Monday, December 21, 2009
Best Books of the Year! Nonfiction!
The Best Nonfiction of 2009:
10. Endless Forms, edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro - The central idea behind this stunning volume is simple and undeniable: great ideas manifest far outside their native spheres. The great idea in this case is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and since both Darwin and that theory had an anniversary in 2009, the large number of corollary volumes was predictable - but even so, I didn't expect the generally steep level of quality among them, and I certainly didn't expect that two of them would make my top ten! Nevertheless, there it is: this book is an amazing evocation of the far-flung ripple-effects Darwin's theory had on the various realms of the plastic arts. It's an indispensable addition to any Darwiniana library. And speaking of which!
9. The Annotated Origin by James Costa - The idea here is also very simple: let a passionate, knowledgeable guide walk readers through Darwin's great masterpiece, illuminating everything, explaining everything, and ultimately celebrating everything about the book - and in the process reminding us all of two salient Darwin features we sometimes tend to forget: first, that he was himself a passionate guide, enthusiastically studying the teeming world around him, and second, that he was the practitioner of a fine, strong Victorian prose style, well worth reading in its own right. It's difficult to see how this book could be annotated better - everybody who's ever read the thing should read it again in this volume.
8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood - The Oxford History of the United States continues from triumph to triumph with this latest volume, studying the newborn Republic from the problem-fraught aftermath of the Revolution's victory to the problem-fraught aftermath of the War of 1812. And the triumph here extends to a personal dimension as well, since this immense volume represents the chief and glorious masterpiece of redoubtable American historian Gordon Wood, who here displays all the qualities that have made so many of his books towering classics of the genre: a complete mastery of exhaustive sources, an irrepressible curiosity about all aspects of the years he's examining, and a sly wit throughout. No serious reader of American history can afford to miss this grand synthesis. And speaking of which!
7. Three Victories and a Defeat by Brendan Simms - Here is another incredibly vigorous synthesis, the kind of narrative history that's as much thought-driven as fact-driven. Simms does so much right in this plump volume that it's hard to decide what he does best of all - there are deft and exciting summaries of military activity, there are wonderful three-dimensional vignettes starring virtually all the marquee names of the time, and on top of everything, the House of Hanover finally gets some of the credit it deserves! Simms re-thinks quite a bit about England's history throughout the long 18th century, and even in those few instances where he's implausible, he's still and always thought-provoking. This book and Empire of Liberty are pretty much exactly the way history should be written.
6. Worlds Made By Words by Anthony Grafton - There will, of course, always be a place on my year-end list for sui generis works that shine with their own quirky brilliance, and Grafton's book is certainly one of those! This is a knotty, uncompromisingly intellectual collection of a type we can legitimately fear we may not see again, a book written in high style by a man who was living a scholar's life when card catalogs were Wikipedia and actual work was required to distill knowledge from books. Not that Grafton displays any of the bitterness predictable in a dinosaur (some of that, just possibly, might be coming from me...) - one of his book's concluding sections, on the Internet and digital knowledge, is as lively and inviting a look at the future as anybody could ask for. Rather, this book's inadvertent advocacy is for a joyful, engaged rigor - in academia, in theory, and most of all in reading - and I can't help but wonder if rigor's day is over, regardless of champions like this one.
5. The Landmark Xenophon's "Hellenika" - edited by Robert Strassler, translated by John Marincola - Certainly scholarship's day isn't done - at least not yet! Once again, Robert Strassler has overseen the creation of a masterpiece. He's followed The Landmark Thucydides and The Landmark Herodotus with this masterful, hugely satisfying volume, which contains not only a new translation (a fluid piece of work by John Marincola, instantly surpassing all previous English language versions) of Xenophon's vital, forceful war story but an appendix of interesting essays and a lavish undergrowth of notes. That this volume of Xenophon should get the Strassler treatment instead of better-known works of classical history makes me secretly hope these magnificent volumes will become an established series. I'd trade a slightly used middle-aged basset hound for The Landmark Livy, for instance.
4. Meriwether Lewis by Thomas Danisi and John Jackson - This is by far the best biography of the serious, sexy, dangerous half of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the eternally puzzling and contradictory Meriwether Lewis. Danisi and Jackson have combed through archives, studied letters, and most importantly done a lot of thinking about what their sources are really telling them - and the result is a thoroughly invigorating biography of a young man who would certainly have become President, had he lived (the authors also tackle head-on the problems involved in that innocent-sounding 'had he lived' by digging deep into the mystery of why he didn't).
3.National Geographic Image Collection - After a hundred and something years of continuous perfection, it's become a trifle pat to cite National Geographic for that very quality - but what other words applies to this latest collection of photos? The selections here span the whole long range of the magazine's life, including many incredible shots never seen by readers. The overall effect, after turning the pages and studying in awe the images, is that of being a bystander by the ramp as Noah's Ark is emptied after landfall. Here is the gorgeous, quirky, magnificent panoply of life on Earth, parading before us for what may be the last time - and as usual, National Geographic is there. This big, beautiful book is the closest you can come to a single representation of all those stacks of yellow-spined magazines your grandparents have it their attic. It's a book full of wonders.
2. Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn - There's something extra satisfying about a very thorough, very energetic author taking on a very famous, much-researched figure from history and making that figure fresh and new. That's just what veteran biography McLynn has made a career of doing, and that's just what he does to extremely impressive effect in this big, definitive biography of the philosophical Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The title of the book could easily be 'Marcus Aurelius: His Life and Times,' because readers get a very generous overview of the social, political, and intellectual world in which the emperor was born, grew, and ruled. And the portrait of the man himself is not only equally full but also, charmingly, very much a McLynn production. Our author is distinctly in favor of titans from history being first and foremost human beings - his Marcus Aurelius will become your Marcus Aurelius too.
1. Following the Water by David Carroll, The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson - Year-end roundups like this one always like to spot trends, and every time somebody else does it, I always think it's just so much bunkum. But there's no denying the vast and invasive ways the Internet is changing the nature of books, especially nonfiction books. An excellent example would be the recent book Owl by Desmond Morris, a book that might well have made this list a decade ago. It stood no chance of doing so this year because it was only a book. Only a book! But hear me out: Owl was a dutiful trot through the natural history of the birds and their major appearances in world literature. It featured a hundred common-property photos of owls. In other words, every single one of its prospective readers could have acquired all its information and seen all its visuals by consulting the Internet. If you've produced the exact equivalent of a Wikipedia or Google Image search, you've produced something that's asking for its own extinction - something that's only a book. You can keep doing that in the Internet Age, certainly - but if you do, you can't complain when your readers vanish and your publisher deserts you. The best books have always been more. We'd be crazy to go to Herodotus for facts, but we keep reading Herodotus, and happily. Likewise with the two books that share the top spot for Nonfiction this year at Stevereads: both are constructed on vast amounts of research, but both are unabashedly personal books. It's easier to spot in David Carroll's poetically moving latest account of his life out wading in turtle-haunted backwaters - this book is full of personal moments, and it's only when you're done with it that you realize how much you've learned. Davidson, in his enormous masterwork study of love between men in ancient Greece, takes the mirror-image of this approach: his prodigious learning is everywhere, on every page, and it's only when you're finished that you realize how personal a book you've just read. Both Carroll and Davidson have always made art out of that combination, and 2009 saw the very best books to date from both of them - and the two best new books I read this year.
And there you have it, ladies, gentlemen, and manatees! The Stevereads Best and Worst of 2009! Hope it was as much fun to read as it was to write!