Best Books of 2011

Slate writers and editors pick their favorites.

1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart
The most brilliant passage I read this year was about beards. Specifically, about the beards that American men wore before the Civil War—John Brown beards, Old Testament beards, perhaps the greatest flourishing of facial hair in world history. In 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart explains how these beards embodied—embarbered?—the political divisions that would ignite the Civil War, how in both South and North, facial hair signaled the ruthless nationalism and uncompromising idealism that led to war. 1861 is a perfect book of popular history: It sketches vivid characters and recounts astonishing adventures—you won’t believe the story of the Union general who accidentally ended slavery—and it flashes with unexpected and brilliant insights about everything from Abraham Lincoln to beards (to Abraham Lincoln’s beard).
David Plotz, editor

Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
In a world oversaturated with food memoirs, Gabrielle Hamilton transcends the genre’s clichés to build a compelling and vivid portrait of her life. From her close-knit family’s disintegration, to searching for her own edgy independence as a starving backpacker wandering Europe, to ultimately landing as a feted New York chef, food plays the role of an eloquent narrative device rather than the overhyped entrée. The writing is so beautiful you’ll want to stop to read it out loud, but Hamilton is so upfront about her passionate and sometimes unhinged behavior you won’t be able to stop reading.
Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor


Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion has made a career of offering readers quiet surprises: the cultural skepticism of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the self-exposure of The White Album, the ambitious analysis of After Henry and Political Fictions, and, this past decade, the literary grieving of The Year of Magical Thinking. In certain ways, though, her new book, Blue Nights, marks the most unexpected turn so far. Using grief over her daughter’s death as point of entry to her anxieties late in life, Didion confronts not just her own frailty but (as I wrote elsewhere) the long and swerving arc of her creative career. The results are haunting. Blue Nights let us see something that readers aren’t often allowed to see: a writer calling her own choices into question, a relentless cultural critic turning an unsqueamish eye on her own life. Didion seems to think she’s entering her final act, and if that’s true (or even if not), it is hard to imagine a better run to the finale.
Nathan Heller, “Assessment” columnist

Bossypants, by Tina Fey
As a sarcastic, glasses-wearing twentysomething woman, I am, of course, a little in love with Tina Fey. Though the cynic in me can appreciate the criticisms of Fey (she is, of course, far too conventionally attractive for the unceasing “Liz Lemon is ugly” story lines in 30 Rock), I’ve not bothered trying to buck the convention.  I want to be her when I grow up. Given that ambition, I was pleased when Bossypants turned out to be a self-help guide in disguise. In between anecdotes about Second City and landing 30 Rock, Fey delivers cheerful lectures about being an overeager and slightly awkward woman in the workplace, parenting, and weight loss/gain. “We should leave people alone about their weight,” she writes. “Being chubby for a while (provided you don’t give yourself diabetes) is a natural phase of life and nothing to be ashamed of. Like puberty or slowly turning into a Republican.” Such words of wisdom inspired me to pay the extra $1 to get Bossypants in hardcover form instead of digital.
Torie Bosch, “Future Tense” editor

Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Andrew Ferguson
Andrew Ferguson is one of the slyest, wisest, most hilarious commentators on the political and cultural scene. (See his devastating dissection of Washington ambition, or his analysis of Newt Gingrich’s dreadful oeuvre. ) I would read him on anything, but since I have a daughter in high school I was delighted when Ferguson turned his gimlet eye on the madness of college admissions in his book Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. Ferguson uses his teenage son’s search for a thick envelope from a prestige school as the spine of his look at the college admissions industry—an industry of that is based on breakdown-inducing levels of status anxiety.  There are many marvelous set pieces in the book, from the near insurrection of Asian parents demanding a Harvard admissions officer tell them how much of an advantage being a Harvard legacy confers (a whopping one), to Ferguson’s ego-crushing attempt to complete the math portion of the SAT as an act of solidarity with his son.  Ferguson’s teenager ratchets up his father’s fretfulness when he does such things as read Mad magazine at a college fair or wear a UVA sweatshirt to an interview at Georgetown.  Letting you know it all ends well will not ruin your pleasure in joining Ferguson on this journey.
—Emily Yoffe,” Dear Prudence” columnist

