Best Reads of 2013: Nonfiction
It’s always a challenge to reduce a whole year’s wide-ranging reading (228 books and counting, so far) to a quick list of my favorite 5 or 10. Still, I’m a sucker for a good best-of list (I was dismayed to see I’d only read 12 out of the 100 recently chosen by The New Yorker!), so I’ll be brave and attempt to whittle down the 87 books I rated 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads to just 10 stand-out titles, five nonfiction ones this week and five fiction next week. (Some of these have already featured in other Bookkaholic articles, but some will be new to you, I promise!) So without further ado, here are my nonfiction Best Reads of 2013:
1. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun
My favorite nonfiction books are so wide-ranging as to be unclassifiable: they blend memoir, travel, and history into a narrative stuffed full of fascinating facts. I’m thinking of books like Paul Collins’s (in particular, Banvard’s Folly and Sixpence House, mentioned in my Book Towns article), Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (about a flotilla of animal bath toys lost at sea – but also encompassing plastics production, Chinese factories, the world’s overwhelming landfill problem, and oceanographic currents), and Just My Type by Simon Garfield (all you ever wanted to know about fonts).
James Lasdun, a British novelist, works as a professor at the New York State Writers’ Institute in Albany. This is his gripping and at times terrifying account of how an attentive student he calls “Nasreen” set out to virtually destroy his reputation through stalking and cyber terrorism. Nasreen accused him of plagiarizing her work, showing prejudice against Arab students like herself, and even having her drugged and raped at the magazine office where she worked. He was all at once “confronted by something unassuageable and beyond all understanding: a malice that has no real cause or motive but simply is.”
While making an objective presentation of the facts of the five-year stalking attack, Lasdun also gives his story surprising depth and detours – incorporating personal and family history; discussion of the origins of anti-Semitism, via a trip to Jerusalem; and a tour through his literary antecedents, especially D.H. Lawrence, whose New Mexico ranch and shrine (see my article on Literary Grave Hunting) he visited on a train ride across America to an engagement in California.
Throughout, Lasdun ponders the difficulty of truly comprehending another’s point of view; “So much depends on where you begin the story you are trying to tell, which in turn, as far as I can see, depends on whom you happen to like most, or dislike least.” Whether Nasreen was actually mentally ill or not, he simply wants to understand what happened to him and why she did it:
“now that the saga has entered its fifth year and I have given up waiting for it to stop, I find myself simply wanting to make sense of it…What happened – between us, or to her alone – to make my unremarkable existence matter so much to her?”
Lasdun has a few ideas but no firm conclusions, and his writing is so good that you will be drawn into the tale – just as horrified and worried as if it was happening to you.
2. The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik
[featured in my Bibliophile’s Miscellany of France]
I had never read any Adam Gopnik books until this year, when I read three of them: Winter (see my other article this week, on perfect winter reads), Angels and Ages (a terrific dual biography of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, who happened to be born on the same day in 1809), and this wide-ranging culinary collection.
Gopnik ruminates on the origin of the restaurant in Paris, the evolution of cookbooks, and the development of taste, while also considering the merits of specific food regimens such as vegetarianism and localism. There are many worthwhile books out there about French gastronomy, but this book goes further toward positing a more general theory of eating. (It also contains a splendid ‘recipe’ for making the best-ever scrambled eggs.)
As Gopnik concludes, “The things we do without thinking are often the things most worth thinking about. If we don’t think about them, then the thoughts we have are just the thinking that others have done for us.” Read this as you think for yourself about what food means to you. It can be not just a means of survival, but an art form: “Something we have to do – eat – becomes something we care to do – dine – and then something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace.”
3. On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual by Merle Miller
[featured in my Bibliophile’s Miscellany of Gender Pioneers]
Merle Miller is a largely forgotten author today. On Being Different, a slim but essential volume, is a reissue of “What It Means to Be a Homosexual,” Miller’s ground-breaking 1971 essay in The New York Times Magazine. It was written in response to a 1970 Harper’s Magazine article by Joseph Epstein, in which he argued that homophobia was the last acceptable prejudice remaining in liberal society. Epstein had written:
“If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth. I would do so because I think that it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it.”
Although he was claiming to be motivated by humanitarian concern, Epstein was in fact simply echoing the conventional homophobia of his time.
