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2012 Top Ten Non-Fiction Books

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, We Learn Nothing, All We Know, Zona, How Music Works, and more

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1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (Random House) This stunning book about a trash collector in Mumbai is endlessly quotable. Boo, a former reporter for the Washington City Paper, reports with such detail and insight and writes such astonishing sentences that this is the best book of narrative—fiction or non—published this year. (Baynard Woods)

2. We Learn Nothing, by Tim Kreider (Free Press) Former CP contributor Tim Kreider’s wicked sense of humor is well-known to fans of his cartoon, The Pain—When Will It End? And his elegiac, brutally honest essays have made fans of New York Times readers. Kreider’s latest book—a funny, moving collection, full of Baltimore references—showcases both his writing and artistic talents, exhibit A in the case for Kreider’s unfair brilliance. (Andrea Appleton)

3. All We Know: Three Lives, by Lisa Cohen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) Raconteur Esther Murphy, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and fashion journalist Madge Garland were three early 20th century women who flitted around celebrity’s margins; they also preferred, ahem, the company of other women. Wesleyan professor Cohen’s ingenious biographical triptych explores the cultural capital of gay life in pre-queer activism times in a way that shows what makes a life worth documenting in a biography. A great read. (Bret McCabe)

4. Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room, by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon) Tarkovsky’s great film Stalker is about a journey, but there is nothing picaresque about it. Leave it to Dyer, the master of digression, to turn watching the film into an insanely picaresque journey through the author’s obsessions. Funny, moving, and even frustrating by turns, it is classic Dyer and a masterpiece of criticism. (BW)

5. How Music Works, by David Byrne (McSweeney’s) This isn’t a wonky guide to harmonics, or a memoir about the Talking Heads co-founder’s time behind the mic—though it enlists elements of both in its exhaustive, but exhilarating philosophical study of what music means in context. And here, context means life. Far from a vanity project of a musician, this book is essential for any music fan—and proves Byrne as good a writer as he is a musician. (BW)

6. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco (Nation Books) Veteran correspondents Hedges and Sacco team up on this fearless plunge into American poverty, and the collaboration amplifies their strengths: reporter Hedges’ gift to see through talking points to the economic conditions that shape the way people live now; comic artist Sacco’s ability to capture the coarse reality of what that life looks and feels like. Invaluable reportage. (BM)

7. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by RJ Smith (Gotham) After reading RJ Smith’s copiously researched and meticulously prepared James Brown biography—which charts Brown’s rise from abject poverty in South Carolina to earning and losing massive fortunes through nearly 50 years of musical performance—you’re going to realize that “hardest working man in show business” nickname was a massive understatement. (BM)

8. Dust to Dust, by Benjamin Busch (Ecco) Soldier, stonemason, artist, actor—he played Officer Colicchio in The Wire—Benjamin Busch doesn’t heed traditional boundaries. His memoir, for example, is organized by elemental themes like blood and ash rather than chronology. A searing examination of our place in the universe, it is a brave and inquisitive book, one that invites you to ponder your own past. (AA)

9. Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (W.W. Norton) This little gem of a book got nothing but shit when it came out, as reviewers almost universally missed the high comedy in the purported exchange between John D’Agata, a proponent of “poetic nonfiction” and Jim Fingal, his fact-checker at The Believer. D’Agata’s absurd claims about poetic license are countered by Fingal’s equally absurd search for facts—travelling to Las Vegas to check the pattern in a sidewalk’s concrete—in this descendant of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécachet and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (BW)

10. Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable, by Maria Chavez (Printed Matter) What if a record player was capable of more than playing rare, white-label DJ sides? What would happen if one took an adventurously unscrupulous approach to consumer electronics, intentionally wearing deep grooves into albums, degrading needles, and embracing the caustic white noise that accompanies the sacrilegious mishandling of a turntable? In Of Technique, Brooklyn-based experimental turntablist Maria Chavez leads by empirical example, offering a guiding philosophy and exercises for novices and experts alike. Be warned: you will want to break vinyl. (Raymond Cummings)

Read More 2012 Top Ten

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