I read a lot of books. I read a lot of books in 2012. These are the 28 books I most enjoyed reading last year. They will appear on your screen in the order in which I read them. Now it’s your turn to read them, because they are good, and I am excellent at recommending.
David Rees: How To Sharpen Pencils Exactly what the title says: a couple hundred pages on the proper methods of sharpening pencils. Somehow one of the funniest, most engrossing books I read all year.
Lytton Strachey: Elizabeth and Essex I love me some Strachey, and this is generally counted his masterpiece—correctly, I think. The bizarre sort-of love affair between the great Queen and her sometime favorite is not only a fascinating, beautifully written, ultimately tragic piece of history, it’s an incredibly insightful look into human relationships and power dynamics.
Robert K. Massie: Dreadnought Did you know the ship-building arms race between the heads of the great European states and concomitant family rivalry was responsible for the insanity that was World War I? Neither did I. And yet it was, at least in part, apparently. Riveting. (Pun! Pun!)
Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus Never got around to this as The Magic Mountain sort of bored me back in the day. Alas! Dense and mesmerizing, like a really tasty meatloaf. Music and madness and mortality, am I right?
Anthony Brandt: The Man Who Ate His Boots My fascination with the Arctic got a little out of control this year. No matter; there’s so many great books on the subject. This one focuses on John Franklin—less his doomed 1845 expedition however than the earlier brutal overland adventure when he ate his boots. Because he was hungry and it was really cold.
Brian Switek: My Beloved Brontosaurus The state of dinosaur science in 2013 has advanced so far beyond anything you even learned in the 1990s it’s kind of amazing. T. Rex and the Sauropods for instance were fuzzy with feathers like giant toothsome ducks! My entire world…upside down…
Joan Didion: Miami At book length Didion often wears out her welcome. Not so here. The strange interlocking communities of 1980s Miami, Cubans and Americans locked in a slow gentrifying dance, makes for a riveting read shot through with odd and redolent anecdotes.
William Shea: Fields of Blood The 1862 Prairie Grove campaign in Arkansas was one of the lesser-known but more important campaigns of the Civil War, securing a vital region for the Union. Shea’s overview is superlatively written, smoothly taking in both the strategic and tactical angles while making the time to limn the magnetic personalities of the lesser-known leaders of this bloody struggle.
Tom Bissell: Chasing the Sea Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan and eventually ended up on the shores of what was once the Aral Sea. The best travel book I’ve read since The Road to Oxiana—I can think of no higher praise.
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun This tetralogy is counted among the greatest masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy, and now I know why. While each of the volumes is largely self-contained, focusing on a different landscape and characters, Wolfe’s Borgesian fascination with stories transforms his picaresque into something ultimately powerful and extraordinary.
Thomas Ricks: The Generals Ricks’s study of American generalship from World War II through the Iraq war serves as a searing indictment of the modern way of war while simultaneously exploring why the greatest fighting force in the history of man has proved so ineffective in certain recent situations. Along the way he provides incisive portraits of the eponymous generals and a series of effective set-pieces worth the price of admission alone.
Lawrence Wright: Going Clear The most devastatingly reported book of the year, Wright explodes an atom bomb inside the edifice of Scientology, revealing the moral and personal bankruptcy of the persons and practices behind what must only be described as the most ridiculous yet destructive cult to have arisen in modern America.
Pierre Berton: The Arctic Grail In this massive study of Arctic exploration Berton turns his extraordinary erudition to the hunt for the elusive Northwest Passage and the North Pole. An endless gallery of weird and wonderful figures struggling against enemies both human and inhuman, in The Arctic Grail is related the best and worst of humanity as they face one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.
John Bellairs: The House with a Clock In Its Walls Before he got religion Bellairs wrote this first in a magical series of books for young adults I cannot more highly recommend to fans of Harry Potter and the like. Make sure you get the edition with Edward Gorey’s marvelously creepy illustrations.
K. M. O’Donnell (Barry Malzberg): Universe Day In the 70s Malzberg wrote a whole series of strange, marvelous, experimental, sometimes even pornographic sci-fi novels under a series of pseudonyms that exploded the genre more intensely than even his contemporary Philip K. Dick. I liked this one in particular for its relatively sober tone and attempt to cram thousands of years of future history under one cover in a series of linked stories. Well worth the effort it might take to find.
