Once again the death of the book, and of reading, has been wildly exaggerated. It’s as though authors of the world, particularly those tilling the nonfiction side of the field, didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to ramp up their tweeting and stop wasting time researching and writing well-reasoned, deeply-constructed, and thoroughly nuanced studies of just about every possible subject out there. Maybe their email wasn’t working that day.
While nonfiction can sometimes be categorized as fiction’s dowdier, sterner sibling – its writers the library nerds of the book world, compared to the novelists’ popular crowd (no Oprah Book Club or fetes at the KGB Bar for historical biographers or chroniclers of the financial system) – the breadth and depth of what they cover can make novels seem almost limited by comparison. In 2010, some of the books that we loved looked at everything from punks and capitalism and the blurred morality of mid-century medical research to Italian schlock horror cinema and journalism’s blurred line between fact and fiction.
Cultural matters weighed heavily in our book coverage this year, of course, with an emphasis on great bands of yore. One of our writers lavished praise on Glenn Povey’s big, splashy Pink Floyd extravaganza Echoes (“A mountain of research fired by love for the band”) and was similarly taken by Sean Wilentz’s “extraordinary study” Bob Dylan in America. For more up-to-date musical considerations, there was Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly’s rampantly demented Destroy All Movies!!!, a painstakingly compiled chronology of just about every flickering appearance of punks in film (a task that, given the proclivities of exploitation cinema, necessitated trolling through some particularly dusty and glorious hideous stacks of VHS trash). There was also punk poetess Patti Smith’s lovingly crafted and widely acclaimed National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, one of the few books that our writers (a margin-friendly, iconoclastic bunch, for the most part) raved about with as much enthusiasm as the wider critical community.
Some of the more fringe titles that we pulled out of the great flow of new releases included everything from Iain Gilchrist’s perception-studying The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which our writer called “mind-bending”) and Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, a re-release of Maitland McDonagh’s in-depth celebration of Italian horror-film maestro Dario Argento. While books on politics and current affairs were for the most part absent from what we thought to be the year’s best (the latest slew of pro- and con-President Obama titles, like Rodger D. Hodge’s excorating The Mendacity of Hope, or either just feeding the 24-hour news-cycle gossip churn or preaching to their respective choirs), our writers cast their nets far beyond the world of culture-production. Rebecca Skloot’s devastating The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was likened by our reviewer to “a slap in the face, like seeing the televised shots from the Ninth Ward post-Hurricane Katrina” while Brian Cumings’ The Korean War was called “an insurrectionary work of history that leaves few preconceptions intact.”
In short, if somebody said that they couldn’t find something interesting to read in 2010, it just meant that they likely weren’t looking very hard. The good work of many fine authors awaits you.
We all play folk music. This central idea drives this book’s compelling narrative. In Wilentz’s view, Dylan became a sacred intersection for the varying paths of populist Americana, a hierophant of the folk spirit that has included everything and everyone from Walt Whitman’s liturgy of American democracy to Jack Kerouac’s “sounds of matching boxcars” to Aaron Copland’s hymns in praise of the common man and the democratic landscape. Dylan found the real America, before that term had been abused by right-wing ideologues seeking to become puppet-masters to angry mobs. Bob Dylan in America collages all of these elements, tracing Dylan’s career by tracing his influences. Throughout the work, Wilentz shows an unfailing ability to synthesize his discussion of Dylan’s music with the best history lesson you are likely to ever get on left-wing populist art and thought. He surely and deftly examines the influence of figures as diverse as Copland to Blind Willie McTell on, not just Dylan’s music, but on the America he sought to evoke. W. Scott Poole
This book illuminates how artificial light and its twin invention, electricity, have in one way or another shaped everything that we have become. It follows the path of this catalyzing technology as it winds it way from the last Ice Age into present day. As Brox connects the dots from early humans using stone lamps for painting the walls at Lascaux, to the the whaling trade as it arose to supply the world with lamp oil, to Edison’s Menlo Park and the dawn of modernity, to the massive power grids of today, a story of evocation begins to emerge. Seeing the broad strokes of history laid out in front of you, it’s difficult not to see a form taking shape in the flickering candlelight. Brox shows that technology, as extensions of our own bodies and minds, are what shape humanity; not the messages contained in the technology, nor the petty power struggles of day to day politics and ideologies. We have made our tools, and in turn our tools have made us. George Russell
Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (Expanded Edition)
(University of Minnesota Press)
Dario Argento stands out among Giallo directors as one of the few to achieve limited success outside of Italy (Mario Bava would be another example). An auteur that specialized in blood and guts, Argento’s work fused the art film and exploitation cinema into a mix that McDonagh perfectly captures with the phrase “exuberant bad taste”. Maitland, who maintains an excellent website of film criticism at MissFlickChick.com, has written a learned yet accessible entrepôt to Argento’s baroque world, a guide to the brilliant director’s mind and his savage bedtime stories. This book, combined with other recent studies of Argento and the increasing availability of these once hard to find films, suggests that we are possibly in the midst of a minor, blood-spattered renaissance of “the Italian Hitchcock’s” oeuvre. W. Scott Poole
When she is not a political scientist, Schiff is a student and critic of past historians. Schiff points out that the life of Cleopatra was narrated mostly by victorious Romans after Cleopatra’s death; if Cleopatra’s first biographers had been sympathetic to her cause, we might have an entirely different image of this controversial queen. One of the most surprising pleasures of the book is Schiff’s tart humor. At one point, she notes, “Octavian was good at restoring traditions, including those that had never existed.” In another aside, Schiff describes a young man who had an unusually strong sense of filial devotion; given the frequency with which monarchs undermined their own parents in the ancient world, “in the normal course of events [this young man] would have been preparing to depose his mother about now.” When Cleopatra must tactfully advocate for her own survival, Schiff points out, “She always knew how to talk to a man.” Sharp aphorisms, well-chosen quotations, juicy and surprising language—storytelling rarely gets better than this. Schiff takes her understandably limited array of credible sources and creates a coherent, believable narrative. Dan Barrett
James Shapiro furthers the argument that the “secret” of Shakespeare’s achievement is no secret at all: it’s a matter of a brilliant mind working with and through the material and means made available by the culture in which it existed. Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s plays everywhere evidence their author’s close working relationship with Shakespeare’s theatrical company (first called the Chamberlain’s Men, then the King’s Men after the ascension of James I to the English throne): stage directions in early printed versions of the plays that substitute the name of the actor playing the part for the character’s name; allusions to the distinctive physical appearances of certain members of the company; the suitability of Shakespeare’s late plays to an indoor theater like the Blackfriars (where the King’s Men began performing around 1610) as opposed to the large, outdoor theaters for which many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays were written. Shapiro makes clear that more often than not a rejection of Shakespeare as the author of his plays opens onto complex belief systems and ways of viewing the world that have very little to do, directly at least, with Shakespeare or his plays. James Williams