One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, spread out across a broad range of disciplines. Here are my top 10 favorite nonfiction books I read in 2012, starting with my favorite.
1: Lit, Mary Karr
Mary Karr gets drunk, gets sober, and finds God — all against her best intentions and expectations. She is funny, clever, and heartbreakingly honest; essentially, everything we want out of a memoir. We want it to be lurid. We want it to fulfill every voyeuristic hope that we hold. But we don’t always expect memoirs to be so beautifully written or so incisively honest. Karr writes with disarming humility and power. This is a memoir for everyone and I recommend it wholeheartedly. I didn’t want to put it down for a second. (Buy)
2: The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee
This book is the complete history of the most well-known killer of people: Cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a decorated cancer researcher, but you wouldn’t expect him to also be a gifted historian and storyteller. The Emperor of All Maladies is the most engaging scientific narrative I have ever read. It is supremely readable and clear, even for a non-science background layperson like myself. Mukherjee tells the important story of the mysterious, elusive disease that will reach us all, sooner or later. This is an important book that begs to be read and reckoned with. (Buy)
3: The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir provided us with the complete word on what women are and how they could be. This book, an essential text of feminist philosophy and the genesis of second-wave feminism, is extremely long and it is not for the faint of heart. Beauvoir starts at the beginning, and I mean the beginning — we are talking amoeba communities and frog mating practices. From there, she launches into a dizzying array of topics and disciplines and histories, exploring all of the reasons why women are the way they are and why the progress toward gender equality has been so slow and hindered. I was impressed by her humor and by the perpetual relevance of this book. This is not out of date. Women are still lagging behind men in many of the same areas (notably the workplace) that they were in 1949. But Beauvoir gives us hope, even if it is a mere glimmer, that the “curse” of womanhood may no longer rest on our heads. (Buy)
4: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans
It is remarkable to me that, until this book, ballet did not have a consummate history. So along came Jennifer Homans, NYU professor, dance critic, and former professional dancer. Apollo’s Angels contains the complete story of ballet, through its various phases and transformations, and is written in a beautiful, sincere style. History books are often hard for me to read, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable. Homans is a skilled and careful writer and she treats her subjects with keen attention. This book will give you more information about ballet than you probably need, but it is so delightful and inspiring that I would recommend it to anyone. (Buy)
5: Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch
I will already admit that this is a book that I need to reread. Clocking in at 1,184 pages, this is a SERIOUS TOME. As it should be, I suppose, regarding its ambitious scope: A complete history of Christianity. Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history is a remarkable achievement. I can’t imagine ever knowing so much about one topic. Yeah, I read the whole thing, but I feel like I only skimmed the surface of his vast knowledge. This is the book to read — to tackle, more accurately — for the complete, definitive introduction to church history. I’ve been a Christian for most of my life and I didn’t know half of the things he talked about in this book. I’d say it’s essential reading for most Christians. It’s good to know where you came from. (Buy)
6: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas G. Carr
Nicholas G. Carr’s short, incisive survey of Internet history and its corresponding neuroscientific research is quietly terrifying. I almost expected it to be scarier. But here I am, typing my thoughts into a blog, on the Internet, so I guess it didn’t scare me as much as I had hoped. It did reinforce, however, my desire to spend less and less time on the World Wide Web. I have certainly felt the sense that he describes, the truly great horror, that the more time we spend online, the less human we become. I feel better about myself when I’m not online: Clearer, simpler, happier. Living unplugged is a rapidly diminishing lifestyle, but I’d like to pursue it, to the best of my ability. This book will reinvigorate that desire — to sit outside, to read a thick novel, to think in a deeper, clearer way than the Internet allows. (Buy)
7: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick
Why do we, as human beings, so deeply desire to know, to catalog, to archive? James Gleick examines a range of familiar scientific innovations, corresponding mathematics, and the resulting cultural implications. We live in the supposed “Information Age,” but what does that mean? And how did we get here? He writes beautifully and this is an incredibly engaging account, even if most of it was over my head. The Information is a relevant, scientific memoir of our civilization’s undying passion to record, remember, transmit. (Buy)
8: The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr
Yes, this was the year that made me a Mary Karr fan. I have never read a sadder childhood nor a purer memoir. After I devoured and loved Lit, I thought it would be a good idea to backtrack and read Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club, the story of her violent, traumatic, and yet humorously heartbreaking childhood in Texas and Colorado. It certainly does not disappoint. At times, I found myself getting confused by its parallels with The Glass Castle (Jeannette Wells’ very similar-sounding memoir of her own girlhood among destructive, poor, alcoholic parents — both Wells and Karr have mothers who are constantly drunk painters, for example. BUT Karr did it first. And better, if you can make tragic childhood memoirs a competition. Wells came out with her memoir 10 years after this book was published). Anyhow. Read it. Love it. Feel like you might have a chance at being even a mildly decent parent, because at least you’re not these people. I liked Lit better as a whole, but this, wow, equally great. (Buy)
9: Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
Another memoir, I know, but this is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, waxing on and off about his childhood and life. We weave between his lush, florid descriptions of familial interaction; a parade of names; a barrage of places and vivid memories. The flow of his language almost makes us feel as if we were chasing butterflies alongside him. And then there is the sudden and beautiful insertion of “you” 200 pages in, referring to his wife, Vera, his only audience, the only one who matters. Oh, Nabokov! Always leaving me breathless. (Buy)
10: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Francis Steegmuller
A perfectly written and extremely readable double-biography of Gustave Flaubert and his fictional alter ego, Madame Bovary. This was the ideal companion for my re-reading of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary this past year, and I recommend it heartily to anyone with even a passing interest in Flaubert, French literature, or the process of writing a great novel. Well done, Steegmuller. (Buy)
Coming soon: Top 10 works of fiction I read this year.