I don't get around to reading everything when it comes out. Who does? And I dislike the way the publishing industry forces everything into twelve-month packages and then a book is “done” after such a tiny life cycle. I feel rushed by all these lists and then I feel behind. I also don't like the score-keeping where books get tracked and tallied based on the number of lists they make it onto, because top ten leaves out so much other stuff. So this is my top ten of what I've read this year, completely ignoring the books' years of publication (though that's provided for reference.) And the numbers are just the order in which I read them (roughly). I can't believe there are four 2012 books on this list! One thing this list has taught me is that I'm actually reading current stuff, even though I feel like I'm mired in the past as I make my way through Montaigne's essays (done, with scars to prove it) and Proust's In Search of Lost Time (are you kidding? Nowhere close. A fun slog, though.) Anyway, the books I finished and loved this year:
1. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity by Michael Marmot (2005). Sure it sounds wonky, but if the world has made facts like “being poor or poorer tends to kill you faster” then we clearly need more wonks and less fear of wonkiness. It pulls together an amazing amount of long-term data to show exactly how a small increase in status makes you live longer and vice versa. Marmot is not a disinterested research; he's clearly incensed by this, and he tells you so.
2. Against Joie de Vivre by Phillip Lopate (2008). Essays: you think you know what an essay is? You have NO IDEA! Funny and smarter than all of us put together. Lopate is my hero. I'm also so proud that our books have at some point sat in the same warehouse at University of Nebraska Press.
3. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison (1996). This memoir with snapshots is a meditation on cruelty, identity, class, the southeast, and gender. And it's kind and searching and fierce. And you can carry it in your pocket.
4. Live Through This by Debra Gwartney (2011). A mom wrestles with her emotions and reactions to her daughters' difficulties, among them running away for extended periods as teens. A self-implicating narrator you can't help but love for her honesty.
5. Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction by Barry C. Lynn (2011). This book's goal is pretty obvious from the title, but the method is very approachable case studies, mixing things you might know with interesting and pretty important economic background that I found very surprising.
6. Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945, 2007): Teaching this made me delve into the text in a new way. The book is sometimes called “angry”; I am astounded by how measured and calm it is. It's gotten much attention for its subject matter and thus, as with much nonfiction, not as much attention as literature. At the level of the sentence this book is incredible.
7. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (2012), whose previous graphic memoir, Fun Home, was also incredible. This is better. I have a forthcoming review of it in Literary Mama, so I won't rehash that here. She is so smart and provides a miraculous visual view of the composition process. Love love love. I want this to be on everyone's “best books” list of 2012.
9. Memoir: An Introduction by Thomas Couser (2011). I thought I was reading this in the search for something easy to assign for an intro class, but it's much more than an introduction. It's not a massive volume and it's very approachable, but it delivers ideas from the UK-based perspective of “life writing” theory that counter and contextualize some of the semi-airless conversations about memoir in the U.S., which tend to be more driven by critics of the field and/or which revisit the same two questions (Are you lying? Can we lie?). Couser addresses those basic questions from a fresh and humane perspective and goes far beyond. My copy is underlined all up.
10. Diaries, by George Orwell, ed. Peter Davidson (2012). I can't lie. This was a teen-stalker gimme. I'm hopelessly in love with Orwell, and I'd happily read about him planting shrubs and tallying eggs. Christopher Hitchens writes in the Introduction that no one would want to read this all the way through. Except me.
11. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2012– Oh my gosh, another 2012. I guess I am totally obsessed with NOW) . I thought this was beautiful and expressive of the place that Wallace was tending toward later in life, so it's different (and I think even better than) Infinite Jest. He was a true theorist of work and the Midwest. But it's not finished, and that's a weird experience. But if you're into Wallace, you are probably okay with that anyway.
12. Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb (2004). He does amazing things with his voice, writing about the southwest, Mexican-American identity, Texas, work, academia, class, family, books and more, all without any pretension or any thought to “managing” an essayistic voice. He doesn't hold back. A great collection. He writes a lot of fiction and I wish he wrote more essays.