My ninth-grade English teacher told us on the first day of class that we were expected to read at least 25 books that year. Since then, that’s been my de facto benchmark, and though I keep records of what and when I read, the actual number’s not all that important (yeah, I’ve missed it some years). But I also have a thing about always finishing every book I start, so I’ve suffered through some real torturous tomes. With that in mind, a ten-best list of the past year’s reads seemed appropriate. Voilà, the top ten of 2010. (Note: The list is overwhelmingly nonfiction. It was one of those years.)
1.) Blindness, by Jose Saramago. One of the best books I’ve ever read, by a Portuguese author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Citizens of an unnamed city suddenly and arbitrarily become afflicted with white-blindness and are quarantined; the situation degenerates and humans (some of them, anyway) without just one of the five essential senses are revealed as beasts.
2.) The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart. Beinart is an editor at The New Republic and has written an utterly engaging account of twentieth-century American intellectual history—from the “reason reigns supreme” crowd in the Wilson administration to the Containment-era best-and-the-brightest’s “hubris of toughness” to the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration who believed in the infallibility of American political, military and economic might.
3.) The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick. Remnick’s Obama biography stands out as even more stellar when compared to the mediocre attempts to encapsulate the first black president’s life, campaign and first year in office (especially Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, which was altogether mediocre. Just had to throw that in there.)
4.) For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago, by Simon Baatz. I’ve been obsessed with the Leopold and Loeb case ever since I can remember, and devoured this comprehensive narrative of the murder, the confessions, the defense, and the aftermath. For those who don’t know the basics, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were a pair of genius teenagers who bought into Nietzche’s ubermensch complex to the extent that they believed they could commit “the perfect crime” and never get caught. Needless to say, they got caught, thanks to Leopold accidentally dropping his glasses at the scene. They ultimately confessed and pled guilty, and Clarence Darrow saved them from the gallows by mounting the most powerful moral case against the death penalty I’ve ever heard. Before OJ, this case was known as the “trial of the century.” And for a fun-fact-of-the-day, Loeb studied at the University of Michigan (as did I) for a year, and Leopold and Loeb’s robbery of the Sigma Chi fraternity house was the very first crime they committed together.
5.) Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux. I read this African “travelogue” while in Uganda this summer, and liked it mainly because I would never—and I mean never—be willing or even able to replicate his adventures. (For one thing, just being a woman severely limits your options.) He gets a little holier-than-thou sometimes (to quote David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise, Bobos “glide through New Zealand by barge, contemptuous of those who take the train”), but ultimately, his journey across Africa rang beautiful and true.
6.) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. I adore Agatha Christie, but hadn’t read the book that really put her on the map until this year. And the much-touted “surprise ending” for which the book became famous genuinely surprised me. Even Hercule Poirot didn’t annoy me this time. This book rivals And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile for best Agatha Christie novel, IMHO.
7.) The Facebook Effect, by David Kirkpatrick. I find Facebook perhaps unduly fascinating, and when I saw this book on the shelf of a good friend I visited in San Francisco this summer, I decided that constituted the stamp of approval I’d been waiting for :-). If you find Mark Zuckerberg’s personality more grating than charming, you probably won’t enjoy it, but I really did.
8.) The Ghost, by Robert Harris. It’s kind of a schlocky choice, I’ll admit it. But The Ghost Writer was my favorite movie last year and this is the book it was based on. I never thought I’d say this, but the movie was better. That said, I read this book for the entirety of my flight from Dubai to Paris (coming back from a month spent visiting my little brother in Uganda) and never got the urge to sleep once (and I always sleep on planes). In brief, the book is narrated by a British career ghost writer (who remains nameless throughout) hired last-minute, after the suicide of the first guy, to write the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, who’s obviously based on Tony Blair. The ghost writer heads overseas to the former PM’s compound on Martha’s Vineyard and slowly unravels the truth about the death of his predecessor.
9.) How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley. This is only Sloane Crosley’s second book, and if I met her in person I’d probably think she was one of those Westchester princessy types I love to hate, but she can write. And she’s brutally funny. And she’s only a few years older than me and has managed to produce two New York Times bestsellers. And I liked this book even more than her first, which also has a brilliant title (I Was Told There’d Be Cake). So there you go.
10.) When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. A sharp and insightful history of the modern women’s movement. Full disclosure, I am as pro-choice as pro-choice gets, so I immediately shove up on a pedestal any book that underscores just how pivotal a moment the Roe v. Wade decision was for American women. But that aside, I mean, it’s Gail Collins, and anything she writes is worth reading.