I mostly read fiction - but two of my favourite books are non-fiction. Both are collections of articles and stories written for The New Yorker by two of its chief writers from the 1940s to 1960s. For anyone who's not come across them before, I can highly recommend them.
Up In The Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell
The San Francisco Examiner described it as 'A poetry of the actual, a song of the streets that casts a wide net and fearlessly embraces everything human. This is reporting transformed into literature... so rich and generous and funny that it ought to stay in print forever.' I hope it will. The opening piece about McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (still there, on 7th Street in New York City), with the descriptions of the various bar-keeps and assorted regulars, always makes me yearn for a place like it. There are other stories about the Mohawk Indians who built the skyscrapers, the clam fishermen working the Hudson... and the sheer variety of human life on the streets and in the cafes and bars of the city. The last section, Joe Gould's Secret, is a fascinating tale of Mitchell's friendship with a tramp who's written a very special book. Joe Gould's Secret was made into a film by Stanley Tucci, starring Ian Holm.
Favourite lines from the film:
Mitchell: Do you think the story is boring?
Wife: I don't know. I haven't read it. What happens in it?
Mitchell: Nothing happens in it.
Wife: Well, then... I guess it depends on the writer.
I love this book. If my flat burnt down and I had time to save one book... it would have to be this. Not far behind, though, would be
This Place On Third Avenue, by John McNulty.
This is a collection of 28 'true' short stories - some only a couple of pages long - based on the characters in a bar where McNulty hung out a lot of the time: 'cab-drivers, horseplayers, handymen, bartenders, has-beens, never-weres, dreamers and despairers.' Thurber was a great fan, saying 'American writing in our time has developed few men with so keen an eye and so sharp an ear. Nothing, however commonplace, that McNulty touched with words remained commonplace, but was magnified and enlivened by his intense and endless fascination with the stranger in the street, the drinker at the bar, the chap across the room...' The stories are all funny and light on plot - which is how I like 'em. All human life is in there.
Read a few pages of each one on Amazon preview and see if they hook you...