Thursday, December 29, 2011
My best non-fiction reads of 2011
Now it is time for my annual best reads lists of 2011. I will choose from just two categories this year - fiction and non-fiction, beginning here with non-fiction. I read 25 works of non-fiction including the genres of memoir, science, and history/politics. I won't count re-reads, such as two works of Joan Didion's I revisited, as they were re-read because they are favorites. The original reviews are linked to each title, although I excerpt them below. The most memorable given these criteria were:
Survival in Auschwitz - Primo Levi
In 1943 Italian chemist Primo Levi, a Jew, was captured by the Fascist Militia and eventually transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he somehow survived until the end of World War II. His Survival in Auschwitz, written just a year later, is, on its surface, a remarkably dispassionate document. It records the conditions under which he and his fellow inmates lived to remind the German people, he wrote in his first preface to the book, what they had done, and it is a portrait of people in extremis - what occupies their thoughts, their code of behavior, how they survive, and how they die. To accomplish this he circumscribes the scope of his job (like any good artist)...The way Levi sets his limits allows him to think enough to engage in the act of writing and permits us the possibility of reading it without simply contemplating a void of infinite horror.
The Mind's Eye - Oliver Sacks
Each chapter in this latest collection focuses on a person whose visual system is somehow compromised or enhanced. ..The characters of The Mind's Eye include a pianist who loses the ability to read music, a mystery writer who looses the ability to read words (but not to write them), and several people who are selectively blind for faces but not necessarily for other classes of objects...Whether exploring case studies, the evolution of neuroscience, or more recent avances, Sacks's writing is probing, accessible, and humane in The Mind's Eye.
The Beak of the Finch - Jonathan Weiner
...a rich book detailing the work that evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have done on the Galapagos Islands. They have observed Darwin's theory of natural selection play out again and again and, in some cases, even observed how new species evolve, by watching the islands' famous finches...Aside from the pleasure of his lucid writing, Weiner elucidates the development of Darwin's own thinking as well as integrating his original work with that of contemporary scientists observing the forces of evolution in action. This book makes plain the great theory's relevance to the natural world in which we live and also reveals the unbelievable drudgery of painstaking observational field work.
The Emperor - Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Emperor (1978) was Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's first book. It is a distinctive blend of political writing, razor sharp psychological portraiture via oral history, and prose that achieves lyricism. It's three brief sections describe the absurd class structure of Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie, Emperor from the 1930s to the 1970s, the foment of rebellion against it, and its eventual downfall, not exactly the expected forum for poetical insight.
The Memory Chalet - Tony Judt
While reading this as the literate reflection of a thinker about history, politics, and class I could not help also seeing it as a metaphor for a free thinker subjected to the tyranny of physical paralysis. I tore through the 200-plus pages of these succinct, erudite and moving essays. I cannot advocate strongly enough for The Memory Chalet as a rich reading experience
These five books were each memorable for their skill at immersing the reader in a world not our own. Sometimes the focus was more on imparting information and other times evoking experience but Tony Judt's memoir The Memory Chalet was remarkable for the way it integrated these two functions completely while making the reading of the prose urgent. It is a stand-out among all the books I read this year.