With the end of 2012 a few days away, I’m sitting at my laptop and trying to decide which books, out of all the ones I read over the course of the year, did I enjoy the most. To be brutally honest, this annual ritual is never easy. While there’s always books that blew me away from the beginning, there’s always a few that I didn’t fully appreciate ’til months after I read them. And there’s always one or two that for whatever reason or reasons, came up a just a bit short.
By now most of you know the drill; unlike the usual year-end “best of” lists compiled by professional reviewers, my list includes any exceptional books I read over the course of the year, regardless of when the book was published. (This practice seems near-universal among book bloggers. For example, check out one of Kim’s year-end lists at her blog Sophisticated Dorkiniess.) Also, these books tend to reflect my, um, “unique” reading tastes. While those tastes might not be completely mainstream, I can take comfort in the words of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Enough jabber, on to the list.
- Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife by Lisa Miller – The perfect mix of scholarship and pop culture. Excels both in scope and depth. Plus, the author got to hang out with David Byrne.
- A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home by Steve Pemberton – This memoir sucked me in BIG TIME. I found myself glued to it almost nonstop as I sat on my couch reading it. A breezy yet powerful read.
- Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach – Her 2008 book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex made my 2010 best of list and two years later Roach’s Stiff makes my list. Who thought dead bodies could be so interesting?
- Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secret Religion by Janet Reitman – This book will blow your mind. Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction was right.
- Holy War: How Vasco de Gama’s Epic Voyage Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations by Nigel Cliff – Fast paced, detailed and fun to read. One of the most readable history books I’ve encountered in a long time. The perfect book to read along side Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power and Christiane Bird’s The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West.
- Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart Ehrman – Methodical and intelligent but at the same time even-handed and accessible. Recommended to traditionalists and modernists alike.
- Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally by Marcus Borg – Just like Ehrman, Borg has the gift of taking all that high highfalutin scholarly stuff and making it understandable and fun to read for those of us who aren’t academics.
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson – One of those “big picture” kind of books that tries to explain why some counties(usually in the West) are rich while others are poor. Considering both authors are economists, I’m surprised this book is so readable.
- God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead – Another one of those big picture books and just like Why Nations Fail, it also tries to answer that same kinda question. According to Mead the answer has much to do with historical factors particular to the Anglo-American experience.
- The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin – A terrific “insider’s/outsider’s” detailed look at the painful, bloody and tragic implosion of the African nation of Zimbabwe. Thank you Fresh Air for bringing this book to my attention.
There you have it. Just like in past years, while some of these books I originally heard of thanks to print media, bloggers, NPR and the Quality Paperback Book Club; when it comes to a few of these books I have my local public library to thank. Had it not been for the good people at the Multnomah Country Library I might never have discovered, let alone had the opportunity to read A Chance in the World, Did Jesus Exist?, Holy War and God and Gold.
Of course in life we must take the bad along with the good. While last year I didn’t give an award for the year’s worst book, this year is another story. Unfortunately that unenviable distinction goes to Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt: The God Question. Poorly conceived, poorly edited, pretentious and grouchy this book had tons of potential. Sadly, with Bugliosi calling the shots it was all wasted.
That’s all for now. If this is my last post before the end of the year I wish all of you a happy and prosperous 2013.