You might think of July as a time for escapist novels. But judging from the publishers’ lists, it has also become a key month for fat books on very important subjects. Some of these bring the narrative satisfactions of fiction in tow, yet they come bearing that strange secondary classification of “non-fiction.” I’ve always been fascinated by this name, as if “non-fiction” negated the absolute pleasure of fiction. The Germans talk of Sachbücher, thing-books, the French of essais and more recently also of actualités. But in our naming, we English give primacy to the novel. I love fiction, of course, but this month’s books demonstrate the pleasures of those other prose narratives.
In Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Allen Lane, £25), two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll takes us deep into the workings of the secretive global oil giant, which was in 2011 America’s most profitable corporation. Exxon’s annual