Book Business' The Best We Read 2012
Right before everyone ran off for the holidays, we asked the Book Business staff and contributors one question: What was the best book you read in 2012. It didn't need to have been published in 2012, just one that they read in the calendar year. These are the results:
Lynn Rosen, Editorial Director
American Music, by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 2010)
Milo is a traumatized Iraqi war veteran recovering in a VA hospital in the Bronx, and Honor is the young female physical therapist who is called in to treat him. Something remarkable happens when Honor begins to treat Milo: when she touches him, images appear that only they can see, amazing stories about people from other generations whom neither of them have ever met. Together they, and the reader, watch these stories unfold. It’s surreal the way it happens, yet within the context of the book it totally works. I love how the story weaves these different tales together and challenges the reader to put the pieces in order and figure out how the characters connect to each other. I so admire the writer’s skill in imagining and creating this world. I like literary fiction that stretches writerly boundaries the way this book does.
James Sturdivant, Senior Editor
The Johnstown Flood, By David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1987)
McCullough chronicles one of those watershed events in American history (no pun intended) that everyone has heard of but few know much about. McCullough's book, built around survivor's stories, manages to capture the scope and horror of the flood without losing sight of its effect on individual lives. Johnstown was a man-made disaster and cultural event which changed the way we respond to crisis, both on the ground and in the media. The rumors and misinformation about the flood that initially made it to the front pages of newspapers around the country, quickly corrected or mitigated by first-hand reporting, reminds us of the news response to the Newtown massacre. Stories of heroism, tragedy and suffering transfixed the nation, though surprisingly, the political response was muted.
Mike Cooper, National Marketing Specialist
Born to Run, By Christopher McDougall (Vintage, 2009)
A hat tip to Book Business EIC Brian Howard for cluing me into Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. McDougall skillfully weaves the threads of his own struggles with finding his running form with the story of the mysterious Tarahumara Indians, known for running long-distances bare-footed, as well as his adventures with a group of ultrarunners. Great mix of science, folklore and just good storytelling.
This book kept me running! The timing was perfect for me as I was just beginning the Couch-to-5K program, and was struggling. It helped hone my interest in the sport through the stories of individual accomplishments of various racers. If these folks can run a 100 mile race, surely I can run around the block twice.
Eugene G. Schwartz, blogger, advisory board
Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World, By Carl Zimmer (New York: Free Press, 2004)
During the 17th century, the science of medicine was transformed in London from 13 centuries of thought centering the location of “self” in the heart (the Greek Galen), to the meticulous dissection and experimentation that led to the brain (Thomas Willis). Gifted science writer Carl Zimmer brings the period alive during the Cromwellian revolution with a fascinating narrative including in its historic cast of characters William Harvey (circulation), Christopher Wren (illustration), Robert Boyle (gases), Robert Hooke (the cell) and John Locke, the philosopher. They introduced the art of experiment and separated soul from religion as a subject for discourse.
Alex Schwartz, Marketing Manager
Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
The latest posthumously published work from David Foster Wallace gathers 15 essays ranging from the brilliance of Roger Federer's tennis game to the recent rise in “cultural stock” in mathematics. Though Wallace’s writing style can feel at points long-winded and grandiloquent—his word, not mine—his power of observation and ability to make the most (seemingly) mundane subjects come to life is astounding. In the final paragraph of the title essay, “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” Wallace writes, “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform.”
Peggy Hatch, Group President
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial Press, 2009)
Written in a series of letters, the story starts in London in 1946. Reeling from the war, with rationing in full tilt, Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a farmer on the channel island of Guernsey. He’d gotten a used book by Charles Lamb that had Juliet’s name written on the inside cover and was hoping she could help him find another book about the author. Guernsey had been occupied by the Nazis and completely cut off during the war, but a wonderfully charming and eccentric group of characters had started a book club that kept them going through those dark years.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is about the love of books and reading and friendship. Great characters with a compelling story! One of my favorite lines when Juliet writes back to the farmer about the Lamb book:
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect reader.”
This is a first and last novel. The author Mary Ann Shaffer died before all the editing was done and her niece Annie Barrows completed the book.
Wanfei Wu, Intern
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, By Paco Underhill (Simon and Schuster, 2008)
Although this was one of my textbooks in the past semester, I really enjoyed reading it. Different from the typical consumer behavior book, retail expert and environmental psychologist Paco Underhill helps us understand some profound consumer behavior theories. For example, freeing a customer's hands with a basket, cart or bag doesn't just make shopping easier, it tends to make customers buy more. Underhill also gives readers a “tour” of some innovative stores and malls all over the world, including the Old Navy in New York City and a mall in Dubai, to reveal what makes them successful. It's full of great tips for marketers looking to attract and keep customers by improving their shopping experience.
Peter Beisser, Contributor
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, By Sean Howe (Harper, 2012)
This tale of the popular funny book company bursts off the page as an epic story akin to the struggles between its heroes and villains. With the success of today’s film franchises launched from Marvel’s lengthy list of valuable intellectual property, it’s easy to forget where it all began—in the pages of their comic books. Sean Howe tells this 70-year story with an energetic “Pow.” What starts off with the oft-repeated tales of Marvel’s origins becomes a compelling read once Howe rolls past the 1960s. He exposes Marvel’s editorial upheavals, exploitations of creators, bankruptcy and revival. Sad and riveting.
