By Isaac Butler
An odd wrinkle to this year in nonfiction reading for me was the heavy presense of research and project related reading in my list. Not that I've never done research before, butI'm in the long research phase on a couple of projects, and thus not every nonficiton book read this year was purely for pleasure, although most of them were quite pleasurable to read. Below, in chronological order from when I read them, are my favorite nonfiction books read this year:
(1) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Simultaneously a book about the medical exploitation of Henrietta Lacks and her descendents and a behind-the-scenes look into what it took to report out the story itself, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is part memoir, part medical thriller and part chronicle of the lingering effects of Jim Crow on poor, Southern, African Americans. Inspired by a college biology class, Rebecca Skloot sets out to discover the history of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cancer, and her cells, which were taken without her permission and have been used (to great profit) for all manner of biological and genetic research (they've even been to space). The story of Henrietta, her clan, and her cells is filled with both fascinating science and deeply felt human drama.
(2) People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. In 2000, Lucie Blackman, a British twentysomething working in a hostess club in Tokyo, vanished. The search for her and the eventual quest to bring her killer to justice gets the true crime treatment in People Who Eat Darkness Journalist Richard Lloyd Parry (who was living in Tokyo and covered the case for British papers) takes what in lesser hands could've been an exploitative, lurid, orientalist, melodrama and manages to instead turn out a carefully written, informative page-turner. The result of ten years of research and reporting, People Who Eat Darkness deftly interweaves everything from neighborhood geography to the nature and workings of the Japanese justice system to the history of Japan's discriminated against Korean population, and remains fair-minded without being bogusly impartial. It's not a pretty story-- the resulting narrative is something out of late-period Prime Suspect-- but the way Parry balances narrative tension and exposition is masterful.
(3) Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin. Baldwin's first essay collection (Notes of a Native Son) gets all the press, but having read them both in subsequent years, I far prefer his second, Nobody Knows My Name. There's a loosening of Baldwin's prose in this second collection, an expansiveness, a stylistic crackle that will eventually result in the masterpiece The Fire Next Time, that makes these essays deeply pleasurable to read no matter how excoriating the content. And it is, at times, excoriating, particularly in the three essays in which Baldwin takes on William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Norman Mailer. There's also an interview/profile with/of Ingmar Bergman of all things. Throughout, Baldwin's mix of outsider and insiderdom sharpens his critical eye, and you could pick a paragraph at random and find a brilliant white hot sentence lurking therein.
(4) Open by Andre Agassi. 2013 was the year I became even more of a tennis fan and started to learn how to play it and in the process had nearly everyone and their mother recommend Andre Agassi's book to me. And they were right to do so! Agassi's book (written with J.R. Moehringer) chronicles his life from the age of four until his retirement in his thirties. It is not without problems, particualrly in the use of first person present narration, but it's a rollicking good ride. Andre Agassi's journey is a fascinating one: from abused child to misunderstood bad boy to beloved citizen of the world, and the book captures his torment and joy and loneliness and considerable sense of humor throughout. Yes, there's a lot of self-pity here, but there's also room-- rare in a memoir-- for the reader to disagree with Agassi's vision of his life. He also doesn't forget the juice that we expect from a celebrity memoir. Tennis is an excessively polite sport. Open isn't polite at all.
(5) Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Nixonland was hailed as a masterpiece when it came out, and yet somehow I avoided reading it despite being told to over and over again by friends of mine. Luckily, 99Seats and Mark Armstrong and I decided to read it as a long distance book club late this Spring. What a good idea! Nixonland is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, a biography and sweeping social narrative all at once. At its heart is a mystery: How did the United States go from an overwhelming;y liberal consensus in 1964-- a consensus united behind the civil rights bill, a year in which the word "conservative" was as dirty as "liberal" was in 2004--to electing Richard Nixon twice? Answering that question takes two decades of American history and a cast of characters as numerous and memorable as those in a great Russian novel. In the center of it all is the titular character, Richard Nixon, a true genius whose version of politics-- grievance-stoking, anti-elite, deeply personal-- we still live in today, and whose demons proved insurmountable once he actually gained the White House.
(6) The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. How do you tell a story that involves millions of people and spans from WWI to the 1970s, a story that hasn't really ever been told before, a story that is the unsung song throbbing under the melodies of the last century? This is the challenge that faced Wilkerson as she set out to chronicle the Great Migration of African Americans from (mostly rural areas of) the South to (mostly urban areas of) the North. Her solution is brilliant: focusing on three representative protagonists, using their narratives to give the book a novelistic thrust, and then pinning on to those narratives factual and thematic extrapolations. Reading this work and Nixonloand in the same year has given me a completely new understanding of the 20th Century, particularly the time between WWII and my birth. The Warmth of Other Suns is gorgeous and the three protagonists are so fully drawn you'll wish you were in their living rooms interviewing them right alongside Wilkerson, the tape recorder running between you on a coffee table, the sun setting through a window, a whole secret history unlocking, the darkened corners of the 20th century getting a little better illuminated.
(7) Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag. Anyone interested in writing criticism needs to read this book, which contains both the title essay and the legendary Notes on Camp, along with some great surprises (Camus' Notebooks for example) along the way. It's also worth reading because Sontag says so many completely preposterous things with such deep conviction that it will force you to hone your own views about art along the way. Don't get me wrong: this book is infuriating, and sometimes laughably absurd, particularly in The Anthropologist as Hero and Nathalie Sarrute and the Novel, an essay in which Sontag actually argues that fiction that should abandon narrative and meaning so that she won't be embarrassed talking to visual artists at cocktail parties. But it's infuriating in the best possible way, and illuminating too. It also shows the value in essay writing of refusing to equivocate. Sure, you might lose some people who would sort-of agree with you, sure it makes you less likeable, but it also can provoke a richer, deeper conversation. As someone pretty in love with equivocation in essay writing, particularly my own, Sontag presents a fascinating, necessary challenge.
(8) Real Enemies by Kathryn S. Olmsted. The wreckage at Roswell, NM wasn't a weather balloon. We know that now. We also know that it wasn't a UFO, however. It was, instead, an experimental montioring device meant to tip us off to Soviet atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs. Unwilling to admit this, the goverment instituted a cover up which fed conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs that live on to this day. Real Enemies is a history of these kinds of dynamics, of the ways that law breaking and secrecy by the United States government fuels conspiracy theories that are often correctly paranoid, but about the wrong things. Olmsted takes us from WWI to 9/11, with fascinating stops at the JFK assassination, Roswell, Operation Northwoods, COINTELPRO, Operation Chaos, Watergate and more. Olmsted, a professor of history at UC, Davis, knows her stuff and Real Enemies packs in heaps of fascinating and odd Americana into its scant 300 pages.
(9) Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Memoir, of course, shares a common root with memory, and both trace their lineages back to the sanskrit word smri, which means martyr. Jesmyn Ward's book is in part an act of memory about martyrs to our intwined systems of race and class and in part a memorial, which is to say a physical object of remembrance and also (in Welsh) a graveyard. Chronicling the brief lives and tragic deaths of a handful of young black men with whom Ward grew up in Louisiana (including, finally, and most shatteringly, her own brother), Ward's tale is also one of survival, a story of life, of what it takes to stay alive in a nation that does not value you in ways both traditional and innovative, subtle and brazen, systemic and individual. Men We Reaped is a project of mourning, but, in its demand that we remember and mourn alongsider, Ward has also crafted a work that enlarges our humanity.