W. G. Sebald: A Place in the Country Sebald’s last complete book to be translated into English, I have been waiting more than a decade for this to arrive, and I am pleased to say I was not disappointed. Comprising six essays in the pure Sebaldian manner focusing on writers and artists he particularly admired, there is some variability in quality but at its best—in his essay on Walser, notably—this is vintage Sebald, which is to say some of the finest writing of our time.
Christopher Priest: The Prestige Christopher Nolan’s movie is surprisingly good (I hated his Batman), but the book is better. Super enjoyable. Except for, interestingly, the ending, where Nolan pulled something out of his hat even Priest admits was better than the strange, that-didn’t-quite-work ending his novel fades away on.
Sjon: The Blue Fox Bjork’s sometime lyricist finally had three of his major novels translated into English, and all three are wonderful. This was my favorite though, a lyrical, poetic meditation much larger in impact that its small size portends.
Jesse Ball: Silence Once Begun I’m cheating here as this doesn’t actually come out until early in 2014. But Jesse Ball is in my opinion the finest young novelist out there, and Silence Once Begun is yet another great addition to his corpus. The ending is pretty obvious, but I suspect Ball knows that, and ultimately the questions raised in this tragic text (inspired by true events) take on enormous resonance in its aftermath.
Chauncey Loomis: Weird and Tragic Shores This biography of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall is of interest beyond people like me fascinated by the Arctic. It’s a fundamentally American story, and comes to the kind of mysterious, tragic end any biographer would relish. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys biography; no knowledge of Arctic exploration is really needed before jumping in.
Jean Echenoz: 1914 Echenoz’s small books may be short, but they are hardly slight. His miniature panorama of World War I is like a predella without an altarpiece; tiny abrupt scenes somehow taking in a huge experience while packing a real emotional punch. One of the great novelists working today.
Cesar Aira: The Hare Speaking of great novelists working today, Aira’s got books appearing right and left, and every one has its attractions. The Hare, which is actually a reprint of an earlier translation, is not only one of his longest books, but one of his most complex, intricate, and fun, with a whole variety of plots and characters somehow wrapping themselves up in a madcap final episode.
Janet Malcolm: The Silent Woman This famous study of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is equally a study of the fraught relationship between biographer and her subject, and on both accounts can hardly be bettered.
Jim Elledge: Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy Finally! A full-length biography of one of America’s greatest artists. One that looks past the eerie and problematic imagery of his work to the man behind it, finding its source in a documentable homosexuality and troubled youth, not fantasies of serial killings and deviant behavior. A valuable source and study likely to become a standard view of this fascinating figure.
Greil Marcus: The Shape of Things to Come Ostensibly a study of the “American prophetic tradition,” whatever that is; actually more of an excuse for Marcus to explore his obsession with several key figures—Philip Roth, David Lynch, and David Thomas. And what explorations! About as good as criticism gets, in that it not only brings fresh perspective to these artists, but makes me want to hurry to their works…
Philip Roth: American Pastoral …I hurried to Roth, someone I’d largely ignored in the past for a variety of what turned out to be stupid reasons. American Pastoral is nothing short of a masterpiece, a candidate for the “great American novel,” if there is such a thing (there isn’t). Too long, with a largely unnecessary third act, but as insightful and beautifully written a novel as you can want.
Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator Robbins’s work is variable in quality to an almost comic extent—when he’s bad he’s terrible, but when he’s good he’s hilarious and smart and fantastic. On the evidence he’s still finding his voice; when he does, look out.
Neal Stephenson: Anathem What can I say about this book? Just read it. It’s over a thousand pages and I read it in two sittings because I couldn’t stop. Just read it already. A straight-up masterpiece.
Top Ten Honorable Mentions
Oliver Sacks: Hallucinations
John Lewis Gaddis: George F. Kennan
Annie Baker: The Vermont Plays
Sam Pink: Rontel
Robin Sloane: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore
James Morris: Heaven’s Command
Tao Lin: Taipei
Richard Holmes: The Age of Wonder
Daniel Loxton & Donald Prothero: Abominable Science!
Philip Roth: The Plot Against America