In no particular order, here are the best books I read this year. You’ll notice some are reissues and some are from previous years; this is more of a survey of my favorite reads than anything pretending to be comprehensive of the literary scene in 2009.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter (NYRB Classics)
A beat book before the Beats. Thrilling reading, tragic characters, and every conceivable mid-century American taboo deftly covered through the prism of the down-and-out crowd.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon)
The best graphic novel in ages. I thought this would top everyone’s lists this year, but it remains sadly underrated. Supposedly Mazzucchelli spent ten years working his tale of a failed architect and professor in the post-divorce doldrums. To be read and reread and reread.
The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control by Ted Striphas (Columbia University Press)
There may be a limited audience for this one, but if you’re a bookseller or publisher, it’s a foundational text. Striphas’ academic eye means he’s much more logical about books and the industry, free of vestigial attitudes and traditions. The section on the Great Depression alone will disabuse anyone who thinks the good old days in publishing were ones of principle and high culture.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I typically detest short fiction collections. They’re a meal of appetizers when so often I just want steak. Wells Tower’s debut collection proved the exception to the rule, bringing a muscular absurdity (does that make sense?) to capturing America. Where George Saunders goes for satire, Tower goes for pathos. Where David Foster Wallace goes for maximalism, Tower goes for succinctness. But don’t take my word for it: a bunch of his stories are free online and can be found here.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon)
I can’t believe I went so long without reading Geoff Dyer. My envy for his writing gifts and life are so strong it’s almost difficult to enjoy his work. Almost. I somehow managed to love his bipolar novel of the British bourgeoisie abroad, mixing art with sybaritism in Italy and then disappearing into austerity in India.
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
(I apologize for the sports metaphor in advance.) You don’t need to hit a grand slam when a solid home run will do. Whitehead’s book wasn’t epic, it wasn’t a cultural critique; its characters and setting were so affecting, it’s language so pitch-perfect, it could just be what it was. Which ended up making the novel great in the end.
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody (Metropolitan Books)
I have problems with Godard. Pretty much everyone does. Brody doesn’t fall into the trap of analyzing what Godard “means” to cinema. Instead he writes a thorough account of the man’s life and work, tracing out what it means to be an artist in the modern age. (Hint: it means you’re broke sometimes and often people hate you.)
The Best Technology Writing 2009 Edited by Steven Johnson (Yale University Press)
Thank Steven Johnson for sifting through the mountain of information to curate the most thought-provoking content. Light, compelling, and endlessly fascinating.
Dark Property: An Affliction by Brian Evenson (Four Walls Eight Windows)
If Cormac McCarthy read science fiction? Maybe. I’d like to think Evenson’s in a class of his own, impossible to categorize or even summarize. Like Beckett, but with an even larger vocabulary.
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead)
This one sounded boring. The setting. The back cover copy. I put it off and put it off. Then I read the first few pages and I was hooked. In the gulf between American comfort and war-torn Bosnia (which could stand for the entire realm of conflict zones), Hemon negotiates the two worlds with maturity and wit. The best fiction figures out the world. Hemon does it with such subtlety and empathy he makes it seem effortless.
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (Plume)
The opposite of The Lazarus Project. Fraser’s 1969 book is the first in a series about Harry Flashman, a 19th century British military hero who only removes his silver spoon to yell at foreigners or flirt with women. He falls backward into the major events of history like a Forrest Gump steeped in “White Man’s Burden” and a mercenary self-interest.
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I should have been a philosophy major. Or pre-law. Something. Reading Sandel’s book is like opening your eyes to the beauty of civic duty, or debating things that matter. Fitting, since his Harvard course is the most attended one on campus. This is intelligent debate about moral philosophy outside of partisanship. Which in 2009 wasn’t just refreshing, it was cause for hope.