The Bias of the New

The Guardian has posted its list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. I’d have hoped that this crew, who presumably have a longer view of things, would find a way to avoid the “best 100 of my lifetime” bias you see in these lists; but again I’m disappointed.

I made a list of the year of publication, and then totalled them up by century and decade. Among the top-level things you notice is, sixteen of these hundred books came from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That’s 300 years of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which just matches the number of greatest books published in…

The decade of the 1970s.

3% of the 100 greatest non-fiction works of all time were published in 1975, the year I graduated high school. And to think I was in the midst of an annus mirabilis.

In fact, just since 1994 the world has been blessed with the publication of as many of the greatest works than the entire nineteenth century (thirteen).

Not to say these aren’t great books. I’m sure they are. But as works of mathematics go, is “Godel Escher Bach” (true story: read it twice and loved it) really greater than Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica?”

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