Everyone has been talking about what a great year it was for fiction, but nonfiction had its stars as well. Amid a number of glorious blockbusters — the kind of books, like Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree” or Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” that marry daunting amounts of reporting and research with gorgeous, novelistic prose — were dozens of smaller gems. In fact, smallness itself seems to be a growing trend in nonfiction, whether in a venerable series such as Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction books or in newer forms, particularly the brief paperback originals that accompany or follow e-books. We will see more of these, especially in narrative nonfiction, as the boundaries between print and online publishing continue to soften.
Another trend this year saw those gee-whiz books centering on neuroscience looking a little less fresh; what we want now, it seems, is more philosophy. Perhaps it was ever thus, as scientific advances leave us wondering what really matters in a life where, increasingly, anything seems possible. The last few years have seen a flood of books about how our brains are wired; the next will likely have us reading (and thinking) more about what our hearts need. In no particular order, here are the books from 2012 that profoundly engaged both heart and mind.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
By Andrew Solomon (Scribner)
Solomon spent a decade talking with families where parents and children have had to confront difference (and often disability), then forged what he calls their “epic narratives of resilience” into this thoughtful, resonant book. It may change how you think about what makes a family, what makes a life; it will certainly move you.
Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood
By Anne Enright (Norton)
On a much smaller scale, the Irish novelist Enright dives deeply into her own experiences as a mother. Fearless and funny, she gets at what is terrifying and infuriating about having babies, how hard it is on mothers — “[w]omen come back from childbearing like Arctic explorers,” she says — but also marvels in motherhood’s power: “I had, I thought, become human in a different and perhaps more radical way.”
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution
By Linda R. Hirshman (Harper)
The year 2013 will see a Supreme Court ruling on at least some aspects of same-sex marriage, a social shift that seems unimaginable when you read about the lives of gay rights pioneers chronicled in Hirshman’s book. Smart and snappy, the book explores how social movements can nudge the arc of history toward justice — from a time when gay people were seen as “sinful, criminal, crazy, and treasonous” to one in which they increasingly find acceptance and welcome.
All We Know: Three Lives
By Lisa Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
An extraordinarily astute triptych, this book paints the portrait of three women who lived at the edge of fame: writer Esther Murphy,
fashion editor Madge Garland, and celebrity confidant Mercedes de Acosta. Each was an original, sui generis, yet all three shared what Cohen calls “the socially inopportune ardor of one woman for another,” and each served in some way as “a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality, and triviality.”
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa
By Steve Kemper (Norton)
An elegant, richly rewarding book chronicling Heinrich Barth’s journey through North and Central Africa, from Tripoli south through the desert to the great Islamic empires. It’s also an astute character study of an explorer out of step with his fellow Europeans. For those with colonial ambitions, Africa was a blank slate to be tamed; for Barth, it was “a vibrant multidimensional place with a long and complex cultural history worth studying.”
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
By Anthony Shadid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died earlier this year while reporting from Syria. We are fortunate to have this memoir, published soon after his death, to testify to the beauty and complexity of the region he understood and loved. This memoir of Shadid’s return to his ancestral home in small-town Lebanon is lyrical and hard-nosed, tinged with both love and sadness for a shattered land.
From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed (Knopf)
After the death of her mother — “the apparently magical force at the center of our family” — and the collapse of her marriage, Strayed set off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a mountainous path from Mexico to Canada. Strayed’s account of her journey is at times comical (she’s nearly bested by her enormous backpack, nicknamed Monster), at other times painfully honest.
The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
By Gilbert King (Harper)
King unfurls a taut, harrowing narrative of three black men, a rape accusation, and a racist white sheriff in post-war Florida. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyers who came to Florida to defend the so-called Groveland Boys weren’t just fighting for legal and civil rights, they were often fighting for their lives, under the same threat their black clients faced.
Haiti: The Aftershocks of History
By Laurent Dubois (Metropolitan)
When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, a worldwide outpouring of prayers, donations, and charitable help came bundled with news coverage that stressed the country’s difficult history. As Dubois makes clear in his passionate history of Haiti, the tendency of outsiders to express “overwhelmingly hostile and distorted views” of the country is nothing new.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power
By Robert A. Caro (Knopf)
The fourth in a planned five volumes telling the story of our 36th president, this one starts as the 1960 election is gearing up and ends after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, when LBJ has ascended to the office. Elegantly written and — it’s fair to say — obsessively researched, Caro’s political biography shows how vastly personality influences policy.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo (Random House)
Boo’s book demonstrates the converse of Caro’s: the power of political and economic landscapes to limit individual lives. It’s difficult to imagine a more constrained set of opportunities than those faced by the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport; Boo’s compassionate reporting and story telling reveal the richness of life even in this hopeless place.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.