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Best of 2010 Megalist: Top 11 Narrative Nonfiction

The fourth, and near final update of the 2010 Megalist, my compiled spreadsheet of all the major best-of-the-year lists and awards nominees, was posted for download today. The Megalist now includes 121 different sources and 1,925 different books. Download a copy (in Excel) to see which sources voted for each of these titles.

Today, I’d like to highlight the top ten vote-getters in the narrative nonfiction category. This does not include works of biography or memoir, which I’ll cover in a future post.

1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (42 votes to date)

Skloot’s debut is the only rival to Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom (46 votes to date) for the title of best reviewed book of the year. It chronicles the afterlife of a poor mother of five who died young in 1951, but whose cells proved to be hardy in the lab, resulting in their use in numerous experiments and medical discoveries. It’s a mix of biography, science, detective work, and family story. More than that, it’s clearly a labor of love.

2.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (28 votes to date)

Wilkerson blends the detailed story of three immigrants with her broad study of six million African-Americans who headed north or west to escape the Jim Crow south. The product of ten years of work and over 1,200 interviews, the effort is matched by the prose in a remarkable book.

3. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis (23 votes)

In a year where finance was the most popular nonfiction subject of all, Lewis is the top vote getter. He blends the personal histories of several Wall Street outsiders with his overview of the greed, bad loans, and bad investments that led to the collapse.

4. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (21 votes to date)

It’s a big subject–the history of a disease that kills 7 million people a year and its many treatments–and Mukherjee is up to the challenge in his debut. Blending science, sociology, medical ethics, exciting research stories, and tales of medicine gone too far, this book creates a comprehensive view of the big C from the perspectives of both doctors and patients.

5. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman (16 votes to date)

Graced with a wonderful graphic art cover, Batuman’s book blends travelogue, memoir, and tales of academia with literary scholarship. Compiled from a series of popular magazine articles, The Possessed has humor, pathos, and plenty of surprises.

6 (tie). The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant (15 votes to date)

We continue the Russian-themed section of our list with Vaillant’s account of the clash of Siberian tigers and impoverished people in a remote area  of northeastern Russia. Conservation, economics, and politics all combine in this exciting microcosmic tale of the showdown between humans and nature.

6 (tie). Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier (15 votes)

The chronicler of the vast, barren spaces returns with tales of the tragic and bitter climes of Siberia. But Frazier finds humor too, with his sometimes timid approach to travel. He blends in stories drawn from history back to Genghis Khan and up to the modern day.

8. War, by Sebastian Junger (13 votes)

In a year where war books took a drastic dip, Junger still found readers and fans with his account of his fourteen months spent embedded with the 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan. Junger focuses on the personal rather than the political, looking in depth at the men with whom he shared combat and the many aspects of their experience.

9 (tie). Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler (11 votes to date)

Following the Great Wall across the north in an epic journey, Hessler’s third book about China is his best yet. He writes about the growth of car culture, industrialization, and changes in ancient ways of village life, finding the perfect stories with which to make his arguments.

9 (tie). Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides (11 votes)

One of our great nonfiction writers turns in another strong book, contrasting the iconic civil rights leader with his loner assassin, James Earl Ray, and telling a great true-crime story about the FBI’s manhunt.

9 (tie). Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach (11 votes)

The maestra of funny footnotes returns to her popular science beat with this account of how people fare during space travel. Mixing clever trivia and cheeky humor with big questions, Roach finds the humanity in the vast landscape and technology mecca of space.

Those are just the first eleven of 421 (!) books that made this part of the Megalist spreadsheet. Visit my other blogging home, Williamsburg Regional Library’s Blogging for a Good Book, to download the whole list and find dozens of other titles that would serve book groups well. I’ll be back next week to report on the top biographies and memoirs in this year’s list.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Best of 2010 Megalist: Top 11 Narrative Nonfiction"

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  1. This is such a great list – thanks for sharing these. I’ve read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and really enjoyed it. The story is so fascinating and unique. Another good non-fiction read you might enjoy is called, Major Dream: From Immigrant Housemaid to Harvard Ph.D. by Jin Kyu Robertson, Ph.D. Her story is very inspiring as she has overcome domestic violence and achieved the American Dream. What amazes me is how she started out working in a factory then moving forward and becoming a U.S. Army Major before earning her degree at Harvard.

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