, an epic, even a romantic novel. But some of the greatest stories are, of course, true, and more and more people are turning to works of non-fiction to find their thrills. It's not just biographies of Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong either - one of the best-sellers of the previous 12 months in whatever genre is Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or the Murder at Road Hill House, which rattles along like a detective story but is in fact a true crime case from 1860.
And then, of course, there are the books we buy in the hope of improving ourselves - just as at one time we might have bought a DIY manual, now, in a sense, there are many manuals for the mind. So some of non-fiction's best sellers can be books on philosophy or how to achieve your aims and ambitions in minutes - as indeed is evidenced by Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot battling for top spot alongside the likes of blockbuster hits by Stephenie Meyer and Stieg Larsson. We spoke to five writers who should know about the best non-fiction - they're some of the best authors in their respective fields. So, from philosophy to career, sport to nature and a smattering of history, let the experts pick your non-fiction writing this month.
Alain De Botton's latest book is The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which explores what we want out of a career. He's also written similar books such as The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness and just completed a stint as writer- in-residence at London's Heathrow Airport.
The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff (1984): A beguiling attempt to answer the question of what we owe other people. He takes ideas from a number of philosophers and artists of the past. He does a brilliant reading of King Lear, St Augustine's Confessions and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. This is the liberal's answer to the problems of life in a market economy. Essays by Michel de Montaigne (gathered by Penguin, 1994): These are the works of the wisest, most entertaining philosopher ever to have written. Alive in the second half of the 16th century, Montaigne mixes highbrow discussion of classical philosophy with ruminations on his horse, his wife, his cabbages and his proclivity for farting after large meals. Montaigne is one of those rare philosophers whom one wishes could have been a friend, so human does he still feel across the centuries that separate us from him.
Human All Too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche (1878): This is perhaps Nietzsche's most readable book. The writing is crisp, witty and consolingly bleak. Here is a taste of what's inside: "Some men have sighed over the abduction of their wives, most however over the fact that no one wanted to abduct them." "There will be few who, when they are in want of matter for conversation, do not reveal the more secret affairs of their friends." "It is to be doubted whether a traveller will find anywhere in the world regions uglier than the human face."
Maxims by La Rochefoucauld (gathered by Bibliobazaar, 2009): Behind almost every one of these maxims, there lies a challenge to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves. La Rochefoucauld lived in the 17th century, but shows that we are never far from being vain, arrogant, selfish and petty - and in fact, never nearer than when we trust in our own goodness. For example, we might believe that we're kind to be concerned about the worries of our friends. Nothing of the sort, mocks La Rochefoucauld, writing a century before the Germans had even thought up the notion of Schadenfreude: "We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others". Art and Illusion by Ernst Gombrich (1960): Gombrich's book is an attempt to write a psychology and philosophy of seeing, as it applies to our responses to the visual arts. It's one of the most thrilling books on art, largely because of the ingenious way in which Gombrich ties together high and low culture, comparing the way we read a Constable to a Tube poster.
Nick Coppack is a contributing editor at Manchester United. He regularly interviews the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney and recently travelled with the team on their pre-season tour through Asia. You can read his work at Inside United magazine, United Review and www.manutd.com
A Game of Two Halves, edited by Stephen F Kelly (1997): Quite simply the most comprehensive and compelling collection of football writing I've read. All bases are covered and not just by traditional sports journalists - pieces from Albert Camus, Harold Pinter and Tony Blair are outstanding. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2009): Better known for his surreal novels, here Murakami nails the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Part philosophical musings, part training diary, the Japanese novelist delves deep into the human psyche to deliver an entertaining and motivational read.
My Manchester United Years by Sir Bobby Charlton with James Lawton (2007): The tale that took 50 years to tell was certainly worth the wait. Charlton's story -tragedies and triumphs abound - has never been a secret, but when dressed up in Lawton's dazzling prose it makes for poetic, poignant reading. The Boys of Summer by Roger Khan (1987): The trials and tribulations of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and 1950s provides the backdrop, but Khan's moving account of an era when sport was more sporting takes centre stage. As much a social history of America as it is a book about baseball.
