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 takings top those of many nations. As Coll reports, when operating abroad the company functions as a state within a state, complete with its own foreign policy and political wing. Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, its CEO until 2005, held views on climate change aligned with James Inhofe, the Senator from Oklahoma who asked on the floor of the Senate, “Could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?” The corporation financed various scientific and lobbying organisations to bring that message home around the world. Drawing on reports from courts to Congress, interviews with a cast of international characters, and investigative journalism of the first rank, Coll gives us a nerve-jangling exposé of untrammelled corporate power, which “bent and shaped American foreign policy, as well as economic, climate, chemical, and environmental regulation.”
If Owen Hatherley were to take his fierce brilliance to a landscape of blighted oil fields, it couldn’t be any bleaker than the built (and half-built and unbuilt) world of this second of his urban trawls through the “new ruins of Great Britain.” Hatherley is a 21st-century mixture of JG Ballard and Nikolaus Pevsner, alert to the social cacophony of “organic delis next to pound shops” and the kind of social unrest radical inequality can cause. Cities for him are political spaces subject to changes in the economy. In A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (Verso, £20) he guides us from Luton Airport to the Thames Gateway to…