The whole category of “nonfiction” is necessarily an evil enough hodge-podge (in bookstores, a special sneer is reserved for those customers clueless enough to come in asking for “the nonfiction section”), and I’m perfectly aware that some of the books on this list could migrate to other lists without too much cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, the staying power of hodge-podges lies precisely in their usefulness, so “best” – and of course worst! – nonfiction remains, and in the course of 2013 it filled up fast! Here are the best ten books I didn’t feel quite comfortable categorizing as either history or biography:
10. The New New Testament by Hal Taussig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – The idea behind Taussig’s brilliantly thought-provoking new book is fairly simple, though radical: take a number of non-canonical early Christian texts (‘alternate’ gospels, letters, hymns of praise, etc., mostly derived from the Nag Hammadi trove of such documents uncovered in Egypt in 1945, although there are some wackier choices here too) and incorporate them into the canonical books of the New Testament, presenting the whole as a collection sanctified by philology rather than faith. The result is a book that belongs on the shelf of every reader – believer or otherwise – interested in the history of Christianity.
9. Stay, Illusion! by Simon Critchley & Jameison Webster (Pantheon) – Talk about ex-canonicity! This great, playful little book sits down with Shakespeare’s most-dissected play and not only dissects it all over again, coming to some shall we say novel conclusions (but since I’ve read an analysis in which a student, without a trace of irony, tried to make the case that Elsinore was a planet and Fortinbras was Palpatine, I’m game for anything), but also enlist toward that end a motley company of philosophers and even psychoanalysts. The book ends up being a kind of hilarious interpretative food-fight that had me re-thinking old assumptions about the play – and yearning to see it on the stage again.
8. The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo – I admit I groaned a little, Tudor fan though I am, at the prospect of reading yet another biography of Anne Boleyn, having read all the previous ones and having formed the strong impression that no new life of this woman will ever again be necessary. But Susan Bordo’s book is so much more than a biography – in fact, it’s really the only kind of book about Anne Boleyn that can be profitably written: not about the woman but about our perceptions of the woman down through the centuries. Anne has always been a particularly plastic figure, shaped to suit the times, and Bordo traces those many shapings with tremendously readable skill. You can read my full review here.
7. Last Night in the Viper Room by Gavin Edwards (HarperCollins) – Going into 2013, I’d have thought it exceedingly unlikely that an entertainment-industry book like this one could end up on this year-end list, not only because I’d have thought the death of a twentysomething actor twentysomething years ago would hold no interest but also because entertainment-industry books tend to be so bad. But Gavin Edwards’ Last Night in the Viper Room, about the life, career, drug addiction, and death of actor River Phoenix impressed me as no such book has done since Charles Cross’ 2001 Kurt Cobain book Heavier Than Heaven; it’s so effective in evoking the tightening borders of the addict’s world that when you finish it you’ll want to take a long walk or eat a salad. And its case for the importance of River Phoenix was so heartfelt it almost convinced me.
6. Ancient Israel by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton) – Happy the year when there’s a first-rate work of Biblical exegesis on my year-end list, so how much happier when there are two! In this thick, immensely satisfying volume with the hideously dull title (once again, all your publishing houses: my services are available at very reasonable rates), Alter continues his amazing work re-invigorating the entire Bible with fresh translations and thrilling analysis. You can read my full review here.
5. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics by Robert O’Kell (University of Toronto Press) – Never in a million years would I have thought a scholarly-literary study of the God-awful novels of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would be something I’d even feel particularly behooved to read, let alone include on this list, which just reminds me again that when you work hard to keep an open mind about books, you can never be sure where that mind will lead you. Robert O’Kell’s book is a wonder of literary scholarship, managing to make the always-fascinating Disraeli just that much more fascinating by exploring the psychodrama he was enacting in the aforementioned God-awful novels. You can read my full review here.
4. Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun (Macmillan) – The same steady, incremental piling-on of psychological layers that makes Lasdun’s novels such afflicting spasms of boredom here works the opposite effect: this account of how one obsessed former student is able to invade and almost completely disrupt his life starts out as a cautionary tale about the dark side of the always-connected Internet world but steadily deepens into something much more challenging. In these pages, Lasdun has the courage to doubt his own certainties about identity and accountability, and his prose is chillingly understated, implicitly underlining the fact that everything happening to the author in this book could happen to any of us.
3. Portrait Inside My Head by Philip Lopate (Simon & Schuster) – The more often I go back to this fantastic collection, the more astounded I am that it could find a major publisher in 2013. Lopate isn’t just a shrewd and insightful editor (whose big 1994 anthology The Art of the Personal Essay is one of the truly indispensable books of the 20th century), he’s also our single best living practitioner of the personal essay, but what use does the hyper-distracted universally-blogging modern age have for a pensive, meandering form perfected by the likes of Emerson and Hazlitt? Still, I’m extremely glad the book is here, even so: these perfectly-crafted pieces – some about Lopate’s Brooklyn childhood, others about his relationship with his family, and all about the quintessential quest to make sense of the essayist’s own self – are as good as the art-form gets.
2. On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell (Harvard University Press) – Glyn Maxwell’s slim distillation of years of teaching poetry is incredibly aphoristic, nimble, and oddly, playfully conservative or at least stern toward some of the more ridiculous affectations of modern versifiers, but this is not a hidebound book, far from it: this is a searchingly honest and personal examination of what poetry is, how it works, and (through the quasi-fictional device of showing a small group of students at work) how writers do it. It’s been over half a century since Kenneth Koch’s epic “Fresh Air” took the genre of poetry out for such a vigorous walk as Maxwell gives it here – it was long overdue.
1. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (Simon & Schuster) – Not just one entertainment-industry book this year, but two! And this second one, a day-by-day and sometimes moment-by-by moment account of the birth, wobbly adolescence, and life of a legendary TV comedy series, was the best general-nonfiction book I read in 2013. I myself loved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and for a couple of moments at the beginning of reading Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s unlikely book, I worried that my fond memories were propping up feeble efforts. But no: this book is blazingly good, telling with thrilling dramatic skill the story of a group of strong-willed industry professionals coming together from hugely varied backgrounds in order to make a great show – slowly, gropingly figuring out what sorts of things would work and what wouldn’t … and experiencing the particular joy only acting troupes know when the grunt-work turns to magic. Nothing about the description of this book prepared me for the skill of its execution; if it hadn’t been shoved under my nose by a friend in the industry, I’d likely have ignored it. I’m really glad I didn’t.
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