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Analyzing the ABBC: Nonfiction 2011

A few weeks ago, I looked at the best received biographies and memoirs of 2011. This week, let’s examine other narrative nonfiction. These results come from the All-the-Best-Books Compilation (ABBC) that you can download in full from my other blogging home, Williamsburg Regional Library’s Blogging for a Good Book, where we’ve just posted version 3.0, which compiles over 60 best-books-of-the-year lists and results. The 2011 ABBC is still a work in progress, and I’ll continue to analyze the results here until the compilation is complete and all of its categories have been highlighted.

Fourth in nonfiction, with 14 mentions to date, is Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. It’s a history of a little remembered time in American history, the first half of the 1880s. Millard covers not only the assassination of President Garfield, but the development of anesthetic and antiseptics, the invention of air conditioning, and the battle to limit the power of corrupt political machines. Millard has been cited for weaving a novel-like tapestry from such historical characters as the self-made Garfield, his wife Lucrezia, the assassin Charles Guiteau, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the arrogant Dr. Bliss, Chester Arthur, and the corrupt Senator Roscoe Conkling.

Tied for fourth is Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It’s a fascinating work of immersive journalism, in which Foer begins by covering the U.S. and World Memory Championships and ends by competing in and winning the American event the following year. Using mnemonic techniques to train a very average memory, Foer proves beyond a doubt that it’s possible to improve the mind’s capabilities with focused training. Along the way, he describes the odd world of memory competition, writes eloquently about the changing ways in which memory has been valued throughout history, and reveals the basics of the classic techniques of building a memory palace.  Book groups will be fascinated as readers question how they might be using and misusing their own brains and analyze this quick-reading pleasure.

James Gleick’s The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood is in third spot, with 15 mentions to date. Gleick’s book is a dense, yet still graceful history of humanity’s efforts to process and transmit information. Gleick weaves the invention of language, alphabets, mathematics, cryptology, computers, and the Internet into one cohesive narrative. Along the way he highlights intriguing historical figures like Charles Babbage, Samuel Morse, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Kurt Godel. The book mixes concepts of hard science, history, and a little bit of theorizing about the future. This one will be a challenge for the typical book group format, but one that rewards the extra effort taken.

Second place is claimed by Stephen Greenblatt and The Swerve: How the World became Modern. It has received 17 best-of-the-year mentions. In a way, it’s an adventure story about the rescue of the last copy of the Roman Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, a philosophical poem that advanced the ideas that the universe functioned without Gods, that religious dogma could be damaging, and that matter is made of ever-colliding particles. The resulting translations would fuel the Renaissance, the ideas of Galileo, Freud, Darwin, and Einstein, and the writings of Montaigne, Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson. While a few have argued that Greenblatt somewhat overclaims the importance of Lucretius, most have marveled at his eloquent depiction of the curiosity-driven book hunting of Poggio Basciolini in a 15th century when his efforts were considered truly heretical by mainstream thinkers. Relatively brief, this book should be full of new revelations for all but the most diligent classical and renaissance scholars.

Atop this year’s compilation is a familiar face, Erik Larson. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin has received 19 best-of-the-year mentions to date. It’s the story of a somewhat typical American family transported to Berlin when professor William Dodd was named Ambassador to Germany during the period of Hitler’s rise to absolute power. Dodd would try to warn the stuffy, cliquish, and anti-Semitic State Department from which he came about rising danger to Jews, while his young divorced daughter became enamored of the New Germany with its handsome, hard working Aryans and began a series of affairs with prominent Nazis.  Her view would only change as horrific evidence mounted. Tension rises, culminating in Larson’s suspenseful depiction of the Night of Long Knives when Hitler disposed of many rivals and enemies. As always, Larson does a magnificent job of personalizing history, using real-world characters as viewpoints to help readers understand how something as horrifying as the Third Reich could rise to power without significant international opposition.

Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Mitchel Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La, Adam Hochschild’ s WWI history To End All Wars, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection Pulphead, Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend, and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: the Biography are only a few mentions behind and may yet crack the top five. Download the full spreadsheet to see all of the results in this and other categories.

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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).

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