Best Books of 2017 – Nonfiction!
I’ve come to expect a certain amount of variety in the books that manage the near-impossible feat of making their way from galley-and-first-reading to finished-copy-and-second-reading to critical appraisal/mauling to cold reconsideration and then ultimately to this year-end list. But even so, the best works of what I think of as ‘general nonfiction’ in 2017 are more varied than usual, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying to the tragic and back. I went into the year with clear expectations of where my favor would lie, and as usual, I was constantly being surprised right out of my certainties. Here are the best nonfiction works from a year of upset:
10 My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul (Henry Holt) – Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, leads off the list with this whimsical and sometimes very moving (and, needless to say, intensely bookish) account of her life-long relationship with her own book-journal. The plots, names, places, and revelations of every book she reads go into her Book of Books, and what emerges, amazingly, is an entire life. I finished it thinking: “Something very like that is my life too.” And also thinking: “The Times book coverage is in very, very good hands.”
9 Welcome to Your World by Sarah Williams Goldhagen (Harper) – Pretty much the last kind of thing I’d have expected to find on this year-end list is an urban-design study by an architecture critic, but the book Goldhagen has written is so much more than that: it’s an exuberant and ultimately luminous look at how humans live in cities, how cities live in humans, and, in a persistent note of hope sounded throughout the book, how both can do a better job. Every city-dweller should read it.
8 No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers (Hachette) – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and author of the single best one-volume Mark Twain biography) Ron Powers here combines a pitiless look at the history of mental health care in America with a deeply personal story about the worsening mental health of his own son. Powers writes brutal, direct, lovely prose, and it’s never been more powerful than in this scathing, heartbreaking book.
7 A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Wei-Wang (Harvard University Press) – This massive tome is a vast universe of names and publication histories and author-names entirely unknown to the Western reading world. Editor David Wei-Wang pulls together an entire literary landscape of styles, schools, and scholars, and the book not only delves into each of these things in a very readable way but also generates a rather lengthy list of reading suggestions.
6 The Egyptians by Jack Shenker (The New Press) – The slightly haphazard and internationally-visible revolution in Egypt that toppled Mubarak had long and snaking roots and a wide array of complicated aftershocks. Journalist Jack Shenker tells that big story in immense detail and with immense, discerning sympathy.
5 The Death of Expertise by Sam Nichols (Oxford University Press) – This slim, powerful book about the slow, seemingly irreversible strangulation of knowledge in a 21st century saturated with social media and hot takes could easily have been the year’s most annoyingly bitter book, since the flip-side of all that mis-information is the down-grading of experts in public discourse. And Sam Nichols’ book is unavoidably a touch bitter! But it’s also fantastically insightful on the slippery subject of what does doesn’t warrant serious attention in a society where attention has become currency.
4 What Algorithms Want by Ed Finn (MIT Press) – They determine our health care; they set our insurance rates; they time our traffic lights; they shape our reading; they fly our planes; they allow you to read this list … they are algorithms, and in the last couple of years, as more people have become aware of the fact that digital, growing, self-instructing webs of code-work are running more and more aspects of daily life with little or not input from humans, books on algorithms (marketed, distributed, tracked, and often reviewed by algorithms) have become more numerous. This richly textured study by Ed Finn is by far the best of such books that I’ve read so far – so good, in fact, that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if “Ed Finn” were later revealed to be a … well, you know.
3 The Exile by Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy (Bloomsbury) – This big, satisfyingly dense book tells the story of the ten years Osama bin Laden spent in exile, from September 11, 2001 until he was killed by US forces in the dead of night in a Pakistan compound in 2011. The authors dug through every unclassified record and interviewed every living person connected with those long, furtive, often pathetic exile years, and in addition to everything else, they craft a deeply memorable portrait of the loneliness of being a hunted fugitive. In addition to being a veritable seminar in top-level journalism, the book is also an unexpectedly moving psychological study.
2 The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs (Simon & Schuster) – The depressingly regular appearance of cancer memoirs on nonfiction new release tables does nothing at all to diminish either the sweetness of this book by Nina Riggs or its wrenching sadness. Riggs was only in her thirties when she was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her, and the book she wrote before she died is amazing for its honesty and its touching, often goofy humor. Whole long segments of it have haunted me since I first read it last Spring.
1 Golden Legacy by Leonard Marcus (Golden Books) – This utterly delightful history of the Golden Books that have meant so much to so many young readers over the decades might technically also fit under “Best Reprints,” since a version of it was published back in 2007 to mark the 65th anniversary of the phenomenon. But this lovely enhanced new edition, for the 75th anniversary, is “new” enough for me to get away with including it here, as the best nonfiction book of 2017! Here are the stories of all the visionary, hard-working men and women who created the Little Golden Books, all told with a perfect combination of archival research and smiling anecdote, perfect for book-lovers everywhere.