I’ve spent close to two decades delivering top 10 lists of my favorite nonfiction adult titles to SLJ readers—but this year, we’re trying something new. I’ve invited nine noted librarians, reviewers, authors, and publishing folks to weigh in on the best books they’ve read for pleasure in 2011.
These experts have come up with a wonderful mix of titles (including one novel) that are sure to inspire, educate, and delight—whether it’s John Bingham’s funny and courageous memoir, an exploration of human memory, a commentary on the joys of reading, a richly researched account of abolitionist John Brown’s role in the Civil War, or an intimate portrait of JFK through the eyes of his widow…. Best of all, there’s something for everyone.
Bingham, John. An Accidental Athlete: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Middle Age. VeloPress, dist. by Ingram. 200p. ISBN 978-1-93403-073-8. $16.95.
Though it’s not an exercise manual, a diet guide, or a weight loss strategy, this warm memoir can help you become healthier in body, and especially in spirit, through exercise. Once an overweight chain smoker, longtime Runner’s World columnist Bingham became an unlikely hero to middle-agers everywhere. Built for comfort, not for speed, Bingham doesn’t win checkered flags or break records, but he’s got 45 marathons and countless other short distance races under his belt. Why? For the sheer joy of it. His infectious enthusiasm for running can inspire you to enjoy and celebrate your life with every step, mile, or race you run.
Doug Lord, longtime Library Journal contributor, is an Ironman athlete. Check out his column, Books for Dudes, at Library Journal’s electronic newsletter BookSmack!
Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Penguin Press. 307p. ISBN 978-1-59420-229-2. $26.95.
In 2005, science journalist Foer covered a bizarre annual contest called the U.S. Memory Championship, thinking it would be the Super Bowl of savants. But he soon discovered that the contestants were mere mortals who had trained themselves to remember by using ancient techniques that just about anyone can learn. Under the tutelage of Ed Cooke, a grand master of memory, Foer wound up entering the contest a year later—and winning. (He used a mnemonic, Moonwalking with Einstein, to help him memorize a shuffled deck of playing cards.) During the year of testing, training, and researching, Foer mastered the ages-old secret to remembering any piece of information fast—by building a “memory palace” to house associated images. Foer’s book explores the how and why of human memory both as the focus of his own experiment and as a journalist, sharing what he learned from scientists, educators, and amnesiacs alike. His “unforgettable” story coaches readers that we too can do whatever we set our minds to and celebrates the untapped potential of the human computer in our age of external hard drives.
Angelina Benedetti manages three libraries for Washington’s King County Library System and is the voice of “35 Going On 13,” Library Journal’s online column for adult readers of books for teens. She is the recipient of the 2011 Allie Beth Martin Award for her contribution to public libraries.
Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. Henry Holt. 384p. ISBN 978-0-80509-153-3. $29.
When I was a manuscripts librarian working with American historical diaries and letters, I felt that I could hear the voices of the diarists and letter writers calling back and forth to one another across time. But in too many published history books it isn’t easy to hear those real voices. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Horwitz’s book is a gift. It’s not just a riveting narrative about violent abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, VA—a threshold moment that may have led the North and South quicker to Civil War—it’s a time machine by which we hear Brown himself. That’s because Horwitz’s approach is not one of “I, the writer” but of “he, the subject.” We encounter Brown the radical, the promulgator of murder, but also the boy mourning his pet squirrel, the husband, the father of 20, the failed businessman, the friend of the intellectual elite. When YA readers gets glassy-eyed from an assigned history book (we’ve all been there), here’s the solution: they should poke around the library and find another book that enchants on the required topic. For the years leading up to the Civil War, they can witness Midnight Rising and be enthralled.
After 16 years as a manuscripts curator and librarian, Margaret Heilbrun joined Library Journal in 2005, where she is now a book review senior editor, overseeing subject areas across the humanities and social sciences—plus sports and gardening.
Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford University Press. 176p. ISBN 978-0-19974-749-8 $19.95.
