The Best Books I Read In 2012
I read a lot of books. I read a lot of books in 2012. These are the 36 books I enjoyed reading most last year. They will appear on your screen in the order in which I read them.
Ron Chernow: George Washington Everything you ever wanted to know about George Washington. Everything you didn’t want to know about George Washington.
Alec Wilkinson: The Ice Balloon As a child I was haunted by this photograph of a ghostly balloon on its side in a vastness of ice. This is the story of that balloon and the photograph that remembers it.
Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb Rightfully a classic. Actually only the second half is really about the making of the atomic bomb; the first half is a comprehensive history of particle physics in the early twentieth century, and worth the price of admission alone.
Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet Worth waiting ten years for? Not to the level of his first two books, but then what is? I could have done without the useless epilogue, however.
Geoff Dyer: Zona In which Dyer summarizes the entirety of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, one of my favorite movies of all time, while continually digressing. One of his most fascinating hybrid concoctions.
Richard Frank: Guadalcanal The indispensable account of this pivotal campaign, this is the most exciting as well as in-depth examination of every service’s contribution to the effort, with close examination and objective analysis of the naval campaign as well as the struggle on and above the island.
Wiley Sword: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah I have always been fascinated by the Western campaigns of the Civil War in particular, and the battles of Franklin, Spring Hill, and Nashville that finally destroyed the Confederacy’s main Western army have never received enough attention in my estimation. Until now.
Douglas Wilson: Honor’s Voice Not so much an examination of Lincoln’s early years proper, more a look at the way we make and use history, with an emphasis on the uncertainties inherent in any such investigation.
Robert MacFarlane: The Wild Places The prose is as lovely as the journeys MacFarlane makes on foot through the wild places of the British Isles. One of the most Sebaldian books I’ve read, yet bearing little actual resemblance to the master.
John Jeremiah Sullivan: Pulphead There may be a few misses in this collection of essays, but overall an exciting new voices stretches its lanky legs.
Jean Echenoz: Lightning Being a fictionalized retelling of Tesla’s life in the manner of the mercurial French author’s lovely take on Ravel. All you need to know about a man and his pigeon.
James Wood: How Fiction Works and The Broken Estate James Wood has his critics: I am sometimes among them. At his best though there is no more incisive voice in favor of the English language. HFW maybe is more about one particular way in which fiction may work but that’s okay. It works really well that way.
Dan Simmons: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion Two of the finest science fiction novels I have ever read. But for God’s sake DO NOT READ Endymion and The Rise of Enymion! They will retroactively ruin the first two.
Alan Moore: Watchmen Never got to this before. Does it live up to its reputation? It does.
Halldor Laxness: Under the Glacier Read on Susan Sontag’s recommendation. Among the weirdest, funniest, finest hidden classics of the 20th century.
Alan Josephy: The Patriot Chiefs A sweeping yet carefully controlled history of the Native American leaders who stood up to us white people. Fascinating, noble, and tragic.
Jonathan Lethem: They Live Close reading of a text can be dreary. Rarely has it ever been this fun.
John Lewis Gaddis: The Cold War I thought I was fairly well informed about the Cold War. I was wrong.
Stephen Hunt: In the Court of the Air Steampunk can get old fast. Indeed this series might quickly wear out its welcome. The first installment however carried me along on its fighting balloons and steam-powered fighting robots all the way to its exciting conclusion.
Thomas Ades: Full of Noises Okay, so Ades comes across as kind of a dick. He’s never less than riveting, however, especially when comparing Wagner to fungus, and he manages to say a lot of interesting things about his own work without ever quite answering the questions put to him.
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights A masterpiece I’d avoided for no good reason. All the wasted years! I was even swept up by the family affairs after the whole Heathcliff/Cathy thing ran its course. Sublime.
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre And then I moved right along to its sister. Equally astonishing. Those Bronte kids really had something.
Richard Compton-Hall: The Submarine Pioneers As a kid I was fascinated by submarines, but as it turns out much of the history I learned was wrong and incomplete. For instance, did you know there probably never was a Turtle? I hope that fact did not crush you too much.
Heather Christle: What Is Amazing New favorite poet discovered in 2012? Uneven, yes. At her best, scintillating.
Lucasta Miller: The Bronte Myth A biography not of the sisters themselves but their reception, perception, and afterlife. By someone named Lucasta, the best insectile name ever.
Peter Galison: Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps How the synchronization of time led to relativity. One of those books where the ostensible subject is swamped by a stream of perspicuous observations and strange new facts flashing by as the pages turn.
P. W. Singer: Wired For War Drones and robots and war. The future peers down from above and it has missiles.
John Glassie: A Man of Misconceptions I have been waiting my entire life for a real biography of Athanasius Kircher and it’s finally here! And doesn’t disappoint.
Scott McClanahan: Stories V! For every stupid thing in this book comes along something deeply moving and true. Recommended perhaps in spite of itself.
Nate Silver: The Signal and the Noise Why can we predict the weather but not earthquakes? And other statistical anomalies by the real winner of the 2012 elections.
Ross MacDonald: The Underground Man One of the greatest accomplishments by one of the greatest writers of mysteries. Actually not so much a writer of mysteries as a chronicler of broken families and post-war malaise in the form of pulp fiction. Only with much better prose.
Jeff Vandermeer: Finch Perhaps not as great an individual accomplishment as its predecessors, nonetheless a worthy successor to the mighty Shriek: An Afterword and a fine conclusion to the Ambergris series.