I am unable to resist best book lists of almost any form so I’ve been keeping an eye on the usual end of the year productions. I’m not as into it as some others, like the blogger Largehearted Boy, who amasses a giant list of best lists, or the librarian/bloggers at the Williamsburg Public Library, who take all those lists and turn them into one mega-list (though that list is broken into different categories, mostly for fiction).
Mostly, I keep an eye out for the lists compiled by the sources I rely on most for book reviews — The New York Times and Salon (which has separate lists for fiction and nonfiction). But I have to admit this year my favorite list came from Lev Grossman at Time magazine (which also had separate fiction and nonfiction lists). Perhaps it’s Grossman’s unapologetic appreciation of genre fiction — which was an awful lot of my fiction reading this year. Or, in a related angle, it’s his noticing books that are not the usual suspects — two graphic novels (The Death-Ray and Hark! A Vagrant!) became Christmas gifts in my house this year after I saw them on the list.
My best list consists of books I read this year, whenever they were published — though a large number were indeed new this year (one of the many benefits of working at a library is access to advanced review copies and awareness of newly published works). I chose my favorites with flat-out enjoyment as my only criterion, realizing that many factors go into that.
Fiction: A Song of Ice & Fire, books 1-3, George R.R. Martin (That’s A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords)
Nonfiction: Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean.
Why the George R.R. Martin? As so many others already knew, and millions more of us have discovered since HBO started airing the screen adaptation, this is an amazing world Martin has created, full of compelling characters and apparently endless plot possibilities. I’ve only read the first three books because 1) I’m waiting for a co-worker to finish Book 3 so we can talk about them as we read them and 2) I don’t want to catch up to Martin too soon then become of those disgruntled fans who hates him because he’s taking so long writing his next book. Grossman has an excellent explanation for why he chose Martin’s latest book, A Dance With Dragons, in this Salon compilation of writers naming their favorite books of the year. In case you don’t feel like scrolling through 50 writers, here’s the meat of Grossman’s case:
As for craft: Yeah, on the level of sentence, you couldn’t stack “A Dance With Dragons” up against Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot,” or Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child.” But as a plotter, an orchestrator and pacer of narratives that weave around and resonate with each other, Martin leaves them far, far behind. Is that important? Maybe not to the people who give out Pulitzers. But it’s important to me. It’s why “A Dance With Dragons” is the best book I read this year.
If I were to name the best literary nonfiction I read this year, I’d go with Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber, followed by The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. Outside of those, my top five were all genre: A Surfeit of Guns, by P.F. Chisholm, part of her entertaining Sir Robert Carey series and The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor, another historical crime novel. Honorable mentions to Heartstone by C.J. Sansom, the latest in his keeps-getting-better Matthew Shardlake series (soon to be on screen portrayed by Kenneth Branagh!) and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, the latest but I hope not the last of Sally Gunning’s novels set in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts.
As for nonfiction, I read a lot of good ones this year. Really good books, written by smart people who neither talked down to their readers nor preached to the academic choir. But my favorite came out of journalism: Rin Tin Tin by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. I’m a dog person for sure, but I am not a big consumer of dog books. I wouldn’t even call this a dog book. It’s a book about 20th century America, and about how an image can influence a culture. And it’s a story about the incredible bond between a lonely man and the puppy he rescued on a World War I battlefield. Many twists and turns, with several side trips into related but separate storylines — yet Orlean keeps it all together and keeps it moving and coherent. Brilliantly done.
The rest of my top five in nonfiction, in no particular order: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (who knew James Garfield was such a good guy? Certainly not me). She-Wolves by Helen Castor, about the women who ruled, or tried to rule England before Mary. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, about the rediscovery of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius and how that poem helped usher in the modern world. The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller — my favorite kind of literary writing, where she tells the story of the book and of the book’s impact on the culture in general and on her, as a reader, in particular. If you were a Narnia kid, and I was, this book feels like it was written just for you. Honorable mentions to Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great and Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm.
With the holiday boost in ereader sales, I expect we will be seeing even more of the essays predicting the death of literature, of reading, of writing, of culture, of life as we know it. Perhaps I am fooling myself, like a newspaper journalist circa 1998, but I don’t think so. The modes are changing, the economics are changing and who gets published and what sells may change. But people appear to have a thirst for narrative, for stories in the form of the written word, that is spurring the production of plenty of good (and lots of terrible) books that are now available in all kinds of forms. It’s certainly an unnerving time to be a publisher, or an aspiring writer, or, in some ways, a librarian. But as a reader I feel confident that the well is nowhere near running dry. On to 2012!