Here's my list of the best nonfiction reads of 2008:
I haven't had so much fun with a book in years. A Short History of Nearly Everything should be required reading for all students. Bryson managed to do something that no science teacher I ever had did- he illuminated the stories and personalities behind the great scientific discoveries showing how these discoveries were often the results of accidents of opportunity. I listened to this on audio and then had to buy the book. It's one I'll be returning to often.
How had I managed to live this long without reading David McCullough until this year? What a wonderful history of the pivotal year in American history. I read it with the same excitement as a thriller, unable to put the book down even knowing the outcome. The addition of letters from ordinary soldiers as well as those of the great generals makes this truly an American experience.
Okay, I'll admit it, I'm a history geek. Years ago, I had this great idea of reading a biography of every American president. I made it to James Madison (that's #4 for the presidentially challenged). I read Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of George Washington which was extensive to say the least but lacked a clear sense of the man. Joseph Ellis's, His Excellency George Washington, filled in a lot of the shadows of who George Washington was. It's a very readable biography of a man who believed in duty and honor even when he doubted his abilities. I actually found myself tearing up when he died. He was truly the only man to become our first President.
I was a debater throughout my high school years. I believe strongly in the use of analysis and reason and I have been appalled by their decline in our culture. This book shows how our mass culture has dumbed down the dialog on almost every issue that matters.
Even though I didn't finish the book (I still have about 50 pages to go) I've decided to add this one to my list. Hot, Flat and Crowded is an excellent book for illustrating the dangers that await us if we continue consuming the earth's resources as we do now. Often there was so much focus on the catastrophe awaiting us that I was left feeling bleak. This bleakness is one of the big failings of the book along with a lack of clear ideas of what we could realistically do now . Hopefully the world is finally headed in the right direction towards curbing our collective appetites.
I read this book more as a memoir by a writer about her love affair with books instead of a how to book. Francine Prose is a passionate reader who is able to get at the heart of what captures a writer about the written word. I have drifted slowly through a book entranced by a sentence, pausing and returning to that sentence again and again. At a time when we rush or multi-task through activities; it's a pleasure to read a book that asks you to linger and savor the experience.
Reading How Fiction Works is equivalent to a great literature and writing workshop rolled into one. I've copied so many quotes that I've practically re-written the book. It's a valuable addition to any writer's library.