My Best Books of 2012
I read twenty-five books this year—about average for me; fewer than I’d like to, but not a bad number. These are the best among them.
This isn’t a list of best books of 2012—just the best ones I read in 2012. Only a few were actually published during the past year. Some are from recent years, others are much older, but all were outstanding and well worth reading. (They’re given in the order in which I read them, not in ranked order.)
• The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. This novel about three recent graduates of Brown University at first seems as though it might be a typical, forgettable story about young people drifting after college, their sexual and other problems; but it is surprisingly deep and rich as it follows the troubled relationship of two of the protagonists—one of whom is struggling with mental illness—and the spiritual quest of the third.
• In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. The chilling true story of an American family in Germany during the early days of the Nazi regime, focusing especially on the daughter, who gets involved in an affair with the head of the Gestapo.
• Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. A sad-comic novel about an elderly professor who is made a figure of fun by his professional colleagues yet triumphs in the end.
• Great House by Nicole Krauss. A wonderful novel that follows an antique desk (yes) from the present back in time through the lives of the people who owned it. Krauss is one of our best young novelists; her History of Love was also outstanding.
• van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. A huge, all-encompassing, and compassionate portrait of the great painter and the psychological demons that drove him. van Gogh’s own self-destructiveness is wrenching to read about, as are the many failures he experienced in his life, but his genius always shines through. The book is large but reads like a novel, and it’s liberally illustrated with many of his greatest and lesser-known works, including early sketches.
• Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I’ve already written about these; my personal best of the year.
• The Pickwick Papers. Dickens’ first and most comic novel. The characterizations of Pickwick and his servant Sam Weller alone make this worth reading.
• Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, which I loved. I spent four years looking for this sequel and finally discovered it in a used book store in Philadelphia. Longer and less unified than Angel—probably too long— but still a fascinating look at the young adulthood of would-be writer Eugene Gant, literary stand-in for Wolfe himself.
• Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s classic about a futuristic society in which books are banned and “firemen” are those whose job it is to burn them. It tells the story of one fireman who eventually joins the rebels—a cadre of outcasts from society who memorize books.
• Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly. Well-written and enlightening biography of Henry VIII’s first and later discarded wife, it shows a woman of education, class, and strength who was loved by her people, loyal to her husband the king, and eventually destroyed by him.
• The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. Merton’s autobiography of his well-traveled youth and eventual calling to serve God as a Carthusian monk—an order that observes silence.
• Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. If you’re at all interested in near-death experiences, this is a must read. The author is a neurosurgeon who suffered a ferocious viral attack that nearly destroyed his brain and had him in a coma for almost a week—during which period he visited the afterlife and came back with the knowledge of perfect and everlasting love.
So those are my “bests” for the past year. As 2013 begins, I have a store of treasures waiting to be opened and read, beginning with Zadie Smith’s NW. I’m looking forward to another year of great reading, and maybe I can break thirty books this year!
Anyone else have lists of their “bests”? I’d love to read them.