As is my wont, I’ll list the best non-fiction books I read in 2008. Some of these were even published in 2008
Here’s my Top Ten:
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. I’m not sure why I keep reading books about the excesses and incompetencies of the GWB administration. They just make my blood pressure go through the roof. But this is the big one, and I think it’s going to be remembered for a long, long time. Mayer’s subtitle says it all–and it’s worse than you think. She’s not preachy, and I’ve been amazed at how much of what Mayer reported here, sourced anonymously, has since been corroborated.
Tony Horwitz, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. Horwitz has carved out quite a niche for himself as our pre-eminent historical memory travel writer. Okay, maybe our only historical memory travel writer In this book Horwitz retraces the steps of several European explorers who set foot in North America before the Pilgrims arrived. As in his previous book Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz displays an incredible gift for finding interesting/wacky people and presenting their worldviews without coming across as judgmental–he leaves that up to the reader.
David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story. All works of history should be as well-written and revealing as this. I had no idea that I could find a book about public health research and policy development so compelling. I know that some of the BGB Crew are into public health research and policy development. They should read this book.
Nicholas Dawidoff, The Crowd Seems Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball. Dawidoff’s memoir about growing up in a single-parent New Haven household–single because his mentally ill father lived by himself in New York City–is raw and bittersweet and comes across as achingly true. When I was a grad student I sent Dawidoff a fan letter for a profile he wrote of Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the New York Times Magazine (since reworked and published here) and offered to allow him to hire me as a research assistant. He mailed me back a very polite thanks-but-no-thanks letter. So I’ve known for a while that he was raised well. This confirmed it.
Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and New Deal: A Very Short Introduction and Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics. These are both readable, concise, and eye-opening. I just wish they weren’t so relevant. Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series gets extra points for cool covers.
Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. If you’re of a certain bent, you probably agree with me that Steve Martin’s standup comedy from the late ’70s is the most brilliant stuff ever produced in that genre. I guess I had always assumed that most of his act was the result of absurdist stream-of-consciousness, but this short memoir reveals what a thoughtful, hard-working craftsman Martin was and is. One of the better analyses I’ve ever read of how art is made.
Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. The transformation of the solidly Democratic South into the solidly Republican South is the big story in American political history between 1965 and 1985. Crespino looks at how Mississippi whites went from being the most reviled group in American politics to the cornerstone of the modern GOP–a movement that’s very much at the heart of that larger story.
Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Perlstein looks at the same big story from another direction. Perlstein is at some times an empathetic biographer and at others slashing in his treatment of Nixon and his neuroses. It’s a nice touch and makes for an interesting read.
Special non-fictiony work of fiction: Don DeLillio, Libra. This is DeLillo’s imagining of a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Not having read the Warren report, I don’t know how many of the pieces of this puzzle are based on real people and actual events, but I don’t care. According to me, DeLillo excels at creating worlds that are maybe five degrees off-center from reality, and I’m always slightly discombobulated when I’m reading one of his novels. (In a good way.) DeLillo’s version of events is so affecting that I’ll never again be able to think about this historic event as a historian should, drawing conclusions from empirical evidence. That’s a pretty neat trick he pulled there.
Update: As is also my wont, I forgot to mention the one book around which I had intended to organize this post, Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. (Link to my review – It’s written for a Texas publication so it focuses on the Texas experience even though Blackmon doesn’t; he focuses more on Alabama and Georgia.) I really thought this book would get some love from the major prize committees. Why hasn’t it?