Never was an Honor Roll more badly needed than in the sprawling catch-all that is Best Nonfiction! That catch-all is where I did an enormous chunk of my reading in 2013, which made the task of fitting all my favorites into one skimpy 10-item list a nightmare. So it’s a bit of a relief to use two skimpy 10-item lists instead. Here are ten great works of nonfiction from the past year – rather heavily skewed toward history, I realize, but that, too, is representative:
10. The Future by Al Gore (Random House) – This new book from the author of An Inconvenient Truth is written in an almost jarringly optimistic register, even though the former Vice President and winner of the 2000 US presidential election got a Nobel Prize mainly on the strength of his doomsaying about the future. In his book by that name, he turns instead not to how the world will change but to what will change it. In flow chart after flow chart and page after wonky page, he charts the development of six social and technological “drivers” of that change, and the whole thing is never less than fascinating – and at least guardedly hopeful, since humans have the ability to work most of these drivers in more enlightened ways, if they so choose.
9. Boston and the Dawn of American Independence by Brian Deming (Westholme) – I discovered this book comparatively late and consumed it in one long deliriously pleased reading session, and while I don’t expect other history fans (or Bostonians) to finish it off quite so quick, I’m pleased to announce it’s indispensable! Deming approaches his well-worn subject – how the prosperous, happy port city of Boston went from a loyal British colony to the focal point of the American Revolution in less than 20 years – with completely fresh gusto and a veritable blizzard of research, underscoring anew what some of us have known for a long time: the mishandling of Boston was the single worst mistake the British ever made. This is the first of an encouraging number of landmark historical studies on our list today.
8. Return of a King by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury) – Speaking of landmark studies, Dalrymple’s sumptuously detailed history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1849-42) certainly qualifies. In a series of tellingly-written chapters, Dalrymple draws dozens of analogies between the overconfidence and bungling of the British in the mountains of Afghanistan 150 years ago and the overconfidence and bungling of American occupying forces there under the orders of George W. Bush. And if there are perhaps one or two too many of these analogies, well, there’s ample compensation in the sheer humanist conviction of Dalrymple’s scholarship – and by his sterling prose, which flows over these pages with such wit and confidence that I wanted to underline a passage on virtually every page.
7. Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill (Perseus) – In this relentlessly chilling and thoroughly documented account, Scahill exposes the vast network of secret intelligence officers, secret tactical commanders, and secret soldiers – organized, equipped, and funded entirely ‘off the books’ – that operates almost entirely at the discretion of the sitting President of the United States. The complete picture Scahill paints, of a shadow army entirely unaccountable to the law and entirely loyal to the President, is the stuff of conspiracy theorists’ nightmares, and yet Scahill is brutally calm and focused as he presents his evidence in this truly perception-altering book.
6. Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela by Rory Carroll (Penguin Press) – The main purpose of Carroll’s widely-researched and beautifully-written account of the rise and rise of the late Presidente is to take the reader inside the many worlds of a popular dictator, and he succeeds wonderfully in doing that – Hugo Chavez seems to come alive again while strutting through these pages, and the story of his path to power is told in marvelous detail. But there’s another narrative unfolding in the background: the 200-year-old narrative of an unaligned South American dictator deciding to pursue something like independence in the shadow of American military and economic might. No matter where you stand on the memory and legacy of Chavez, you’ll find a great deal of food for thought in these pages.
5. Narwhals by Todd McLeish (University of Washington Press) – McLeish affects a guardedly optimistic attitude in the pages of this first and most entertaining of general-reader studies of these weird and little-known whales, but his book is as much about their badly endangered world as it is about their natural history, and it’s riveting on both. You can read my full review here.
4. Antarctica: A Biograpy by David Day (Oxford University Press) – As will be apparent from the fact that the book covers 200 years out of 200,000,000, there’s a bit of a misnomer here: Day’s engrossing and hugely researched book is a ‘biography’ of human exploration in Antarctica, not a biography of the continent itself, which could hardly be written and would fashion if it could a narrative so bleak and long it could only be read by mountains. Instead of that book, we get a much more interesting saga of doomed expeditions and totally unprepared men and dogs encountering some of the closest approximations of an alien world that Earth’s surface produces.
3. The Sea & Civilization by Lincoln Paine (Random House) – Despite the impression Antarctica currently gives to those hardy souls who visit it, Earth is a water-world, and Paine’s big, exuberant book explores the countless ways mankind’s history has been shaped and determined by the water all around us. Paine gives us the old familiar stories of early navigation and exploration, of water-borne commerce, of naval warfare, and all the rest, told with such erudition and enthusiasm that they seem new again. There’ve been a handful of attempts to tell “a maritime history of the world,” but this one beats them all.
2. The Worlds of Sholem Alecheim by Jeremy Dauber (Random House) – Jeremy Dauber probably tackles an impossible task in this remarkable and very entertaining book when he tries to draw the great journalist, book reviewer, and public intellectual Alecheim out of the shadow of Tevye and the rest of the Fiddler on the Roof world, but his attempt is so good – so spirited and all-knowing – that he very nearly succeeds. Certainly his Sholem Alecheim comes alive more fully in these pages than he’s done in any English-language work to date; Daubner finds all the pathos, sifts as much of the written record as remains, and presents every great and wise and funny anecdote with precise care. The reading world once knew the work of Sholem Alecheim much better than it currently does; here’s hoping Daubner’s book begins a renaissance.
1. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo (Random House) – The Civil War in general – and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular – gets chronicled so often that the texts start to run together, and the weary reader starts to think perhaps there’s nothing new or interesting to be written. Allen Guelzo walks right into the center of such overwrite anxieties – and dispels them before his first chapter is finished. His big new book on Gettysburg makes for absolutely thrilling reading. You can read my full review here.