Ambition could well be the watch-word of this year’s best nonfiction: big books on big subjects predominate our list, much to the delight of grown-up readers such as myself. True, there will always be flyweight garbage (“Poo-Poo: A Cultural History,” etc.), but as long as we’ve got books like this top 10, we’ll be OK – and well-informed.
10. On Politics by Alan Ryan – Two long volumes on the history of politics will strike some readers as a torture chamber in a slip-case, but Ryan has poured a lifetime of learning and wit into this beguiling account of mankind’s second most distinctive activity (right after genocide), with amazingly impressive results.
9. Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola – our authors turn their substantial scriptural knowledge and narrative abilities to the millennia-old calling of finding Jesus Christ not only in all Creation but especially throughout the text of the Bible – a manifestly daunting task considering the fact that nobody in the Old Testament had ever heard of Him. But Sweet and Viola make the attempt with gusto and grace – not a volume for everybody’s taste, but a remarkable achievement just the same.
8. Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman – Sometimes, a cookbook is much more than a cookbook (see M. F. K. Fisher, or Elizabeth David, or Julia Child), and Norman’s gorgeous love-letter to Venetian cuisine (and the ‘of sorts’ ethos behind much of it) is one of those books, visually stunning and, believe it or not, intellectually challenging. This is – you’ll pardon the phrase – a conceptual feast, and although you should never under any circumstances use most of the recipes (so many cephalopods being emotionally complex and human-level intelligent), you shouldn’t miss the book.
7. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver – Silver was of course the man of the hour in 2012 for predicting everything even remotely connected with the 2012 U.S. presidential election, but the inscrutable calculations he used for his prognostications were actually only the beginning of Silver’s many fascinations. Frustrated by my failure to understand any reviews I read of this book, I decided to read the book itself – it’s pure wonkery, pruned of all but the most basic entry-level explanations, so reading it is like taking on Everest without a Sherpa. But it’s very much worth it, even if you don’t knock off the summit.
6. New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin – Toibin is one of those authors whose nonfiction almost always out-shines his fiction (there are two or three such authors on our Worst Fiction list this year, alas), and although his novella The Testament of Mary this year was quite good, this book – a collection of critical author-appraisals, with plenty of stirringly-narrated biography mixed in – is even better, full of dour and unique insights.
5. New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine – The contents of this big picture-book will be familiar to New Yorker subscribers: Tomine’s wistful, clean covers are virtually haikus to city living, his young men and women always slightly embarrassed as they encounter the little absurdities of modern life. An entire era is immortalized here.
4. Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick by George Cotkin – Cotkin is the ultimate Moby-Dick-teacher-you-never-had, wittily and engagingly illuminating dozens and dozens of aspects of Melville’s Great American Novel. Even Moby-Dick fans will find plenty of fascinating digressions in these pages.
3. Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie – This book ripples and exalts and challenges in an uncanny extension of its subject’s music, tracing the Western world’s enduring obsession with J. S. Bach. Elie’s intelligence and humor accompany a stunning depth of musicological knowledge and turn the whole thing into an examination/tribute such as no A-list composer has had since Hermann Abert’s W. A. Mozart – and this one’s much shorter.
2. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Virtually every sentence of Taleb’s latest volume is debatable – in fact, intensely so. And yet, he chases after his central thesis – that stress can often be a good thing, that battle can strengthen just as well as it can undermine – with a spark and fervor that’s irresistible. This is one of those books that will prompt you to argue with it out loud, much to the confusion of your dogs.
1. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon – Solomon’s last big book, a study of depression, necessarily spent a good deal of time in the realm of psychology and therefore attached itself to a good deal of hooey, but his latest – a stunning, paradigm-resetting look at families (what they are, how they’re formed, how they stretch to fit new members – and when they refuse to do so) – is on much firmer ground and is far more thought-provoking. A family is a promise of love, and Solomon fearlessly investigates what happens when that promise is stress-tested by the unexpected. For its courage, for some of its much-needed conclusions, and also for its considerable literary grace, this is our Best Nonfiction Book of 2012.