Robert Kurson may not be as familier as some of the authors who appear later in this post but he is a king among non-fiction writers. The best part - he's only written two books. This is a man with a long way to go. His second book, Crashing Through is so fascinating and well written he proved lightening did not strike once.
Nathaniel Philbrick has also written some seminal, fantastic books about the oceans - one revealed the true story behind Moby Dick, another the greatest explorer America has ever seen. His connections to the large events of America past are incredibly illuminating. With each book he seems to ratchet up his game and the depth and readability of his prose is truly stunning.
Best Work: Sea of Glory a richly detailed portrait of a man who discovered and mapped much of the world, started the Smithsonian musuem and discovered Antarctica - yet was forgotten by history because he was a completely complex, absolute jerk.
Antony Beevor has written the second world war for a long time and each work serves to illuminate and solidify the great events of the war. He has covered Stalingrad, Crete, The Fall of Germany and most recently, "the definitive" book on D-Day. Beevor does not so much as touch on his topics as become completely immersed in the them. He makes even the most mundane of statistics gripping reading. Much of what he writes is powerful and new information, gleaned from incredible levels of research one can only guess at the depths of. If you are into history and World War Two at some point you will cross paths with Beevor, the master.
Best Work: The harrowing Stalingrad which takes the reader deeper into the infamous battle then they likely wanted to go. Did you know for example, more German prisoners were taken from Stalingrad then any other venue in the war? Or that most of them died in Russian POW camps far worse then we can even imagine? A powerful look and the most captivating in our history.
#4)Any pantheon of non-fiction gods would not be complete without Jon Krakauer. A writer with the unique ability to get so deep inside his subject it literally consumes his work, he could make a book about dry toast thrilling. He has scaled mountains, gone to war, searched the extremes of religon and pushed beyond the outer limits of human struggle. There may not be a finer writer of non-fiction alive. We are all bearing witness to greatness, it is just really unfortunate he only puts out a book every four years or so.
Best Work: Under the Banner of Heaven which so powerfully examined the nature of organized religon in our world through the Mormon Church. Given how much importance extremists now play in our world view, Krakauer has written a chronicle which will stand the test of time. A truly one of a kind work.
The best of the rest:
Sebastian Junger - A Death in Belmont and The Perfect Storm were both incredible books. One more seminal work and he makes the list.
Erik Larson - Both The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck were incredible works (The former in particular) and Larson's style of weaving a singular, history changing moment with a brutal true crime narrative works so well it is scary.
Mark Bowden - Killing Pablo was a fantastic book, but I have yet to read Black Hawk Down, if it as good as advertised, he may make the list.
Sanyika Shakur - His autobiography Monster remains one of the ten best non-fiction books I have ever read. I seriously debated this one, if one book could put someone on the list. In the end, it could not. He is also the inaguaral winner of my "James Patterson Award"...for worst book of the year (for his debut "novel").