In Cold Blood: An Objective Reckoning

18.10.2023 |

Episode #7 of the course 100 Nonfiction Books Everyone Should Read by John Robin


Welcome back to our course on 100 Nonfiction books everyone should read!

Last lesson, we explored the medical, health, and fitness category. Put together with the previous five categories, we have developed the personal side of nonfiction a bit more, in a scientific direction.

Where can we go next to expand the map? Welcome to lesson 7, where we’ll now explore another category which sheds a more objective light on the subjective personal narrative. Get ready to add 10 more great books to our must-read shelf!


Political Science, Journalism, True Crime, and Essay

Top recommendation: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

This next category includes all books devoted to recounting real world events in more of an objective fashion—through careful research, journalism, or discussion, this category stands as a contrast to the more subjective personal recounting found in the biography, memoir, and travel category.

In Cold Blood is a harrowing account of the 1959 murder of four family members. But what makes it stand apart as the top pick for this category is just how deep the author, Truman Capote, was willing to go to try and tell this story with as much truth as possible. For not only did he try to capture details of a horrific crime, he was determined to understand the why behind the killer’s motives—what kind of person murders a family in cold blood?

He was so disturbed by this question, and so devoted to his task of writing this book, that he put in many research hours visiting one of the murderers in prison. He spent 6 years on the book, not because it required lots of work, but because he was unable to finish the book until he finally heard the killer break down and tell his story. Only then, and shortly after as he witnessed the execution, was he able to break down emotionally—really behold the tragic picture for what it was. Only then could he finish the book.

One detail that really sunk in for me in this book was how one of the murder victims, a child, had been tucked back in after being shot in the head. This was the one detail that stuck with Capote and turned his interest in the case into an obsession: what kind of person does a thing like that?

Capote’s capacity for empathy and determination to see humanity in someone who we would expect there to be none is what makes In Cold Blood such a powerful examination of the many sides of an issue.

Runners up:

In Cold Blood is the kind of book that truly challenges you to explore the troubling sides of human issues. But this is not the only thing this lesson’s category is about.

Two top runners-up for this category are The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Both books explore the complexities behind military and political intrigue. While both books are quite old—The Art of War dates back to 400BCE and The Prince to the 1500s—they form the foundation for most patterns playing out today still in our international history. The Art of War will help you understand military thinking, and the reason behind why certain political maneuverings occur, whereas The Prince expands that a bit more to the political arena, especially some of the political intrigues that underlie negotiations and international strategy. These two books became the cornerstone for me to have a newfound perspective whenever following the news, because it is quite interesting how, though our world has advanced centuries since those books were written, the same underlying patterns play out again and again.

Of course, this leads to the question why these patterns play out—and our category is all about exploring those why questions behind events. Orientalism by Edward Said and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson are perfect books to fill that gap.

Orientalism takes a close look at the history of East-West relations, and serves to explain a great deal of the social and political dynamics of our world today. It shines a fascinating light on just how interconnected our trading relationship with the Far East shaped policies through the 1700s and 1800s, and helps us understand the tensions of the 1900s that have divided our international world in a way that continues to elude peace-keeping endeavors.

Why Nations Fail focuses a bit more on the economic aspects of political history, taking a look at the international picture through case studies of select countries whose history on the economic field can teach us a lot about inequality and why it persists.

Honorable mentions:

Here are five honorable mentions to round out our list of 10:

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer, an investigative journalist’s in-depth look at trends behind the recent rise of the Republican party, which sheds more light on the ties between wealth and politics.

The New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft by Robert S. Boynton, a case-study approach to understanding the work of a journalist and how they try to capture the truth of complex issues.

The Self-Made Myth by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham, an eye-opening investigation of the idea that self-made wealth stems from individuals driven to succeed, revealing further ways that governments shape the social elite.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen, a journalist’s look at the lives of four individuals born during the rise of Russia’s democratic era, and the realities of how they witnessed a very different and oppressive regime take its place instead.

The White Album by Joan Didion, a wide-ranging collection of essays examining topics ranging from Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the rise of the American shopping mall, by someone trying to make sense of it all from a spiritual, disillusioned perspective.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll see what top 10 books await in the next category!


Recommended movie

Capote (2005), with Philip Seymour Hoffman


Share with friends