Miller countered by giving an insider’s view of what it is like to be homosexual, telling of a childhood spent wishing that he could be either the girl his mother had wanted or the macho all-American sportsman whose image he longed to project. During his college years he desperately pretended to be straight – even persecuting and mocking gay people as heartily as all the rest in an attempt to deflect attention from his own confusion. Miller even married, but the relationship only lasted a few years before he realized he had to be honest with himself as well as with his wife. He later had a long-term relationship with a fellow male writer. A few people knew about his sexuality, but not so many that the publication of his article did not serve as a bold, nationwide coming-out. His own mother’s response was merciless: “Merle, we’re wiping you out of our will.” Hurt, Miller retorted, “But you always told me to tell the truth.” His mother replied, “I know, but I don’t like that kind of truth.”
“What It Means to Be a Homosexual” is a period piece now, and can feel like one – it doesn’t seek too hard for genetic explanations of homosexuality, only psychoanalytic ones – but it nonetheless feels like the precursor to a revolution. A foreword by Dan Savage and an afterword by Charles Kaiser help place Miller’s essay in the context of the gay rights movement. Miller believed “if you can relieve the guilt of ten people in your lifetime, you’ve made a contribution” – and surely, by writing this essay, Miller helped to lessen the shame surrounding homosexuality and paved the way for projects like Savage’s “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign. His contribution to gay rights – and to a more compassionate understanding of the homosexual experience – is undeniable.
Miller ends the essay with a lovely, bittersweet reflection on the difficulty of a homosexual’s life. Why would anyone choose such a life of hardship and exclusion? Indeed, he had no choice but to live his life as the person he was meant to be:
“If I had been given a choice (but who is?), I would prefer to have been straight. But then, would I rather not have been me? Oh, I think not, not this morning anyway. It is a very clear day in later December, and the sun is shining on the pine trees outside my studio. The air is extraordinary clear, and the sky is the color it gets only at this time of year, dark, almost navy-blue. On such a day I would not choose to be anyone else or any place else.”
4. Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams
[featured in my Bibliophile’s Miscellany of 9/11 Literature]
Williams, then the Archbishop of Wales and soon to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican communion for ten years, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the ground shook and the air filled with dust and smoke, what could this man of the cloth do? The same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated the building, ensured that everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about violence, peacemaking, and the ways of God.
There is such profound wisdom in this diminutive tract (it’s not even 80 pages long) that I read it twice over. Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautions against responding in a simple spirit of retribution. We have the freedom to choose how we will react, he insists, and rather than allowing a natural vengefulness to take hold, we can look for ways of changing a culture of hatred and violence – of understanding Muslim rage and working toward peaceful solutions.
But prophets’ words are never welcome, and time has, of course, shown that Western policies of retaliation only make things worse. Still, this essay is not idealistic claptrap; it is essential reading for every citizen of a globalized society, with timely warnings about how we use language to create enemies. It is also, for those of a spiritual bent, a frank discussion of theodicy – the theological attempt to justify the ways of God to man. Can we justify God’s absence and inactivity – or is God, in fact, not the comprehensible, interventionist being we so often assume? Rather, Williams argues, “That God has made a world into which he doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of Christian faith.”
Here are a few more of Williams’s inspirational words:
“We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination. The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”
I can’t recommend this essay highly enough; think of it as training in how to face head-on our fear and suspicion, but then transcend them.
5. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
This one’s a must-read for every bibliophile, especially if you share your love of reading with family and friends (though I think I agree with Ramona Koval, who asks, in By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life, “can we really be friends with those who don’t love any books? I’m not so sure of that”). Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, was a feisty humanitarian advocate (mostly working with women refugees) who developed pancreatic cancer in 2007. Over the next two years, as Will accompanied her to her chemotherapy appointments and sat with her in waiting rooms and at home, they started talking about books that had meant a lot to them. Eventually they made this arrangement more deliberate, swapping books back and forth and making a point of discussing them. Mary Anne’s impending death may have always been in the back of their minds, but for them celebrating books was a way of celebrating life. A heart-warming – and I mean that in the best possible way – book to read this Christmas.
Plus one extra, a favorite in the making:
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
I’ve been savoring this one since October; it’s so rich in insight that it’s best read just a few pages at a time. Sarton (1912-1995) was a little-known poet and novelist, Belgian by origin but a New Englander by choice. Journal of a Solitude is one-year account of her writing life, mostly covering the frigid winter of 1972-3, when Sarton was also struggling with depression.
I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for nearly five months now, and I can relate to Sarton’s descriptions of both the loneliness and the exhilarating freedom of the writer’s life: “People who have regular jobs can have no idea of just this problem of ordering a day that has no pattern imposed on it from without.” I’m taking inspiration from her assertion that being a writer is a noble endeavor, a means of “creating the soul” afresh; “Every day, and the living of it, has to be a conscious creation.”
Let those words motivate you as a new year approaches.
[Featured image credit: Abhi Sharma]