Monday, December 24, 2012

My 2012 Year In Books

Being a divorced, childless man in his 40s, I have a lot of time to read. This year, I really went to town:

Book of the Year

Just My Type (Simon Garfield):  A fascinating look at the history of typesetting and font creation. Bonus? I now know the difference between serif and sans serif fonts.


Confidence Men (Ron Susskind): A tale of a political neophyte led around by the nose during the most consequential economic calamity of the last 70 years. Favorite bons mot? Close call between Rahm Emanuel pre-determining the path of least resistance to a stimulus bill and the President telling bank CEOs he was the only one standing between them and the pitchforks (and then letting them off the hook).

Honorable Mention

Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide To Manners (Henry Alford): *LOVED* this book, mostly because to live in New Jersey is to know what it is to live among people with no manners. They should hand this out to every schoolchild in the state and hope it takes. Also, Mr. Alford now writes a monthly column in The New York Times Sunday Style section which is, as they say on Twitter, “so much win.”

An Emergency In Slow Motion, The Inner Life Of Diane Arbus (William Todd Schultz): Devastating portrait of this enormously talented, but deeply troubled photographer. Rich in its scope, Schultz ties together Arbus’s own inner demons to her almost pathological desire to capture images of people outside the mainstream of society.

The Story of Ain’t (David Skinner): A story about the creation of the 1961 Webster’s Third International Edition wrapped around a larger narrative about changes in lexicography in the 20th century? More please.

Everything Else

Back To Our Future (David Sirota):  Something something, 1980s.

Worm: The First Digital War (Mark Bowden):  I had high hopes for this book as Bowden’s Killing Pablo is one of my favorites, but this story about computer malware sucked me into the same black hole that lab geeks created to stop the infectious virus.

Unsolved Mysteries of American History: An Eye Opening Journey Through 500 Years Of Discoveries, Disappearances & Baffling Events (Paul Aron): Light and easily forgotten (seriously, I don’t remember a single discovery, disappearance or baffling event referenced in the book) tome that would handsomely adorn a vacation home or bathroom.

Pity The Billionaire (Thomas Frank): Another book I had high hopes for based on Frank’s seminal work What’s The Matter With Kansas?, but again, I was left wanting. Pedestrian recitation of the innumerable ways in which the wealthy game the system.

The Fourth Part Of The World (Toby Lester): If 15th century cartography floats your boat, you will love this book. Related, I love 15th century cartography. Actually, this book is broadly about exploration and how the view of our world evolved as we learned more about it through the travels of people like Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama, Magellan and others, but told through the evolution of map making as it progressed through the ages.

The Lifespan Of A Fact (John D’Agata with Jim Fingal): Ever wonder how a long form piece of reporting is written and edited? Ever wonder what would happen if the writer of that article and his editor published their increasingly bitter, snarky, petty and insulting email exchanges as liner notes to the article? Wonder no more, read this book.

Monopoly – The World’s Most Famous Game (Phillip Orbanes): Notable primarily for the first few chapters, which focus on the creation of the game in the 1920s and its nascent marketing in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area in the 1930s. Along the way, someone foolishly sold their stake for a song and lost out on tens of millions of dollars in future revenue.

Almost President (Scott Ferris): Men who ran for, but lost the Presidency. In other words, a bunch of historical footnotes (though interesting what ifs).

Are All Guys Assholes? (Amber Madison): Yes, with a but.

The FOX Effect (David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt): In the bizarro world, Rupert Murdoch is God, Roger Ailes is Jesus and Bill O’Reilly is the Holy Spirit.

The Tea Party & The Remaking Of The Republican Party (Theda Skocpol & Vanessa Williamson): Essential reading for those who want to understand what happens when predominately white, older voters are forced to watch a black man be their President. Not pretty. Related, they DO know that government runs Medicare, but only they have “earned” the right to it – everyone else (anyone with dark skin, a weird surname or a gay) has not.

The Plots Against The President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis and the Rise Of The American Right (Sally Denton): Fun fact – some Army types tried to launch a coup in the 1930s. Who knew, right? More generally, the Depression spawned a particularly virulent strain of anti-government conspiracists, paranoid industrialists and anti-Semites. Good times.

Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search For Bin Laden (Peter Bergen): Spoiler alert: he dies at the end. Related, Obama kind of knew what the fuck he was doing. 

Drift – The Unmooring Of American Military Power (Rachel Maddow): Of course Rachel Maddow would use the word “unmooring” in the title of her book. I love her. I am totally in the fucking tank for Rachel Maddow and this is in part because instead of writing a predictable lefty screed about politics, she takes a serious (and well researched) look at the use of our military since Vietnam and how what was once something we used judiciously and with sobriety has disappeared behind closed doors (mostly of the White House) and hidden from public view.

Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare Book Dealer, The Times Square Talker And The Lost Photos Of Diane Arbus (Gregory Gibson):  This is Antiques Roadshow meets Plucky Underdog Story. Cantankerous book dealer stumbles onto treasure chest at storage unit auction, winds up with millions in rare photographs (but not before Arbus’s estate makes him twist in the wind).

The Escape Artists (Noam Scheiber): Experienced a day’s worth of attention when cited favorably by Mitt Romney to illustrate Obama’s clumsy handling of the Great Recession. This book felt … insufficient (?) after reading Suskind’s deeper sourced (and longer) book on the same topic.

Full review:

Do Not Ask What Good We Do (Robert Draper): Ditto.

Twilight Of The Elites (Chris Hayes):  I’m deeply envious of Hayes’s relative precociousness (he’s 33 for crying out loud, has an eponymous TV show and is now an author), but he’s damn smart. His first book examines the death of meritocracy as a means of social ascent.

The Power Of Habit (Charles Duhigg): If I substitute a healthy, but sweet fruit (say, grapes, or oranges) for chocolate, I rewire my cerebral cortex to gain satisfaction from something nutritious instead of something fattening. Or, as Hurley would say, “loop, dude.”

Little America (Rajiv Chandrasekaran): I enjoyed this book more than the author’s previously acclaimed work, Imperial Life In The Emerald City. Here, Chandrasekaran looks at the war effort in Afghanistan and comes to some grim conclusions.

The Violinist’s Thumb (Sam Kean): Conversely, I enjoyed this follow-up to The Disappearing Spoon less than the original. Here, Kean takes the same narrative device used in Spoon to discuss various strands along our genetic code. People without a firm scientific grounding (like yours truly), may find the book inaccessible and hard to follow.

The Eighteen Day Candidate (Joshua Glasser): Fast-paced, well researched and well-written account of Senator George McGovern’s ill-fated selection of Tom Eagleton as his running mate in 1972. The author lays most of the blame for this episode on an almost non-existent vetting process combined with McGovern’s vacillation in the face of conflicting advice about what to do once Eagleton’s prior treatment for depression was revealed.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (Norm Ornstein & Thomas Mann): One sentence review: It’s the Republicans’ fault.  

Superman (Larry Tye): Created by two nebishy Jewish kids from the Cleveland suburbs who got picked on by other kids during the Depression. Also, popular comic books help get girls. Who knew. Said kids make lopsided deal with publisher (not in their favor), lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars. (See also, Monopoly).

How To Sharpen Pencils (David Rees): Unlike any other book I read this year. Sheer brilliance.

Several Short Sentences About Writing (Verlyn Klinkenborg): I hated this book with every fiber in my being because I was so excited for it based on the title. Instead, the author used an odd narrative device (no chapters, stream of consciousness rants that read like Joyce’s Ulysses) that annoyed me to no end.

Spunk & Bite, A Writer’s Guide To Bold, Contemporary Style (Arthur Plotnik): There may have been some good tips in this book; honestly, I don’t remember anything from it.

The Gospel According To The Fix (Chris Cillizza): In the running with Several Short Sentences for my least favorite book of the year. Awful.

Ten And A Half Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said (Charles Wheelan): Would have been helpful about 20 years ago. Just sayin’.

Confront And Conceal (David Sanger): An evaluation of the key foreign policy challenges faced by President Obama as he begins his second term. Less satisfying than The Inheritance, but worth reading.

Final Victory (Stanley Weintraub): FDR was practically on his deathbed when he ran for a fourth term, but thankfully, he did, and won.

Acquainted With The Night (Christopher Dewdney): In the spirit of Bill Bryson, this book looks at our world through the lens of the evening hours, from dusk till dawn, if you will, with detours around insomnia, why some sunsets are so vibrant and what creatures stir in the middle of the night.

All Facts Considered (Kee Malesky): A compendium of random (and sometimes useful) information. Reference only.

Red Ink (David Wessel): A Wall Street Journal reporter gives you a 101-level tutorial on how (and why) our budget and debt situation got to where it is. Spoiler alert: it’s the Republicans’ fault (see also, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks).

The New New Deal (Michael Grunwald): Essential reading for those who want a granular understanding of the myriad good government projects sprinkled throughout the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a/k/a the 2009 “stimulus” bill).










  1. hey, thanks! --William Todd Schultz (Arbus book author)

  2. No, thank you, both for your amazing book and for posting a comment!

  3. Great list. Thought that only people who would really like "Just My Type" would be graphic designers and those who live with them - and thus get to listen to all kinds of stories about fonts!

  4. Lydia PennyfeatherJanuary 19, 2013 at 7:30 PM

    ^^^Ditto. Speaking as a design monkey, I'm mightily impressed that a non-designer bothered to read a book about typography. Kudos to your renaissance tendencies.

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