BOOKS OF THE DECADE: 2000-2009

PART III OF IV: NONFICTION

My love for good NF books is only partly driven by my own status as a nonfiction writer. The fact is that I've spent the last ten years delighted by not only the true stories these writers have chosen to tell, but the way in which they've told them--often even when the subjects they've chosen hold, um, limited appeal for me. THAT, folks, is the sign of a great book.


To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever/ Will Blythe

So maybe I'm a bit of a homer here, but my fellow Chapel Hillian has examined the Duke/Carolina basketball rivalry with a keen eye, a sharp wit, and an enormous appreciation of the background and the passion that we share. Simply outstanding.

                       

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl/ John Colapinto

The astonishing and tragic story of the baby boy who lost his penis in a horrific accident and whose parents were persuaded to raise him as a girl--and whose doctors hid the truth about the experiment. A stunning examination of gender, identity, and truth.

 

Salvation on Sand Mountain/ Dennis Covington

A classic of the "literature of obsession," in which journalist Covington goes to Appalachia to report on snake-handling and soon finds himself so caught up in the spirit of the tiny backwoods churches that he joins in the reptilian ceremony. Beautifully told.

 

The Origin of Species/ Charles Darwin

Yes, it's an acknowledged classic and one of the most important books in human history, but it's also surprisingly readable. Darwin's genius was not just his insight into natural selection, but his ability to examine that insight in a clear and comprehensible way. If you haven't tried it, do so.

 

Guns, Germs, and Steel/ Jared Diamond

A bold examination of a very simple question: why wasn't the Old World conquered by the New? Diamond makes a fascinating guide through agriculture, epidemiology, technology, and related fields in the course of framing his answer.

 

I Have Landed/ Stephen Jay Gould

The final collection of Gould's essays from Natural History magazine, and a satisfying capstone to his career. When it comes to explaining science to an audience of educated laymen, you won't find a better or more affable professor, or one who appreciates life more.

 

The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators/ Gordon Grice

Journalist Grice has a passion for the little things in life: spiders and snakes, mainly. In this quirky and vividly described natural history, he shares his fascination and his experiences with the world's smaller predators, from the widow to the recluse to the lizard.

           

Confederates in the Attic/ Tony Horwitz

The best examination of the modern South I've come across. Horwitz goes back to the Confederacy, sometimes by joining its re-enactors, in the course of trying to figure out what makes the South so Southern. An unblinking but even-handed look at America and Americans.

 

Under the Banner of Heaven/ Jon Krakauer

Ever keen to understand the extremities of human behavior, Krakauer here tells two connected stories: the bloody and extraordinary history of the LDS church, and the murder of a woman and infant by two members of a breakaway Mormon sect. His question: does God talk to humans? And if so, what should we do about it?

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Journey/ Alfred Lansing

The gripping saga of the ill-fated Antarctic voyage of the Endurance and its commander's increasingly desperate attempts to save his crew and get them home. A fantastic and unforgettable tale told with a panache and skill to rival its subjects'.

 

The Founding Fish/ John McPhee

There's not a subject under the sun McPhee can't make interesting, but when it's his personal passion--the shad, a game fish unlike any other--the reader's interest is swept smoothly to new heights. A delightful, informative, and engaging read.

 

The Executioner's Song/ Norman Mailer

Arguably a book that should have been listed in Fiction, this account of murderer Gary Gilmore's life, crime, trial, and execution is a masterpiece of biography. Mailer's novelistic prose crackles with energy, and the depth of his passion for his subject is astonishing.

 

The Metaphysical Club/ Louis Menand

A great book about post-Civil War intellectualism? Really? Yes, really, a corker: the collective biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and their cohorts, and how they viewed the connection between ideas and human lives. It won the Pulitzer for a reason, folks.

 

The Republican War on Science/ Chris Mooney

It may be a little dated--I hope it's a little dated--but as an act of journalism, Mooney's relentless assault on the Bush administration's science policies has to rank among the decade's best. If you love science, this book is for you, and if you needed another reason to hate Dubya, here are plenty.

                                   

The Big Year/ Mark Obmascik

Three birders gear up and head out to see more bird species in a single calendar year than anyone else ever has. Obmascik's own birding mojo is strong, but it's his journalistic chops and sparkling prose that make this tale of obsession so funny and so true.

                                                           

The Botany of Desire/ Michael Pollan

A thoughtful, intriguing musing on the main reasons human beings grow plants, and the history of four plants grown for those reasons: for beauty (tulips), for sweetness (apples), for utilitarianism (potatoes), and for intoxication (marijuana). Informative and fascinating.

 

The Song of the Dodo/ David Quammen

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the best science book I've ever read. Quammen's journalistic training gives him the ability both to tell a story and to explain a complex concept (such as island biogeography) with clarity. Touching, thrilling, important: a modern masterpiece.

 

Fast Food Nation/ Eric Schlosser

Sure, it's unhealthy for you personally, but Schlosser's got the business-reporter chops to show why fast food is also unhealthy for the economy and the country. Whether it's workplace safety, public sanitation, or labor relations, the dark side of the golden arches is on full display.

 

The Partly-Cloudy Patriot/ Sarah Vowell

Droll, insightful, self-deprecating, and delightfully obsessed by the details of American history and civics, Vowell is the perfect hostess for a conversation about the modern American mindset. And with her voice, you won't even mind that she does all the talking.

 

Consider the Lobster/ David Foster Wallace

Wallace's suicide deprived us of a beautiful mind, a mind that wouldn't stop examining an idea no matter how disturbing or improbable, whether it's talk radio, video porn, the morality of boiling lobsters, or (in the breathtaking "Authority and American Usage," which may be my favorite essay ever) the role of the dictionary. And you'll never find a better or more creative deviser of footnotes. Superb.

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