With too many books, too little time, why would any of us want to buy a book about reading? But I had to get this little gem when the flap copy revealed that Jacobs, a scholar I appreciated after encountering his engaging bio, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (HaperOne, 2005), shared my concern that the future may be plagued by a diminished ability to enjoy “long-form” narrative. Through his engaging series of “short–form” essays, I found my love for and appreciation of reading reborn. Jacobs rejects the stale, prescriptive instructions of Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book and instead embraces Walter Kirn’s impulse to “read at whim” as both a cause for joy and a road map to lifelong enjoyment. Librarians will appreciate his explicit permission to stop reading when a book stops engaging you (a practice anathema to the tenacious). Recounting his rereading of Anna Karenina, Jacobs reminds us that a book resonates differently with each reading because we—not the book—have changed over time. What about the shift to digital books? Recent adoptees of ebooks will appreciate that Jacobs’s Kindle habit has enhanced his concentration—and reinvigorated his pleasure reading.
Barbara A. Genco spent almost 35 years at New York’s Brooklyn Public Library, 25 of them in collection development. Today she’s Library Journal’s manager of special projects—and still doesn’t have enough time to read.
Kennedy, Caroline. Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. Intro and annotations by Michael Beschloss. Illus. with set of eight CDs. Hyperion. 400p. ISBN 978-1-40132-425-4. $60.
Jacqueline Kennedy courageously granted a series of interviews to historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in 1964 while still mourning the loss of her beloved husband, coping with the abrupt dismantling of her life, and preparing to raise two young children on her own. The tapes of those sessions were then sealed and later deposited in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Now, their daughter, Caroline Kennedy, has published the recordings and transcripts to coincide with the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s inauguration, giving us a rare, firsthand glimpse into the personal stories behind the public personae and political events that formed our country from 1953 to 1963. Through Jackie’s eyes we see JFK as a curious and voracious reader, a decisive leader, and an “idealist without illusions.” We see him as a self-confident, but not egocentric man, who related to everyone easily and valued his wife, children, and family life. This book and eight CDs bring a critical phase of American history to life—for those who lived through it and for those who have only a hazy idea of the Camelot years.
Barbara Stripling, former director of library services for the New York City schools, recently joined the faculty of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and is a candidate for American Library Association president.
Makkai, Rebecca. The Borrower: A Novel. Viking. 336p. ISBN 978-0-67002-281-6. $25.95.
Armed with a degree in English and without any formal library education, Lucy Hull supervises the children’s room at Missouri’s Hannibal Public Library. Despite her lack of credentials (everyone refers to her as the children’s librarian), there’s plenty of trouble in River City headed her way. Enter Ian Drake, an inquisitive 10-year-old who reads voraciously and enthusiastically participates in Lucy’s old-fashioned programming, which seems to consist exclusively of story and craft hours. His mother, a Christian Fundamentalist, knows precisely what Ian should read: books with “the breath of God in them.” But clever Ian knows how to get around his mother’s dictates: he finds refuge in the library stacks. Add to this mix the possibility that Ian is gay; his parents have enrolled him in weekly antigay classes with celebrity Pastor Bob. Convinced that Ian’s parents are stifling his intellect and identity, Lucy finds herself increasingly drawn to the boy. Makkai carefully builds the backstory, so that when Ian runs away from home, readers have to make only a small leap to understand that Lucy will aid his escape. Through smart thematic connections, references to children’s books appear naturally, making way for a forceful concluding message that reading has an enduring presence and power in our lives.
Betty Carter is a former reading teacher, middle school librarian, and professor of children’s and young adult literature. She now reviews for The Horn Book.
Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. Random. 656p. ISBN 978-0-67945-672-8. $35.
Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra consumed my 13th year, and I’m very happy to report that the Pulitzer Prize winner’s new biography of Russia’s longest-ruling female leader is doing the same for my 55th. While the books and their subjects inextricably inform one another, they are very different. Nicholas and Alexandra recounted the end of an empire and destruction of a family; Catherine the Great, on the other hand, got pretty much everything she wanted, whether it was the expansion of the Russian Empire’s borders or the creation of the era’s richest collection of art (Catherine built the Hermitage) or the friendship of such Enlightenment leaders as Voltaire and Diderot. She had three children, perhaps none by her hapless husband, and an almost continuous stream of lovers, dispatching one kindly and with gifts before taking on another. When it came to ruling, she did it Her Way: asked by her adult son Paul for more governmental responsibility, she replied, “I do not think your entrance into the Council would be desirable. You must be patient until I change my mind.” Massie gracefully moves between considerations of Catherine’s life and character and the political and military changes that were reshaping Europe during the last quarter of the 18th century. He is never stodgy but always dignified, carefully illuminating the facts so that readers can discover for themselves just what a badass Catherine really was.
Roger Sutton has spent the last 15 years as editor-in-chief of The Horn Book. Follow him on Twitter @RogerReads.
McCloskey, Jane. Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures. Smith/Kerr Associates. 256p. ISBN 978-0978689964 $24.95.
For all fans of Robert McCloskey’s books, this memoir by his younger daughter reveals much about the illustrator and author that few really knew—and presents 50 magnificent pieces of art rarely seen by anyone outside the family. The reclusive, two-time Caldecott winner never talked much about himself, but Jane vividly recounts the family’s peripatetic wanderings through Maine, New York state, and Taxco, Mexico. Jane comes to terms with some of the darker sides of her father’s personality—his psychological breakdown in Mexico and the suspicion that he identified other artists as possible Communists during the McCarthy years. Although readers may want to pick up Gary Schmidt’s Robert McCloskey for a fuller biographical treatment, this book leaves readers with a lot to think about as they look at McCloskey’s idyllic portraits of family life in his One Morning in Maine and Blueberries for Sal. Like many other creators, McCloskey may have envisioned his books not about the way things were, but about the way he would have liked them.
Anita Silvey, creator of the online Book-a-Day Almanac, is the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book and 100 Best Books for Children.
Theoharis, Athan. Abuse of Power: How Cold War Surveillance and Secrecy Policy Shaped the Response to 9/11. Temple University Press. 232p. ISBN 978-1-43990-6651 $29.95.
Theoharis, a professor emeritus of history at Marquette University, sums up 40 years of scholarly work in this investigation into the dark history of the FBI. Through endless diligence, he’s cracked some of the deliberately byzantine and misleading naming and filing practices of the Hoover-era FBI and shows us how the same kinds of rhetoric, deception, and abuse of power can, and have, extended to the present. This is a look back that makes you look up, look around, and pay attention. It’s necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand the 20th century, but it’s equally important for alert citizens in the post-9/11 era. As we saw during the dark days of the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act, government agencies, which saw no problem setting their sights on libraries, were more eager to gather information than to protect individual intellectual freedom. Librarians resisted that pressure, as they did the loyalty oath, the Red Scare pressure of the ’50s. That’s something to be proud of—and as Theoharis shows, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Marc Aronson teaches in the MLIS program at Rutgers University. His Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies will be published next spring. Aronson blogs for SLJ at Nonfiction Matters.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). University of California Press. 280p. ISBN: 978-0-52027-289-7. $26.95.
What impact have Google’s algorithms and intentions had on our lives as citizens and users of information? Vaidhyanathan, chair of the department of media studies at the University of Virginia, warns us of our own culpability in relying exclusively on Google as a search engine and Web interpreter. In fact, he’s pretty adamant about how extreme the company’s influence has become—we open our lives to it in ways we don’t to even our close friends and family. “Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world.” The author, a huge fan of our profession (“This book, like all my work, is a love song to all the libraries and librarians I have known”), also cautions that Google is usurping the role of libraries. We should be concerned, he says, about the threat the search engine posed in its zeal to digitize every book ever published and to make them available in our libraries as Google outlets. The Google Books Project was put in limbo in March 2011 when a federal judge rejected a $125-million legal settlement the company had worked out with authors and publishers, but the giant isn’t going away. My question to you is, what are we doing to do about that?
Gina Millsap is chief executive officer of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. A Library Journal Mover and Shaker, Millsap is a current candidate for president of the American Library Association.