The Best Books of 2010

A title deemed “best book” must capture the reader on not just an intellectual level, but on an emotional one, too. It is in this way that a book read in January is remembered the following year, when one considers those which most resonate, still. Here are PopMatters best remembered, best loved books of 2010.

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 reissue: if they were published in 2010 and we read them and loved them, they’re here.

This feature was compiled, edited and produced by Karen Zarker, Sarah Zupko, Chris Barsanti, and Peta Jinnath Andersen, with contributions from many PopMatters staff throughout the magazine.



End of year lists are fluid; the best book you read in January may not make a list made in December, even if it is, in many ways, a better book than one you read in November. Stellar prose, tight plotting, even memorable characters are not enough to keep a book in mind for three months, let alone 12. This may seem harsh, but for a book to truly belong on a Best Of list, it has to meet one extra, often forgotten criterion: it must be engaging. “Best books” must capture the reader on not just an intellectual level, but on an emotional one, too.

If booklists have their own particular trend–and I think they do–this list presents an interesting, even surprising, take on 2010. Five of the 30+ titles present here are comics collections; many are dark and twisty, full of horrors that are sometimes a little too close to home (Super Sad True Love Story). More are “retro” or “vintage”, written in, or inspired by the ’40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Yet most unexpected is the number of crossover titles on the list–not just two young adult novels (The Thief, For the Win), but adult novels with teenage protagonists, like Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, Jayne Ann Philips’ Lark & Termite, and Emma Donoghue’s Room, narrated by five-year-old Jack.

While these reflections on the past–and somewhat dreary prophecies of the future–may seem depressing, they’re not all as pathos-inducing as the reissue of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Tucked into this list are several small glimmers of something sweeter, something to temper the Literary Drearies we all love and appreciate. And that’s just the way it should be.

Peta Jinnath Andersen



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 2010year, it just meant that they likely weren’t looking very hard. The good work of many fine authors awaits you.

Chris Barsanti