The Best of Books 2009: Non-Fiction

As you will see in the selections we present here, there were more than enough great books by great writers in the past year to more than make up for all the other shouters and malingerers.

Note: These books are listed in alphabetical order by title. This is not an order of preference. They may be the paperback version or a reprint: if they were published in 2009, and we read them and loved them, they're here.

Introduction by Chris Barsanti

It's a fool's errand, this sort of task, summing up a year's worth of creative output, but nevertheless, we try. In a time when we're being told that the printed book could well enter the dumpster of obsolescence – right between a stack of vinyl LPs and a few reams of carbon paper – it seemed that bookstores in 2009 were as full of fat new titles as they have ever been. Certainly there were differences, what with the armies of zombie and vampire cross-genre teen-friendly mashups now crowding the front-store table displays, but in some ways it was same as it ever was, particularly in non-fiction.

One had the usual suspects dropping in their two cents, like Malcolm Gladwell with Outliers. There was evidence that the Hollywood principle of never make a movie that doesn't deserve a sequel also applies to pop-economics texts, as in the case of October's Superfreakanomics. There were more self-help books than you could shake a stick at, such as Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, as well as another raft of books on American politicians, both titanic (the Ted Kennedy bio True Compass) and not (Sarah Palin's memoir Going Rogue). No real game-changers here, however, nothing to get the heart or mind racing like some of the year's great fiction breakouts.

We had no Bob Woodward exposé for the Sunday morning pundits to glean tasty scandalous tidbits from, though rumors from March have it that he is already quietly working on a tome about the Obama White House. There were certainly a good number of titles about how the human race is dooming itself through a multiplicity of bad behavioral traits, but few of them managed to gain much traction.

What did seem to have traction when it came to non-fiction publishing in the year of our Lord 2009 is the ever-increasing volatility and volume of angry political screeds. For much of the year, the bestseller lists were packed cheek-to-jowl with the yammering likes of the alliterative Michele Malkin (Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies), Glenn Beck (Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government), and Mark Levin (Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto). There were a few similar screeds from those on the left, but with Al Franken dutifully beavering away in the Senate, and Rachel Madow apparently no closer to publishing that long-rumored book than she's ever been, the superstar pickings were slim.

When one looks at the books that excited us here at PopMatters, however, the titles rarely pulled from any of the categories discussed above. This was not, of course, due to any attempt to purposefully avoid the more popular books out there, but instead just the natural result of grazing widely across the deep flood of new hardcover titles that come over the transom every year (and no, digital media doesn't seem to be reducing that anytime soon) and pulling out what was most thought-provoking to us.

What got our writers excited tended to have little to do with angry political speechifying and more to do with hard-bitten reportage, in the case of Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson's account of last year's election,Battle for America 2008, or Leonard Zeskind's history of domestic white-supremacist groups, Blood and Politics. The historical texts that engaged us were more likely to deal with events long past, such as Robert B. Strassler's excellent reimagining of The Histories in his Landmark Herodotus, David Grann's thrilling Lost City of Z, and Grigoris Balakian's recounting of the Armenian Genocide, Armenian Golgotha.

Given our focus on how our society produces and engages with pop culture in the here and now, our favorite texts on such matters had a more up-to-the-minute feel, as with Paul Wasik's And Then There's This, about flash mobs and the ever-increasing power of viral culture, and Clay Haynes' gorgeous Gig Posters: Rock Show Art of the 20th Century. There were exceptions to this rule, naturally, such as the case of Sam Stephenson's lavish, must-read excavation of a photographic, musical treasure trove in The Jazz Loft Project.

That is likely more a statement about the power of good writing and editing than anything else. We like the books we like, until something different comes along that knocks us sideways. That might not have happened quite as much as we would have preferred in 2009, but as you can see in the selections we present here, there were more than enough great books by great writers in the past year to more than make up for all the other shouters and malingerers.


Book: Alistair Cooke at the Movies

Author: Alistair Cooke


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Alistair Cooke at the Movies
Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke’s was a unique voice: partly that of America and partly that of Britain, it represented each nation to the other with amiability and erudition unknown in any other broadcaster on either side of the Atlantic. But before he began delivering his Letters from America, Cooke was a film critic. This book collects over 120 articles he wrote from 1928 (when he penned stupendously pompous film reviews for the student publication at Cambridge University) to 2003 (when he marked the passing of centenarian MGM editor Margaret Booth with the intelligence and elegance he retained until his death). In the years between, Cooke became, as a critic, a runner whom the race outran. He was seized by a conservative sensibility that left him, as the introduction notes, ‘unable to smile upon The Godfather or Taxi Driver’ -- but this only increases our interest in a book that evolves into a collection of stylish and opinionated period pieces to rival any diary. At The Movies isn’t only for Cooke completists, anymore than it is only for those who frequently consume volumes of film criticism. As with all of Cooke’s work, if you are interested in anything, you’ll be interested in this. Scott Jordan Harris

Book: Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Author: Grigoris Balakian


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Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918
Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian was an Armenian priest and intellectual, living in Constantinople in 1915. On 24 April, he and 250 other Armenians were arrested and exiled, unaware that this was just the first stage of an ordeal that would result in the slaughter of the majority of their numbers. They were transported further and further east, sometimes in trains or carriages, but more often made to cover vast distances on foot. Frequent stops are made at towns along the route; sometimes more Armenian deportees are added to their numbers, in many cases the settlements have already been cleared of Armenian residents. It transpires that their ultimate destination is Der Zor, a site in present day Syria where as many as 400,000 Armenians were massacred. Many more did not make it that far; either killed en route, or succumbing to disease, starvation or sheer exhaustion. Balakian, due to a combination of factors outlined here, survived. In Armenian Golgotha Balakian has left behind a hugely important document in the country’s history. Although he was deeply affected by the suffering he saw and endured, he succeeded in producing an account that provides us with a great and valuable insight into what is regarded as the precedent for modern genocide. Alan Ashton-Smith


Book: Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure

Author: David Freeland


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Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure
David Freeland

It's easy to tell the difference between a book that is written with genuine passion, and one that's written to fulfill a contract, or build a curriculum vitae, or fatten a wallet. Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville fits firmly into the former category, as is apparent from its very first pages when the author, David Freeland, recounts a recurring dream: "Although some details change, the basic situation is the same: I am walking in an American city sometime during the middle of the 20th century. I keep searching for a neighborhood that I know, from my previous visits, contains a large number of old theaters. By the time I figure out where the neighborhood is I am forced to remember that many of the theaters have been torn down... but always I am able to find one or two that are still there -- and feel tremendous relief when I go inside and head to a seat, usually in the balcony where I can get a nice view of the whole building. But always something is different about the interior: either it has been stripped of all architectural detail, just a blank shell, or else the stage seems so far away that I can barely see it. It’s as if I’m watching it from the opposite end of a telescope. Everything appears to be growing smaller, shrinking in front of me to a pin-sized speck before evaporating completely." The emotions that motivate a recurring dream like this are a combination of nostalgia for a past that never was, and yearning, mixed with a bitter regret, for a present that can never be again. Freeland, a writer who has the courage of his dreams, is not afraid to remind us of what we have wiped out, and in our stumbling, childlike sleepwalk through time, continue to destroy. Michael Antman


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