The Best Books I Read This Year

Why does everyone stress about New Year’s Eve?  Why does it have to be the motherlovin’ bomb of an unforgettable night?  It’s so important that no one actually has fun.  We run around like a comet’s about to hit earth, like there will never be another chance to drink or smoke or fuck EVER AGAIN.  This about it: there’s college football on THE NEXT DAY.  You will drink then too.  I guarantee it.

If you’re lucky, you will have eighty-five or ninety New Year’s Eves.  That’s like THREE MONTHS of New Year’s Eves.  Stop sweating it so hard.  Think of the last few months.  How many truly awesome days did you have?  Three?  We’ll say three if you’re a liar or George Clooney.  Most likely, not even that many.  But there were a lot of cool days, right?  Just relate that to New Year’s and stop worrying so damn much.  It’ll probably be a good time; it might be a letdown.  Sounds like life.

My books of the year are probably incomplete.  I’ve yet to read a lot of the books I wanted to get around to, so I guess they’ll come in the 2012 list, if I don’t die right after my motherlovin’ bomb of an unforgettable New Year’s.   For example, I’m still excited about The Art of Fielding, Luminarium, The Submission, and Zone One.  Also, I read a bunch of classics this year, so if given the choice to read the list below or Ovid, Eugene O’Neil, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, or Dante, go for the big guns.  They’re classics for a reason.

I also highly recommend  You can get it as an app on your iPod or phone.  Download works in the public domain right to your MP3 player.  Now I listen to as many books as I read.  My wife calls it anti-social.  I call it “learnin’”.

OK.  Top books of the year (some weren’t written in 2011, but that’s when I read them, and in no particular order…):


At Home: Bill Bryson: Bryson just walks around his house, room-to-room and discusses the history of the world through all the domestic objects he encounters.  You’ll never be as fascinated with the history of looms again (I’m serious).

 The Path Between the Seas: David McCullough: The history of the construction of the Panama Canal.  Really picks up when we get past the French attempt and good ole’ Uncle Sam rips a hole through Central America (actually we used a lock system but whatev)

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: Edmund Morris: Big bold prose for a big, bold dude.  I also highly recommend Morris’s biography of Beethoven.  Very readable.

The Four-Hour Body: Timothy Ferris: Ferris is probably an asshole, and he’s certainly crazy, but the strategies in the book make sense, and he’s his own guinea pig, which gives the text a voyeuristic kick, like A.J. Jacobs.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: David Grann: One of the best nonfiction storytellers working right now.  He finds the greatest subjects, from a middle-aged French con artist who impersonates children to the poor schmos who dig tunnels under New York City (like the Underminer in The Incredibles).  Also check out his Lost City of Z.

The Rest is Noise: Alex Ross: A history of twentieth-century classical music.  Starts with Stavinsky and ends with Arvo Part.  Compulsively readable, which is quite  a feat considering the subject.  Especially good are the chapters on Benjamin Britten and John Adams (not that one, the other one).

Noodling for Flatheads: Burkhardt Bilger: The other great nonfiction storyteller.  This is a tiptoe through all pursuits hillbilly, from the titular “noodling”—hillbilly handfishing—to coon hunting, to moonshining.  Funny and compassionate.

The Swerve: Stephen Greenblatt: Greenblatt wrote Will in the World, the best book about Shakespeare I have ever read.  Also the only biography about Shakespeare I could ever finish.  Here he turns his gaze on how the poem “The Nature of Things” by Lucretius changed Western Civilization and ushered in the modern age.

The Psychopath Test: Jon Ronson: Ronson’s most notable book is The Men Who Stare at Goats.  He loves nuts, freaks, and self-deluding morons.  Here he tries to figure out what it means to be a psychopath and how we as a society determines psychopathology in subjects.  By talking to psychopaths.  It’s great, funny, and smart.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives: David Eagleman: Eagleman is actually a physicist, but this is a collection of parables about what may happen after we die; what the afterlife may hold.  Some are spiritual, some are scientific, some are just wacky. They remind me of the best of Calvino.

Townie: Andre Dubus III: The memoir of how Dubus III became a rage-aholic muscle-freak to get over his weakness and fear.  Very trenchant, heart-rending in his depiction of his relationship with his dad, the legendary short story writer Andre Dubus.


State of Wonder: Ann Patchett: I hesitate to call this a feminist Heart of Darkness, but there you go.  Let’s just call it the best book I read all year.

 Train Dreams: Denis Johnson: A novella about loner working on the railroad, literally.  Small, quick, but it lasts.  A good hard poke with a short, sharp stick.

 11/22/63: Stephen King: Quick confession: this is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read.  I liked it a lot.  I think he has a warmth that doesn’t really get talked about a lot, and it shows in this book.  Of course, besides some short fiction I’ve never read a lot of him, but this makes me want to read more.

A Visit from the Goon Squad: Jennifer Egan: Extraordinary, and I hate “rock n’ roll” novels. I really resisted this book for a while, but I still remember whole passages of it.

 The Magician King: Lev Grossman: A sequel to The Magiacians, and an all-around better book.  Continues the fantasy/satire/adventure series that borrows from Narnia, Harry Potter, etc.  Grossman, at this point, just gets better and better.  His novel before The Magicians was Codex.  All three are worth reading, but each one bounds past the last.  I can’t wait for the next one.

 We the Animals: Justin Torres: I’ve already written too much about this book.  Ferocious.

 The Tiger’s Wife: Tea Obrecht: The woman who wrote this was twenty-four or five when it was published.  I hate her.  There’s no reason someone so young should be so good.

 The Imperfectionists: Tom Rachman: Expats in Italy write for a failing newspaper.  Funny and sad.  Too literary at times—you feel Rachman straining for effects, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

 The Tragedy of Arthur: Arthur Phillips: Here’s a trick: write a fake Shakespeare play that’s a pretty damn good facsimile of the Bard, then write a “forward” for it that throws doubt on its authenticity and delves into Phillips’s personal life (maybe).  Complex and fun.  It’s not Pale Fire, but it’s close.

 The Devil All the Time: Donald Ray Pollack: Crazy, crazy, crazy.  How crazy?  The murderous preacher who pours spiders on himself during sermons is the most normal character in the book.

 The Leftovers: Tom Perrota: Perrota’s best book so far.  He takes the gimmickiest gimmick–The Rapture–then carves it into an affecting, original world full of characters looking for love and light and ideas about faith, zealots, and goodness

 The Family Fang: Kevin Wilson: Hilarious.  May strike some as a Wes Anderson pastiche at first blush, but this is a wonderful story, with the second-best dialogue of any book I read this year.

 The Dawn Patrol: Don Winslow: Best dialogue I read this year (no Charlie Huston this year).  A thriller about surfers.  Great pace, cool characters.  Check out Savages as well.

I know I’ve missed some, because I just heard The Black Key’s El Camino and want to include it in my list of Best Music.  Oh well.  Stuff to argue about.



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