Alexis Henderson, Director of eLearning
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2007)
You may look at my pick and pass it by for a couple of reasons. One: You have to go to the “Young Adult” section to buy it (“I’m an adult! I do not read fiction written for teens!”). Or two: On the surface, it’s a story of a young girl in Nazi Germany (“Hm… sounds familiar.”). To these objections, I say: Do not be deterred. Please. This is the story of Liesel Meminger, a.k.a. “The Book Thief,” and how she came to be in Molching, Germany – living with foster parents who end up harboring a Jewish man in their basement – told from the perspective of the narrator... death. The end result is an incredibly intelligent, heart-swelling, sweep-you-away story. If you’re anything like me, you’ll laugh, cry, become hopelessly devoted to the characters, and find yourself picking this book up again and again.
Colleen Reese, New Media Marketing Manager
Zelda: A Biography, by Nancy Milford (Harper & Row, 1970)
My cousin’s wife lent me this really early on in January 2012. She gave me a hardback book with a green cover and no jacket that I’m relatively certain she “forgot” to bring back to a library (sorry, guys). Long story short, Zelda started for me what is now a love affair with biographies—specifically, Nancy Milford’s biographies. While Milford has been criticized for being too sympathetic a biographer, I’d argue that that quality helps create an emotionally accessible story for the reader.
Zelda is about Zelda Fitzgerald and her intense, confusing life as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He steals her prose, verbatim, and rarely gives her even partial credit. Scott resents Zelda for going insane and, in return, she continues to resent him for his literary success.
Milford does an extraordinary job coaxing the reader to invest emotionally in this rather tumultuous story, using correspondence and journal entries to build a unique and seamless narrative.
Dave Leskusky, Group President
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster, 2011)
In a business world where lack of time and resources are the norm not the exception, this book gave me renewed hope that a company can focus on a few core ideas and succeed. Jobs’ obsession with detail and his drive to make every part of a product perfect (even parts consumers wouldn’t see) is something every business manager should aspire to. Jobs had many admirable talents and strengths but this book also highlighted his demons and character flaws which I appreciated because it allows the reader to emulate his best qualities while steering clear of some very obvious faults.
Kate Leshko, Director of Conferences and Events
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn (Knopf, 1989)
Geek Love is about a family of genetically altered carnies in a traveling circus… who start a cult. It's sick and twisted and awesomely bizarre. Months after reading it, scenes still find their way into my daydreams (and sometimes my nightmares).
Pat Farrell, Production Manager
Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells, by Tommy James (Scribner, 2011)
I am a music freak and only really read biographies. This book is the ultimate look into the "real music business" from the eyes of a major recording artist. Tommy James had about 12 number one hits, and I mean big hits. Even though I know and like his songs, I wouldn't say I was a fan per say (more of a classic rock fan), but after I read the book, he happened to be doing a concert in my area, so I went to see his show. Wonderful show and got to meet him afterward to sign the book and also chat a bit about the book (he wouldn't speak about the "mob" parts of the book – I guess for good reason).
Jesse McDougall, Columnist
The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World, by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green, 2012)
Sandor Katz is a likable and charming guy with devious plans to subvert the corporate American food system with an army of food fermenters and an arsenal of the most delicious pickles you've ever tasted. His latest book, The Art of Fermentation, is the definitive work on food preservation. It is not solely a book of recipes (though it is jam-packed with 'em)—it is a thoughtful examination of how fermentation works, why it is a healthier and more natural way to preserve food, and what role it has played in human society and evolution. It is a marvelous book full of valuable—and beautifully presented—insights and experience from one of today's food masters. I keep it on my bed stand.
Michael Weinstein, Blogger
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro (Knopf, 2012)
The timeline of Caro's bio has reached the point of Johnson's completely divergent impulses—Vietnam and Civil Rights. Caro brilliantly shows how one person can contain complete opposites. The writing is (as always) stunning and exciting. Since I lived through some of this, it was even more compelling.
Frank Romano, Columnist
Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News, by Todd Andrlik (Sourcebooks, 2012)
With Patriot and Loyalist eyewitness accounts from newspapers printed on both sides of the Atlantic, readers experience the American Revolution as it happened with the same immediacy and uncertainty of the colonists.
This book reproduces newspaper articles from contemporary reports and then discusses the historical implications. News was often second hand and inaccurate, but it is one of the primary sources for our understanding of how the Revolution unfolded.
Newspapers of the day were printed on rag-based paper and have thus survived the centuries. Thank God for print. It is fascinating to read what contemporaries read while remembering the story as we learned about it from history books.
Brian Howard, Editor in Chief
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don't, by Nate Silver (Penguin Press, 2012)
In the year when Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame proved himself the king of all political predictions, he released a book detailing the inherent flaws in the current culture of punditry. Yes, part of it is that a lot of these pundits don't know a lot about what they're predicting, or that they're more concerned with being entertaining than right, but on a more fundamental level, it's about hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing and organize new information to fit into their worldview, while foxes know lots of little things and allow new data equal footing in their scope of knowledge. Guess which make better predictions?
- Alex Schwartz
- Annie Barrows
- Carl Zimmer
- Charles Lamb
- Christopher McDougall
- Christopher Wren
- David Foster Wallace
- David McCullough
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- James Sturdivant
- Jane Mendelsohn
- John Locke
- Juliet Ashton
- Katherine Dunn
- Mary Ann Shaffer
- Mike Cooper
- Nancy Milford
- Nate Silver
- Paco Underhill
- Robert Boyle
- Robert Hooke
- Roger Federer
- Sandor Katz
- Sean Howe
- Steve Jobs
- Thomas Willis
- Todd Andrlik
- Tommy James
- Walter Isaacson
- William Harvey
- Zelda Fitzgerald