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway (1932): This passionate rumination on Spain's most controversial pastime presents bullfighting more as art than sport. Intensely detailed and betraying Hemingway's fondness for danger, it's rightly regarded as the beginner's bullfighting bible.
It might sound odd to ask the author of How to Be Idle and the editor of the monthly magazine The Idler for his favourite books on career, but Hodgkinson doesn't suggest that we all give up work. Instead, he suggests a world where we're not absolutely obsessed by work. He is therefore perfectly placed to suggest books that organise your work life - and perhaps offer inspiration and comfort. The Right to Useful Unemployment by Ivan Illich (1978): A cry against the industrial concept of work and a plea to take our work back into our own hands. Mutual Aid by Prince Petr Kropotkin (1902): Kropotkin was a Russian anarchist prince who was writing at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. He envisaged a society based on mutual consent and contract rather than submission to authority, and mutual aid and argues that human beings, left to their own devices, are social and helpful creatures.
The Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris (2007): A practical guide to earning enough to live on while leaving yourself plenty of time for the important things in life: creativity, conviviality, reflection... The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts (1951): Watts was a radical thinker of the mid-20th century who was friends with Aldous Huxley. This book explodes the lie that a job makes you feel safe. Watts helps you to lose your fear and seize the day.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1935): OK, this is a dystopian novel but completely prophetic and a must-read for anyone interested in the way we are as workers in a machine. He creates a world in which every individual is conditioned into certain ways of behaving, and you're constantly struck with parallels with today's society, where attitudes and ethical systems are created by exposure to millions of adverts.
Horspool is a historian, writer and journalist. The history editor of the Times Literary Supplement, he has just published The English Rebel (Viking), a history of rebellion in England from the Magna Carta to the miners' strike. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh by Linda Colley (2007): A tale about how a remarkable woman crossed seas and empires to become part of world history. In tracing a single, extraordinary 18th-century life across the world, from Menorca to Morocco, the Isle of Man to Barcelona, Linda Colley shows what the experience of a newly globalising economy meant to those caught up in it.
God's Fury, England's Fire by Michael Braddick (2008): The English Civil War is never short of historians, but this is a genuinely new approach. By putting the beliefs that drove Englishmen and women to slaughter each other on an unprecedented scale back to centre stage, Braddick breathes fresh life into his subject. The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (translated by Martin Hammond, 2009): The historian and poet Thomas Macaulay called Thucydides "the greatest historian who ever lived", and this new translation shows why. The Athenian's account of the great war between his state and the Spartans brings out eternal truths about power, and how it can lead to self-destruction.
The Black Death by John Hatcher (2008): The Black Death that swept across 14th-century Europe was a calamity of unimaginable proportions, killing as much as half the population. Hatcher has the brilliant idea of showing the pandemic's effects by narrowing his focus to a single village in Suffolk, creating a book that reads more like a novel than a social history. The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom (2008): Accounts of Europe in the run-up to the First World War tend to be overshadowed by a sense of impending doom. Blom, by contrast, shows that the overwhelming mood throughout the Continent was of energy, speed and dynamism.
Recently awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction writing, Hoare's opus is Leviathan, a massive and brilliant tale of his obsession with whales. He's also written about Noël Coward and the Pet Shop Boys, but nature writing is where he truly excels. Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience by Jeremy Mynott (2009): An exquisite compendium from a man who has spent hs life with birds, from their shapes and sounds to their place in human culture and history - utterly fascinating.
Sperm whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean by Hal Whitehead (2003): An astounding survey of the sperm whale - the largest predator that has ever lived, but also possessed of the biggest brain - Whitehead's final chapter on whale intelligence left me breathless and not a little shamed. Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner (2007): An eclectic and beautifully illustrated delve into the ursine den. Bears were once regarded as so noble, English lords claimed to be descended from them.
Crow Country by Mark Cocker (2007): A highly personal account of one man's obsession with the corvids of East Anglia in the United Kingdom - that's rooks, crows and jackdaws - probably the most intelligent of all birds. The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis (1998): A truly remarkable insight into the truth behind the tales of the kraken - 18 metres long and the stuff of anyone's nightmares.