The 20th century is history and the 21st century is beginning to assume full shape and form with definable contours. As these 24 outstanding non-fiction titles from 2008 demonstrate, it’s a different world outside your door.
Introduction by Rodger Jacobs
The function of non-fiction is to analyze the formulas of the world we live in. If modern civilization were looked upon as a banquet table, the guests of honor seated at the head of the table, according to this accounting by our reviewers of the best non-fiction books of 2008, would be war, ethnic cleansing, globalization, and AIDS.
One of the most compelling aspects of this list is the titles that are glaringly absent. Bob Woodward’s shoulda-been-bestseller The War Within: A Secret White House History just didn’t make the cut and the same can be said for What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by former George W. Bush administration insider Scott McClellan. The latest collection of essays from preeminent humorist David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames , is nowhere to be found on this list either, sneaking out the back door with Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.
There was a glut of non-fiction titles released on an unsuspecting public in 2008, a veritable cottage industry in Barack Obama dissections and deconstructions alone, not to mention a handful of hosannas to John McCain and post-mortem examinations of the Bush legacy. The problem is that a great many of the new releases focused almost exclusively on US domestic politics, and if the global repercussions of the American economic meltdown have proven anything, it is that we can no longer seal ourselves off into enclaves. While we continue to retain our individual native and indigenous cultures, nationalistic as well as regional, we have become one big world hardwired to one another, literally and figuratively, by vast changes in technology and shared social, economic, and political concerns. What emerges from this list, then, are two interlocked themes: Enormous Change and Everlasting Conflict.
The examination of Enormous Change is represented by no less than six titles on this list, beginning with Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady, a densely packed history of timekeeping, moving on to a provocative study of Chinese art (while we were sleeping the Chinese have emerged as major players on all aspects of the world stage), Fareed Zakaria’s compelling layout of the shifting of the power balance in world politics in the critically acclaimed The Post-American World (note earlier reference to Communist China). The way the human relationship to sound and music is being changed by the digital revolution is put to the test in Sound Unbound, and the fundamentalism at the root of American politics is shoved under the microscope in a new title by Jeff Sharlet. Finally, Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch theorizes that access to online data is a cultural and scientific revolution as profound as the invention of the light bulb, and Grammar Girl presents a grammarian exercise delightfully adapted for 21st Century-speak (Did you know “Borg” is a singular collective noun?)
But with enormous change there is still Everlasting Conflict to contend with: inner-city social disintegration, struggles for human rights and the basic dignity that should be afforded to all people, the tragedies and disproportionate indignities of the AIDS crisis, substance abuse and recovery, the momentous loss of losing a child, and war in all its ugly imaginings, including a flawed but remarkable posthumous collection from Kurt Vonnegut and The Forever War, a chilling and blunt account of events in Iraq and Afghanistan from one of the finest contemporary war correspondents, Dexter Filkins. Lastly in this category is Patrick Ecclesine’s stunning documentary photography essay, Faces of Sunset Boulevard, that could easily serve as a political manifesto in words and full-color imagery for the kind of social and economic disparities that have plagued us in the 20th Century and must end in our new culture.
Not all of the titles here are weighty contemplations or grim documentary photography essays. A bit of whimsy and pop culture ephemera is on display: a breezy book-length essay on Spain’s culinary swine delights, two titles devoted to the charms of the English language, a comic and existential world race undertaken by two American sitcom writers (The Ridiculous Race), and a couple of decidedly offbeat pop rock examinations.
There is a definite corollary between our 2008 Best of Fiction list, with its emphasis on anxiety and how to avoid it through the psychoanalytic theory of reaction formation, and the underscoring here of deep change in the moral, cultural, and social fabric while horrifying nightmares continue unabated across the globe. Maybe it’s not all so Warren Harding after all.
Note: Some titles included may have been originally published before 2008. They make this year's Best Of list as a new paperback version or a reprint published in 2008.