The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2011

2011 was the first year in which I read more new nonfiction than new fiction: the 10 books below are the best of the bunch.  As with albums and songs, declaring the year’s best books is a subjective enterprise, with the added complication that it takes longer to read a book than to listen to a record. Because each of these books accomplishes its mission to inform and inspire, whether on the topic of crime or politics, food or family, I’ve resisted the temptation to rank them beyond alphabetical order. Please add your own reading recommendation in the comments section below and check back this week for the best fiction and poetry book of 2011. Happy reading.

Sarah Burns, The Central Park Five

In the 1980s, the Central Park Jogger case contributed to New York’s image as a city fraught with violence and racial tension. The story seemed simple: a young white woman jogs at night in the park where she nearly bleeds to death after being raped and beaten by a group of minority teenagers. “The Central Park Five” were convicted and served between 7 and 13 years in prison. There was only one problem: they didn’t do it. In brisk and brutal fashion, debut author Burns reconstructs the crime, the investigation, the courtroom drama, and the ultimate exoneration.

Jonathan Dixon, Beaten Seared and Sauced

A struggling Brooklyn writer in his 30’s decides to start over at the prestigious cooking school. Think Bored to Death meets Top Chef.

Andre Dubus III, Townie

The author of House of Sand and Fog writes a haunting and sensitive memoir of boxing, writing, and family, with a focus on his namesake father, the famous writer and serial philanderer. Along with The Duke of Deception and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, this is one of the best father-son stories ever written.

David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

How do baseball players catch fly balls? Is Mel Gibson really Anti-Semitic? Are murderers culpable for their crimes? Did Pink Floyd read Carl Jung? These are some of the questions raised in Incognito, in which Eagleman blends his neuroscientific expertise with his skill as a fiction writer to produce a lively primer on brain science for the layperson. Imagine a talk show hosted by Oliver Sacks and Nick Hornby.

Misha Glenny, Dark Market

Thanks to the relentless march of technology, we can check email in bed, have intercontinental sex on Skype, update our blogs on the street, and even tweet on the toilet. Meanwhile, our personal information and bank accounts are easy targets for anyone with computer savvy and loose ethics. In Dark Market, a veteran investigative reporter offers a fascinating, frightening look at cyber-crime, a subculture that’s “part gangster, part anarchist, part Tolkien.”

Chris Hedges, The Death of the Liberal Class

America is an empire on its deathbed. We wage perpetual wars that profit corporations, bail out billionaires on Wall Street, and leave ordinary people poor and oppressed. We destroy our environment, eviscerate our health-care system, gut public education, segregate our cities, pack our prisons, and sign away our individual freedoms. President Barack Obama is not a beacon of hope, but a “Benetton” version of George W. Bush. We are slaves to a mass culture of illusion, narcissism, and idol worship, a hollow hoopla that dulls our intellect and numbs our social conscience. At this rate, we may be headed for serious social unrest followed by a totalitarian crackdown in the mode of fascist Italy, tsarist Russia, and Nazi Germany. Hedges, a Harvard seminarian turned activist journalist, argues that the destruction of the country has been abetted by the complacency and collusion of the “liberal class,” the once vital and now irrelevant voices in schools, churches, the media, and the arts. 

Janet Malcom, Iphigenia in Forest Hills

Iphigenia has all of the raw material of a classic courtroom drama: a grisly crime, eloquent attorneys, a bombastic judge, and an attractive, enigmatic defendant who seems both guilty and innocent. Mazoltuv Borukhova is a young doctor accused of paying a hit man $20,000 to kill her orthodontist husband after a judge gave him custody of their daughter. Perversely, the fatal shooting occurred in a playground in front of the four-year-old girl.

Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero

This biography is a love letter to JFK, a breezy and breathless account of his transformation from privileged preppie to war hero to senator to the nation’s first Catholic president. Matthews, the well-known broadcaster and author of Kennedy and Nixon, brushes over critiques of Kennedy from the left and the right and focuses instead on his triumphs: from his battle with poor health to his tireless campaigning to his “historic hat trick” of speeches on civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and Berlin. As Matthews writes: “In the time of our greatest peril, at the moment of our ultimate judgment, an American president kept us from the brink, saved us really, kept the smile from being stricken from the planet.” Perhaps given the wealth of material on the subject, Matthews wisely skips the assassination, which he frames with Kennedy’s goals before Dallas and reminiscences of his family and friends.  At the end, he leaves the debatable impression that Kennedy would have somehow avoided the debacle in Vietnam. While there’s little unfamiliar material and plenty that borders on hagiography, Jack Kennedy is a reminder of why the JFK myth has endured for nearly 60 years. (And yes, there’s a chapter entitled “Hardball.”)

Alex Prud’homme, The Ripple Effect

Prud’homme condenses the complex science, politics, history, and economics of water into a brisk polemic for the lay reader. His hydrological quest brings him to mines and salmon spawning grounds in Alaska, river deltas in California, and a subterranean pipe 580 feet below Manhattan. The Ripple Effect shows how decreased water supply, increased population growth, crumbling infrastructure, and climate change have combined with human greed, folly, and wastefulness to lay the groundwork for a global crisis. Unless we radically rethink our relationship to water, he argues, we could face the “primal terror of nothing left to drink.”

Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution

A teenage girl and her Christian boyfriend go to Nicaragua to join the Sandinistas. Obviously this does not work out as planned.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. In 2011, he read 70+ books and finally got a library card.

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