Best Books of 2016 – Guilty Pleasures!
The “pleasures” part of Guilty Pleasures is self-evidently easy to define, but the “guilty” part is much trickier, since books find so many different ways to be worthwhile. Even so, there are some reading experiences that are clearly more self-indulgent than others, some books that are more likely to be found in the junk food aisle of the book-market than the wheats & grains aisle. I read a great number of these gaudy thing every year and love them dearly, and these were the best of them from 2016:
10. Star Wars Propaganda by Pablo Hidalgo (Harper Design) – This oversized slipcased picture book is a kind of brightly-burning singularity of geekhood: it’s a collection of propaganda posters from all the various political regimes in the fictional landscape of the Star Wars universe. We get recruitment posters and morale-boosters from the Old Republic, the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and more: we get the back-stories of the posters, the biographies of the poster artists (not the Palo Alto freelancers using Painter X3, mind you – no, the biographies of the fictional artists living and working in that galaxy far, far away), and accounts of the works’ reception. In other words, it represents hours and hours of perfectly worthless pure enjoyment.
9. New York Times Book of the Dead by William McDonald (editor) – This big, beautifully-designed book is a collection of the obituaries of famous people, all of which ran in the pages of the New York Times over the course of the last century, and it, too, represents a sinkhole of time that might otherwise have been spent reading the latest fat biography of Karl Marx. But there’s an undeniable guilty pleasure in reading these often tart and always eloquent parting shots at the great and the mighty.
8. Inside Venice by Toto Bergamo Rossi (Rizzoli) – For page after page of this sumptuous book, readers are taken behind Venetian doors that are usually closed and encouraged to gawk with abandon. Well more than half these stellar dwellings are vanity projects undertaken by the super-rich; poking around the tasteful furnishings in these photos will teach you nothing about the history or culture of Venice, nor will it teach you anything about the lives of the people behind the furnishings. But the gawking itself sure is fun. You can read my full review here
7. Fifty English Steeples by Julian Flannery (Thames and Hudson) – Some of the books on this list earn their “guilty” status at least in part by their expensive opulence, and this huge, heavy Thames and Hudson production is certainly one of them: fifty classic English church steeples, all laid out in architectural detail on heavy paper, for $85. Julian Flannery makes this abstruse subject matter as accessible as it’s ever likely to be, but the book is nevertheless a fairly wicked indulgence. You can read my full review here
6. Ice Station Nautilus by Rick Campbell (St. Martin’s) – Techno-thrillers are almost by definition guilty pleasures: the one-dimensional characters! The extremely specific tech! The endless brand name mentions! The guilt here comes from the fact that virtually any reading you could be doing instead would be better reading, and yet some of these authors work hard for their paychecks. Case in point is this crackerjack story of two cutting-edge submarines, one Russian and one American, locked in a tense struggled far below the polar ice cap. You can read my full review here
5. Skitter by Ezekiel Boone (Atria) – The second volume in Ezekiel Boone’s “Hatching” series earns its guilty pleasure status the old-fashioned way: with endless hordes of evil, carnivorous spiders. The story here continues from The Hatching, in which an old, long-vanished species of awful arachnids returns to the modern world to wreak havoc and consume humans, and with every page of it you read, you can feel your IQ eroding just a bit more – and yet you keep reading, which is surely a hallmark of guilty pleasure.
4. The Fireman by Joe Hill (William Morrow) – Likewise this slick, stickily readable thriller about a plague sweeping through the ranks of mankind; this time the plague isn’t killer spiders but rather spontaneous combustion, but the writing – full of boring one-note characters and clogged with every cliché imaginable – guarantees that regardless of the threat, the aforementioned brain-erosion will commence virtually from the first page. You can read my full review here
3. MEG: Nightstalkers by Steve Alten (Tor) – If there’s a book-series that all but defines the guilty pleasure in all its sickly, glorious contradictions, it’s the “Meg” novels of Steve Alten, all starring Carcharadon megalodon, the super-sized giant killer sharks that terrorized Earth’s oceans 20 million years ago. In the world of these atrocious, wonderful novels, the megalodon lives and eats people in the present day, and this latest volume in the series continues the confrontation into the next generation of both sharks and shark-fighters. It’s sheer, finny lunacy, the foremost must-not-read on our list.
2. Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes by Ken Bloom (Oxford University Press) – “Broadway anecdotes” is such a calm and even way of talking about the particular kind of hysterical collegial bitching of which only members of the acting profession are capable – there are plenty more accurate titles this fantastic gossip-fest by Ken Bloom could have had, but none of them would have been family-friendly. One after another beloved, legendary name in the entertainment industry walks into the spotlight in these page just long enough to dish the dirt on everybody else – before yielding the stage to somebody who’ll dish the dirt on them in turn. It’s all beneath you, but you’ll keep on reading gleefully just the same.
1 Sharks (The Collector’s Edition) by Michael Muller (Taschen) – This, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures in 2016, is a display-sized collection of the stunning nature photography of Michael Muller, and if you were to stick to the ordinary $70 hardcover put out by Taschen, you’d be comfortably in the range of the guilty pleasure. But in order to really earn this #1 status, Taschen also produced a deluxe version of the book, complete with an alternate cover designed to simulate the view from inside a shark observation cage – a great white shark flashes its rows of teeth just behind a grillwork of metal slats. The price for this deluxe edition? $1750. Now that’s a guilty pleasure.
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