As always, the rule for my annual list is that for a book to make it here, I have to have read it for the first time this calendar year. It may or may not have been published in 2010.
I’ve learned something extremely important from the first two books on my list: Anyone can write a great book in two easy steps! This program is foolproof. Here are the steps:
1. Become a brilliant poet.
2. Write a prose memoir.
It’s that easy! Step 1 might be a little tricky, though. My favorites:
Natasha Trethewey, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I’ve loved Natasha Trethewey’s poetry from the jump (full disclosure: I’m also lucky enough to count her as a friend), but as a historian I’m kind of in her wheelhouse: most of Trethewey’s poems have to do with change over time and memory. She obviously brings these same concerns to her memoir, in which she writes lyrically about regional and personal devastation–and rebuilding. How many ways can a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet break your heart? More than you think.
Patti Smith, Just Kids. OK. Enough already. The proprietor of this very blog finally wore me down and I read Just Kids last week. I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype, but Smith blew me away; she has earned every last letter of the praise she’s received from Tim and everyone else for this book that evokes a time and place and way of life completely and lovingly. I had always assumed that when I finally got my New York City time machine up and running I’d set the dial for 1942 so that I could bend an elbow with Joseph Mitchell and Joe Gould at McSorley’s Ale House. But now the first stop might have to be the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea in 1969. I guess we all like to think that we live in ways that keep us open to all of the possibilities that life offers, but Patti and Robert set the bar a hell of a lot higher than most.
Next up, two entirely unrelated oral histories:
Terry Pluto, Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association. A cult favorite among basketball fans, it was first published in 1990. I just got around to it, and I’m glad I did. You literally couldn’t make up more than half of what allegedly went on in the ABA, which had to have set world records for financial illiteracy and profligacy (and the team owners were worse than the players). It’s important to keep in mind that much of what is remembered here couldn’t have happened as reported, but then again we don’t always have to let the truth get in the way of a fun story. Here’s a representative anecdote: Bob Costas’s first job out of journalism school was as the play-by-play man for the St. Louis Spirits. One night he was late to a game; he missed nearly all of the first quarter, so his radio station just broadcast the ambient noise from the arena. Costas was sure he’d be fired, so he was moping around the hotel afterward. The team’s star, Marvin “Fly” Barnes, tried to cheer him up by telling him, “Hey, bro, don’t worry about it. I’ve been looking for a little white dude to drive me around in my Rolls-Royce.” A tremendously fun read.
Alessandro Portelli, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History. I’m a series editor for the Oxford Oral History Series, which published this book, so its inclusion on this list constitutes a big, honking conflict of interest. But I don’t care. It’s an absolutely gorgeous book and a celebration of humanity. Calling it a labor of love doesn’t come close to describing Portelli’s relationship to the people who tell their story in these pages and the work it took to put this together over a couple of decades. Portelli, a professor of American Literature at the University of Rome, is also the best scholarly oral historian working in English.
Next, some social history:
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I won’t pretend to have read this one all the way through, but I’ve seen enough to know that it’s magnificent in a lot of ways. I don’t agree with everything Wilkerson does here, but the way she tells a macro-level, truly epic, story through the lives of three individuals is mighty impressive. I hope this book will spark conversations about how the Great Migration turned out for hundreds of thousands of the people who headed north (in short: not always so great).
Multiple authors, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is one of the most remarkable groups of people ever to assemble in the United States. Here 52 women of SNCC, people who had surprisingly little in common across the board except for a commitment to make America into a more democratic and just place, share an intensely personal collective history of the organization and the work they did from the inside out. Another tremendously heartfelt labor of love.
Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia. I can honestly say that I’ve never wanted to visit Siberia and I still don’t, despite Frazier’s archly infectious enthusiasm for his subject. But I’m really glad that I went along for the ride with one of the best writers around.
The best work of non-fiction I read this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s thoughtful, thought-provoking, and thoroughly human, sometimes maddening and sometimes uplifting. I read it early this year and still think about it constantly. My hat’s off to Rebecca Skloot.
Dishonorable mention: Charles Pierce, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free and Michael Lewis, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity. I’ve enjoyed Pierce’s musings on NPR from time to time, and the image with which he begins this post is the funniest and truest thing I’ve ever read on a sports blog. (As a Heels fan, I have to say: Rasheed may be a head case, but he’s OUR head case.) So I was excited to find that Pierce had written on this topic. Unfortunately, saying he mailed it in would be an insult to anyone who still goes to the trouble of mailing things.
Now look at the cover of Panic. Do you notice that it says “Edited by” in tiny letters? I didn’t when I bought it. I thought I was getting what would become The Big Short–I was about six months too early–but instead I got a collection of reprinted Dave Barry columns and articles from The Economist. Boo.