“Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else,” writes Nick Hornby in his March 2004 column in The Believer. He retracts this statement in the next month’s column, but, with a little modification, I’d stand by it: most of the time, more or less, books are, pretty much, better than everything else.
After all, reading is a part of my life the same way that sleeping, eating, and breathing are; as such, I spend a lot of time and brainpower thinking about what I’ve read, what I’m reading now, what to read next, and the sad impossibility of reading everything I want to. (At the moment, there are 135 books on my to-read list, which means that, if I stopped adding books to the list, I could get through them in just under a year, assuming I kept up a rate of 11 or 12 books per month, which, based on historical evidence, is entirely doable…but that is a big IF. I am constantly, helplessly adding books to the list.)
In September 2007, I discovered and joined the site Goodreads.com, and my “to-read” list became an actual thing, instead of a collection of post-its scattered about the bedside table and the desk. The site allows you to create “bookshelves” – to-read, currently reading, read; fiction, non-fiction, children’s, and so on – and link to friends so you can see their shelves as well. Thanks to Goodreads I’ve been able to keep better track of what I’ve read, and make better recommendations when people ask what they should read next. (This happens, by the way. Though no one would ever make the mistake of asking me for fashion advice – “I dunno, the one on the left?” – people do ask me for book recommendations on occasion. And then I give them a list of twenty-five books in five minutes and they never ask again.)
My New Year’s resolution last year was to supplement my steady diet of literary fiction and the occasional mystery by reading at least one non-fiction book and one “classic” (as defined by me) each month. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions – not because I don’t need to improve anything, but because I have trouble of thinking of specific goals, with concrete, accomplishable, quantifiable results I can point to in December. This turned out to be a good one, though, which means that some of my favorite books this year have been from the non-fiction realm. So let’s start with those.
But first, a few Notes.
Note: Books on the following lists were not necessarily published in 2009. Unlike other year-end (or decade-end) book lists, I’m including books I read in the calendar year 2009, irrespective of when they were published.
Note: There is a difference between best and favorite. And there are even different ways of defining favorite. In this instance, my favorite books of the year are the ones that stuck with me for one reason or another. As I scrolled through my “read” list on Goodreads, they were the ones that jumped out at me – the ones that I’d recommend to others, or re-read myself.
Note: I don’t like making decisions, and as one of the benefits of having a blog is that I get to make the rules for it, you’ll notice that there isn’t a particular number of books in each category. I could pretend that I made up an elaborate algorithm – I didn’t read very much poetry, for example, so it makes sense that I would have fewer favorite poetry collections than novels, as I had fewer to choose from – but that would be a lie. There is no algorithm.
Favorite Non-Fiction Books Read in 2009
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan – This one made a lasting impression, in that it raised my consciousness in the area of food. The writing was clear, engaging, and accessible without being dumbed-down, and Pollan provided a few useful guidelines that are easy to remember (“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” for example).
I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Sloane Crosley – A hilarious essay collection. I read it twice, and though I didn’t laugh out loud as much the second time as the first, it still held up. I’d recommend to anyone who’s in their twenties and living in New York. Or anyone, really.
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett – There are people who are far, far more obsessed with books than I am, and this book is proof of that. The writing is good, and the triangle of main characters – author, rare book dealer, book thief – provides both tension and balance. I also wanted to track down at least a quarter of the citations and read those too.
Runner-up: One And The Same, Abigail Pogrebin – I read a few books concerning twins this year, both fiction and non-fiction, and I just found this one really interesting. I’ve always found twins fascinating, and this provided an inside look into aspects of twinship that hadn’t occurred to me before.
To A Fault, Nick Laird
On Purpose, Nick Laird
Indistinguishable From the Darkness, Charlie Smith
Nick Laird, Nick Laird, Nick Laird. I first encountered his work in Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty, our book club book for November 2008. She used his poem “On Beauty” and an excerpt from “The Last Saturday in Ulster,” both from his collection To A Fault, so that’s what I picked up first. I loved it, saw him give a reading, and then went and got a copy of On Purpose as well.
“…because across those miles of hills and dark
the squares of light are quartered flags
hung out to mark the embassies of Home…”
-“The Length of a Wave,” Nick Laird, To A Fault
Charlie Smith’s collection Indistinguishable From the Darkness I also found through another book, in this case Lorrie Moore’s short story collection Birds of America. To be honest, I haven’t yet finished Smith’s book yet – I find it’s best not to read a book of poetry as I would a novel, that is to say, all at once – but it’s clear he’s masterfully good.
“…it is not news that we live in a world
Where Beauty is unexplainable
And suddenly ruined
And has its own routines. We are often
Far from home in a dark town, and our griefs
are difficult to translate into a language
understood by others.”
-“The Meaning of Birds,” Charlie Smith, Indistinguishable From the Darkness
August: Osage County, Tracy Letts – I saw this on Broadway just before it closed. It was quite possibly the best piece of theater I’ve ever seen in my life. Full of what Julia Glass would call “emotional truth,” it was dark and tragic and tangled and painful, and also absolutely hysterical. I laughed more during August than I did in Avenue Q or even Spamalot. I bought and read a copy of the play not long after I saw it staged, so I had the memory of it fresh, but even on the page, it’s pretty brilliant stuff – no wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Reasons to Be Pretty, Neil LaBute – I saw this as well (twice, actually) and bought a reading copy after. It is funny and clever, and it shows its main character, Greg, mature from boyhood to manhood, without being preachy or hitting the audience over the head with it. Also, did I mention that it was exceedingly funny?
Young Adult Fiction
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith – A sweet, Jane Austen-esque novel set in the English countryside in the 1930s by the author of 101 Dalmatians. The story is told through seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain’s journal entries, which gives it an epistolary feel. (For a truly epistolary novel, try The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.)
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley – Also set in the British countryside, in 1950, Sweetness features a feisty eleven-year-old heroine with above-average intelligence and a love of chemistry – specifically poisons.
The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins – If I absolutely had to make a Top Ten list for the year, The Hunger Games would be on it, hands down. Well-written, a fantastic main character, an intricately imagined world…I hated every time I had to put this down (to go to work, for example), and I can’t wait for the third one to come out (August 2010!).
I think that will have to suffice for now. I’ll get to short stories, classics, re-reads, and the big one – novels – next go. Thanks for your patience if you’re still reading, and I hope you’ve found a few titles for your to-read list for 2010. Because everyone keeps a list, right?