A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin
I read a lot of terrific books this year—gripping novels, comprehensive biographies, shattering memoirs, inventive comics. But if I’m going to be honest, the literary world that most consumed my time and imaginative energy in 2011 was Westeros, the land exhaustively chronicled by George R.R. Martin in his series of fantastically successful doorstops, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” I spent the summer marching slowly through the first four novels and cracked open the most recent tome in September. Preparing to read one of these books is like setting off for war; my mind and schedule must be as uncluttered as possible, my body fit enough to lug around a six-pound monster indefinitely. I find myself reading essentially in the dark. Who is this new character and why does she matter? Why are the Dornishmen important? Where are the Iron Islands? Which one is Skahaz mo Kandaq and which one is Reznak mo Reznak?  It’s an extraordinarily dense reading experience, as challenging a narrative as I’ve ever immersed myself in—so pleasurable on a page-by-page basis, even if I will go 40 pages without knowing who exactly I’m reading about. I’m on page 658. I may never finish.
Dan Kois, senior editor

Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, by Paul Shaw
This beautiful book tells the story of the signs that line New York’s subway stations. In the early years, a clamor of wild mosaics directed passengers to 28th Street or South Ferry while porcelain enamel plaques warned people not to “meddle” with the escalators. Some signs used typefaces with serifs. Others went for a bold, blocky look. There were so many signs, of so many types, that stations became confusing to navigate, and by the 1950s citizens were submitting unsolicited plans to the city in an effort to clean up the visual mess. Eventually, the MTA rolled out the clean design used today, a uniform sign system that features the typeface Helvetica. (You may remember it had a cameo in Gary Hustwit’s popular documentary about the font.) But making that change was anything but easy.

In a masterful piece of reporting—one that reveals as much about the perils and pleasures of urban bureaucracy as that favorite fiction of Slate readers, the television series The WirePaul Shaw traces the evolution of New York’s subway signs, swatting away myths (it’s not true, for example, that New York’s signs have white type on a dark ground in an effort to thwart graffiti) and pointing to the true causes of transformation (which often had less to do with international design theory than with the type technology available to the MTA sign shop in the 1980s). The book is a must read for sign nuts, design nuts, transit nuts, and all true lovers of New York.
Julia Turner, deputy editor

The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
The History of History isn’t the best new book I read this year—that distinction belongs to an actual work of history, Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line—but Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ debut novel was the hardest to put down. The narrative begins in Sept. 2002, when a young American ex-pat named Margaret awakes in a wood outside Berlin, her hands muddied and the last few months missing from her memory. Unable or unwilling to locate the source of her amnesia, Margaret instead becomes obsessed with the history of her adopted country—specifically with the lives of Magda Goebbels, wife of Joseph, and of Regina Straus, a Jewish house frau. Both women took the lives of their children, lest they fall into enemy hands. Margaret communes with their ghosts, desperate to learn whether these acts of murder were a mother’s ultimate sacrifice, or her ultimate sin. The reader guesses the trauma that led to Margaret’s memory loss well before she does, but it doesn’t make the unraveling of her story any less gripping: The portrait of madness is wildly inventive, and often just plain wild. (Have I mentioned Margaret’s blind, knife-throwing gynecologist?) I can’t wait to see what Hattemer-Higgins does next.
 —John Swansburg, culture editor

Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, by James Wolcott
The subject matter was enough to suck me into these pages: The Village Voice in the 1970s, Patti Smith and the punk scene, porno theaters in Times Square, Pauline Kael and her acolytes—New York City journalism at its gossipy best. But Wolcott’s sometimes almost crazy style is what kept me reading: the “rootin’ tootin’ double-shootin’ Pauline,  alternating from cig to sip in a torrential outpour of words, was not the Pauline alighting at the Alonquin,” he writes, describing one encounter with the famous film critic (and paying tribute, perhaps, to her own prose style). Of Patti Smith he says, “Even when chewing gum, she seemed to be chewing it for the ages.” At times the metaphors jostle overmuch, but they don’t usually feel superfluous: Wolcott wants to convey the energy of his first heady experiences in New York, and mostly succeeds—in the process crafting a narrative ars poetica for cultural criticism: “when something hits you high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or ‘carried away,’ because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care.”
David Haglund, Brow Beat” editor

Open City, by Teju Cole
I couldn’t stop reading Teju Cole’s debut novel and was blown away by his ability to capture the human psyche with such beautiful yet subtle prose. Open City follows Julius, the half-Nigerian, half-German narrator, as he wanders restlessly through New York (and briefly, Belgium). There is no one event that pulls the story together, rather we follow Julius on his walks and in his thoughts. Critics have drawn comparisons to everyone from Joseph O’Neill and Zadie Smith, but I see him more in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell, who took similar treks through cities and chronicled their interactions and the knowledge they amassed in the process. The descriptions of these relationships and reflections are so compelling and true to life that I often felt like he was describing walks that I’ve taken and the thoughts I’ve had. As with Hemingway or Orwell, this desire to stay with the narrator, to hear what he thinks to see what he sees, is what will keep you reading.
—Miriam Krule, copy editor

Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade, by Vladimir Nabokov
Well, a year and a half ago when this one-of-a-kind book was conceived  I forecast here in Slate  that when published, it would create the next major Nabokov controversy, as heated as The Original of Laura fracas I helped stir up.  And in fact the controversy has already begun.

Which is a good thing, because it may finally prompt those who have yet to read the 999-line poem called “Pale Fire” that originally opens Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire, to read the poem—and the novel, which takes the form of footnotes on the poem by a madman pedant. (If you have yet to read it, I regret to say, you have deprived yourself of one of the sublime pleasures of world literature.)

What Gingko Press has done is—with the blessing of the foremost Nabokov scholar, Brian Boyd, and the author’s vigilant son, Dmitri Nabokov –presented the poem alone, authorship ascribed to its fictional creator in the novel, the poet John Shade (along with persuasive essays by Boyd, the poet R.S. Gwynn, and beautiful illustrations by Jean Holabird).*

This jewelbox of intellectual, polemical  bookmaking is a defiant shot across the bow of those dull-witted critics who, over the decades, have denigrated the poem as a pastiche, a parody even (the truly tin-eared) a “prank,” because they are unable to (literally) think outside the box and read the poem as an unconventionally presented integral work of art, a meditation on fate, death, and art that in my view is the pre-eminent work of verse in American literature in the past century.  This does not mean it doesn’t work as well as the central element within the novel, but (to use the Shakespearean metaphor in the title) the poem is the sun, the footnoted text its reflected lunar luminosity. At last it emerges from eclipse.
Ron Rosenbaum, “Spectator” columnist

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Of all of David Foster Wallace’s much-discussed and much-avoided fiction—his three novels and his three collections of short stories—I submit that The Pale King is, contrary to what you might guess, the best place to start. Yes, it’s unfinished, and yes, it’s uneven. However, no David Foster Wallace novel was ever really finished (Wallace was suspicious of tidy endings), and The Pale King entertains more consistently than any of Wallace’s other fiction. Centered around a plurality of IRS agents in 1985, Wallace’s final, posthumous novel is concerned with the superabundance of information that now defines our age. Through a series of existential set pieces and some of DFW’s most mature writing (he was reinventing his style, and you’ll get substantially fewer footnotes here), The Pale King argues convincingly that real heroism is a matter of second-by-second, minute-by-minute mental discipline. Thankfully, it’s also full of jokes—metaphysical banana peels, metafictional pie gags, some weapons-grade neuroses—so it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of mental discipline to read.
Forrest Wickman, editorial assistant

