The Best Non-Fiction of 2011

Books have a long shelf-life. A loved book may outlast its original owner by a generation – or more -- if well cared for. With that in mind, we recall our best loved books of 2011 here, well into 2012. Better late than never...

Crenellated Sandcastles of Irrationality: The True World At Your Fingertips

It’s been said that there are no boring books, only boring readers. While that aphorism was probably invented by a disgruntled author (“No, the book just won’t work without that 50-page blank-verse digression on the gold standard”), it is true more often than not, particularly when one is talking about nonfiction. A novel can be deadly if it’s poorly written, no matter how engaging the story. If the characters talk in cartoon-worthy word balloons, the book is going to be a waste of time. Nonfiction is more forgiving, in that subject matter can triumph over authorial artistry (or total lack thereof), nine times out of ten.

Case in point: nobody would accuse journalist Andrew Feinstein of being a shock-and-awe writer. But while his book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (which came out in November from Farrar, Straus and Giroux) might have a leaden, Sunday feature prose style that would lead readers to think of the words “brick” and “solid”, it is nevertheless a thrilling read. Feinstein is one of those bloodhound investigators who sifts the paper record for bits of gold with the patience of a Talmudic scholar. His and our reward is a harrowing narrative of villainy where arms dealers, organized terrorist networks, corporate dons, and government officials collude in a kind of sordid club that ensures no dictator or warlord goes without the tools needed to stack bodies to the sky. It’s by no means an easy read, but darkly illuminating all the same. (Robert Fisk’s The Age of the Warrior, with its stories of a fractious Middle East ever spiraling out of control, is rewarding in a similar vein of discovering This Is How the World Keeps Ending; though Fisk is every bit the cock-eyed and world-weary stylist that Feinstein is not.)

This sense of discovery and of learning is the reward of nonfiction, and it is what kept bringing us back in 2011 to books that had nothing whatsoever to do with quirky detectives or lovelorn vampires.

We read a lot about music, of course, because it provides a never-ending well from which to draw different interpretations and meanings. David Yaffe’s Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, with its sprawling and anti-conclusive style, was determined to be “fun, funny, learned as hell as well as plain smart, and subjective in the best possible sense.” Dylan showed up again in the new revised edition of Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. One of the foundation blocks of a cultural studies understanding of our universe (much like Marcus’s Lipstick Traces), Marcus’s classic is taken to be “an exploration of the B-side of the bootlegged version of American history that maybe tells the real story that never made it into the textbooks.”

Less important and very unlikely to appear on a liberal arts college syllabus, but likely a good deal more fun, was longtime Spin scribbler Chuck Eddy’s magnificently titled collection Rock and Roll Always Forgets. Our writer was sometimes enraptured and occasionally enraged by Eddy’s 360-degree opinion-slinging. He first notes that “while [Eddy’s] talking, he’s as convincing as any schizophrenic who’s constructed his own private, illusory kingdom with its own laws and possibilities, all of which make sense on their own terms,” before determining that the book is like “crenellated sandcastles of irrationality” (which, come to think of it, would have been a better name for the book). Similarly grab-bag in style was the belles-lettres from Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence, which covers everything from his many years working in used-book stores (a treat for those in the know) to his investigation of why, exactly, he felt obliged to see Star Wars in the theater 21 times.

One subject that didn’t get as much play in 2011, at least from our reviewers, was the field of autobiography. At one time you couldn’t glance at a bookstore display without seeing a half-dozen addiction memoirs. But like all publishing trends, that one seems to have passed, even if a couple years too late. A different kind of addiction (one towards disaffection and violence) is chronicled in Andre Dubus III’s gripping Townie, in which the House of Sand and Fog novelist writes of his hard-knock childhood and difficult dance toward adulthood. It was praised for its “explanation of how to emerge, if not unscathed, then intact, from a childhood filled with flying fists and screaming rage.”

Other true stories of viciousness and disillusionment were to be found in Matterhorn novelist and Vietnam vet Karl Marlantes’ lacerating examination What It Is Like to Go to War and the late Manning Marable’s towering and (controversially for some) honest biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which our reviewer wrote “challenges the readers’ willingness to look at the complexities of a legend that started off as a man.” Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of the Woman was glowingly and succinctly described as "magic".

Politics were again in mostly short supply this year, excepting those that treated it in a historical fashion, like Malcolm X or Robin Blackburn’s An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (which our reviewer called “taut, intelligent, and compelling”). But, then, one can’t have everything.

Of all the books we read in 2011 -- but a fraction of the publishing world's offering -- these are what we felt were the most loved. There no boring books, here.

Chris Barsanti

Book: The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays

Author: Robert Fisk

Publisher: Nation

Publication Date: 2011-03


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The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays
Robert Fisk

There's seemingly no end of people eager to pontificate on what’s wrong in the Middle East. This overabundance of opinion is particularly acute in the European media. Unlike so many of the continent’s Middle East commentariat, though, Robert Fisk actually lives there. From his perch in Beirut, the scandalously truthful and acidly funny Independent columnist holds forth on the apparently endless roundelay of massacres, corruption, coups, and invasions that have characterized the region. In this surprisingly sparkling collection of his columns (finally available in paperback), Fisk provides a potent perspective on everything from the Iraq to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the long, foolhardly tradition of Western military adventures. Although a sharp-eyed foreign-affairs correspondent able to file a vivid and humane dispatch from beleaguered corners of the world, Fisk also has an eye for the telling and unexpected detail. Watching the 2005 Ridley Scott film, Kingdom of Heaven, Fisk recalls how a largely Muslim audience in a Beirut cinema leapt to their feet cheering, not when Saladin defeated the Crusaders, but afterward, in a scene where he respectfully sets a crucifix back on the table it had been knocked off of: “They wanted Islam to be merciful as well as strong. Chris Barsanti

Book: All Labor Has Dignity

Author: Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Michael K. Honey

Publisher: Beacon

Publication Date: 2011-01


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All Labor Has Dignity
Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Michael K. Honey

This collection of the civil rights leader's speeches to union audiences makes clear Dr. King's long fellowship with the labor movement, and his thinking on the connections between labor, race and class. Of course, King has always been best known, and most studied, for his activism on racial matters, from the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Past those triumphs, he turned his attention to poverty as the central issue defining equality (or the lack thereof) in America. In 1967, he added his voice to the chorus speaking out against the Vietnam War. But throughout his public life, King was in kinship with organized labor’s progressive and multicultural forces. Such unions provided the Civil Rights Movement with money and shock troops, and King spoke often at union gatherings to support their battles. This is an illuminating argument that King was concerned with much, much more than just the plight of black people. His public career may have started in that arena, but it ended with him as a champion for progressives around the globe. Mark Reynolds

Book: An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln

Author: Robin Blackburn

Publisher: Verso

Publication date: 2011-05


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An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln
Robin Blackburn

Blackburn examines the influence that pre-war European radicalism had on the Union cause, the fascinating similarities and important contrasts in Lincoln and Marx's political philosophies, and how labor activists carried the torch of emancipation into the post-war years. It's a deeply researched, highly readable, thought-provoking book, though Blackburn's insightful analysis comprises only the first hundred pages of the volume. The rest is made up of primary sources, meant to aid in the understanding of Lincoln, Marx, and other important voices of the time. Blackburn's writing is taut, intelligent, and compelling. He packs an astonishing amount of information into a scant hundred pages, providing a fresh and powerful look at Civil War politics and social issues. Michael Patrick Brady

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