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re a psychopath, take heart, the fact that you’re wondering means you’re not. Jon Ronson’s engrossing book is a first-person account of what he calls “the madness industry” which is made up of the influential health care professionals who make diagnoses via the famous 20-point Hare PCL-R Checklist, and the people who rightly or wrongly fit the bill. It’s chock-full of all the stuff I love: hoaxes, checklists, true crime, Scientologists, naked therapy, self-proclaimed gods, and one inward gazing journalist who wonders if writers are attracted to these subjects because they’re well … just the right amount of crazy. Once you finish the book, you’ll inevitably feel the urge to diagnose many people in your life as a psychopath, including that jerk who cut in front of you at the grocery store (Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth, Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt, and Item 10: Poor behavioral controls). But be warned, he could probably say the same thing about you.
Emily Calderone, video producer

Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones
The most immersive novel I read in 2011, that is, the book that allowed me to forget my own world and fall head first into someone else’s, was Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow. It is the story of Dana Lynn Yarboro, who grows up knowing that her father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist, and her attempt to get to know and understand James’ other, more privileged family, especially her half-sister, Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon. It’s one of those “just one more chapter” kinds of books that requires much last-minute changing of plans, because real life feels far less amusing, appalling, shocking, and loving than the world of its characters.
—June Thomas, culture critic

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl
Hvistendahl’s thorough examination of how the combination of population control policies and a cultural preference for boys has led to a frightful number of sex-selective abortions is the most important book I’ve read in a long time. Sex-selective abortion is the engine driving a huge population imbalance—Hvistendahl calculates that 160 million women are missing from China and India alone—and the author paints a bleak picture, in which men travel to Vietnam to buy brides from poor families, girls are kidnapped into sex slavery, and where cities with skewed sex ratios suffer higher rates of crime and unemployment. Life is hard for men who can’t find women to share their lives with but it’s even harder for women: Contrary to what economists might think, a scarcity of women doesn’t increase their value in the way a scarcity of a material good does. The future the world faces as a resultis summed up by an unnamed Chinese woman who underwent an abortion in China. “During the operation, I realized that it was not easy to be a woman. It is painful. Very painful.”
Rachael Larimore, managing editor

The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James, by Scott Raab
My podcast compatriot Mike Pesca recently described Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron as “a modern Portnoy’s Complaint … standing in for the piece of liver is LeBron James.” Along with their ample descriptions of hand-to-genital contact—there’s a chapter in The Whore of Akron called “The Handshake and the Handjob”—both books revel in the joys and torture of home. Raab’s book is less about LeBron James than it is about Cleveland, a place he loves “with a patriot’s heart, not a schoolboy’s.” His homicidal passion for the city’s sports franchises is at once irrational and totally understandable. For a boy like Raab, growing up without a dad in an abusive household, the Browns and the Indians and the Cavaliers served as a meager support system. LeBron James’ crimes against Cleveland, then, carry the weight of a personal attack, and the Midwestern patriot—the world’s most introspective heckler—responds in kind. In “a world of pure will and no consequences, I’d pay to have him knee-capped, with no sense of guilt at all,” Raab writes. “And at the same time, I know that this says far more about me than it does about LeBron James.”
Josh Levin, executive editor

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
The great zombie boomlet that started with 28 Days Later is in its eighth year, and good artists are still pulling gold nuggets out of the mine. As much as we all love The Walking Dead, Whitehead’s out-of-nowhere novel was the great zombie story of 2011. He set it some untold number of years after the apocalypse, made a protagonist out of a “sweeper” who has to clean out an infested, decrepit Manhattan, and crammed the whole narrative into three days. It reads like it was written at that pace, too, as if the sweeper poured the story out in a 72-hour meth binge. This leads to some ropey prose (zombies attacking an old man were “on him like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk”—well, OK), but only a little bit, and it is veined inside a gripping, ugly, meaningful riff about civilizational collapse.
—David Weigel, political reporter

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*Correction Dec. 7, 2011: This article orginially misspelled the name of Jean Holabird.