The Best Books We Read in 2012

Categories: Books

A piece of art about books that you should totally buy. By Jane Mount.
I read something in Esquire the other day that caught me off-guard. It was about how, despite the near-constant bemoaning of our culture's waning attention span and the media industry's cratering business model, we're actually in a Golden Age for writers. The article, by Stephen Marche, makes a pretty good case:

... [T]he world of writing has escaped this mess. Writers are prospering as never before, on all levels. At the very pinnacle, J.K. Rowling is a billionaire. ...

It's not just the novel, either. The essay -- long or short, literary or plain -- has never been stronger. Practically every week, some truly fantastic piece of long-form nonfiction appears. This is not the normal state of affairs, no matter what nostalgics pretend. It's easy to imagine that in the past every New Yorker had Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil or every Esquire had Nora Ephron on small breasts. Go back and look at those old magazines and you will discover something shocking: They're mostly boring; they're also often just plain sloppy. With a few notable exceptions, almost every magazine in the world is in its best shape ever, right now. ... Try going to or Byliner and not losing yourself in their labyrinths of entirely free, entirely superb stories. Read the blogs of Foreign Policy or the Pulitzer Center, which offer fantastic reporting from all over the world.

If it's a Golden Age for writers, that means it's a Golden Age for readers, too, who are awash as never before in an infinite supply of prettily assembled words to arrange on the shelves of our brains. Here at the Observer, when we're not chiseling listicles, we do our share of pretty-word-consuming. So here are some of the books that moved us in 2012, old and new.

If you've got one that moved you, please-please-please share it in the comments. We say that a lot, I know, but this time we mean it. We're always looking for more brainshelf material. -- Joe Tone, editor


Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon
Nothing is original. Go ahead and steal. Artists do it all the time, see a great idea and tuck it away in their mental idea file or save it on Pinterest or add it to the Post-Its fringing the edge of the inspiration board. Then one day they steal some little something from that stolen idea and tweak it to make it their own. This is how art happens.

Author and artist Austin Kleon cribbed motivational blurbs he liked, made up some new ones and scribbled them in a notebook alongside cartoons he drew as he rode the bus to and from his day job in Austin, Texas. His collection became a digital scrapbook on Tumblr, which became a speech with slides, which turned into this little book published in 2012. It became a New York Times bestseller, doing so well, Kleon was able to quit his job and work full-time as a writer, artist and public speaker (he delivered a dandy talk at the Dallas Museum of Art last year).

I recommend the in-your-hand copy of the book instead of the eBook version. It's small and easy to tuck into a bag or pocket, to be pulled out when you're waiting in line somewhere or need a boost of creative vibration to help get through the day. It also has a list on the back of 10 ways to unlock your creativity. Examples: "Do good work and share it with people"; and "Be nice. (The world is a small town.)"

Maybe not profound, but well worth remembering. -- Elaine Liner, theater critic


private empire.jpg
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll
Are you at all curious about the multinational oil giant in our backyard, whose headquarters in Irving are known as the "Death Star?" You really, really should be. Steve Coll's tome may not always make your hair stand on end, but this slow-burning examination of how ExxonMobil wields international power should be required reading. His research takes us through the murders of Indonesian villagers in the company's name; its funding of climate-change denial and its eventual evolution on the subject; the vast sums of money it made in poor nations like Chad, who were the worse for it. He guides us through its almost militaristic, rule-crazy corporate culture. With dexterity, he describes how an American company became a citizen of the world, whose interests have not always meshed with the United States', even though it didn't hesitate to place a direct call to Dick Cheney when in need. This is the story of how ExxonMobil's energy policy has, in effect, become America's energy policy -- which is to say, let the free market reign. -- Brantley Hargrove, staff writer


Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
I received Isaacson's biography of Jobs last Christmas, less than three months after his death from pancreatic cancer. He always had a reputation for being kind of a dick, and Isaacson does not refute that; hell, Jobs didn't even refute it, and gave Isaacson full access to his life and his past.

It's a massive book and had some redundancies, butit delves into the fascinating, evolving intersection of humanities and technology using Jobs as our guide, a bratty, brash, and brilliant stand-in for Virgil in the Inferno. For the hyper-geeky among us (especially we products of UTD's Arts and Technology program), this is the new Bible, and his impact on the music and advertising industries cannot be understated. The book jacket looks just like my iPhone, and the never-aired Jobs-narrated "Here's to the Crazy Ones" Apple commercial never fails to make me cry (the aired version used a Richard Dreyfuss voiceover). -- Betsy Lewis, contributing writer


Sin In the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle For America's Soul, by Karen Abbott
This is from 2007, but it's easily the best book I belatedly discovered this year. It tells the story of the Everleigh Club in Chicago, a high-end brothel run by two enterprising sisters from Omaha, Minna and Ada. The Everleighs were obsessed with making prostitution a respectable business (and a luxurious one -- the sisters were famous for their gold piano and their fondness for giant jewelry). They ruled the Levee, Chicago's red-light district at the time, but spent much of their career paying off the cops and battling with both other madams and the "reformers," well-intentioned society ladies, evangelists and ministers who were convinced that brothels were all hotbeds of "white slavery."

All the action and dialogue in the book is re-created from diaries, newspaper accounts, sermons, old photos, City Hall proclamations and the like. It's exhaustive and painstaking and incredibly fun to read. Bonus fact: one of the competing madams, a lady named Vic Shaw, was eventually convicted on a drug charge and sent to federal prison. She served her time in Dallas. -- Anna Merlan, staff writer


Jim Harrison book cover.jpg
The English Major, by Jim Harrison
Life is cyclical, and when one cycle approaches the 360th degree, another will bullheadedly begin whether we want it to or not. This is the truth that I uncovered in Harrison's The English Major. It's the story of a young senior citizen named Cliff divorcing his adulterous wife of 38 years, selling the family farm, and hitting the road with a puzzle map of the United States in hopes of throwing the pieces in their respective states. On the road, Cliff engages in a yo-yo like affair with one of his former students, Marybelle, re-connects with a snake wrangling friend, and rebuilds his relationship with his estranged son. It is in this novel that he proves life continues on despite age, and that the number of rings in our cross section is no excuse to dismiss adventure or enlightenment.

The audience is exposed to beautiful introspection, slowly rolling expanses of prose, and
Harrison's signature form of explicitly honest humor. It's his honesty that keeps me coming back to Harrison for his stories and his poetry; he has a way of speaking to the reader as if saying "this thought of mine may not be a beautiful one, but it is true, and in its truth, it is powerful."

If you are looking for an author that has his magnifying glass set distinctly on the little things that bind and separate us, read The English Major. Harrison's accuracy on human interaction is indefinably enjoyable. -- Matthew Lawson, contributing writer


The Playground, by Ray Bradbury
Following Ray Bradbury's death in June, and after reading Nick Rallo's thoughtful tribute, I was inspired to dig around for some of the sci-fi master's works -- some good creep to stick to my ribs. I knew I could always reread All Summer In A Day (if you've not read, or seen, that bit of motivating sadness, my word, go now and do it. Do. It.) or The Illustrated Man, but I wanted some Bradbury I'd never read, so limiting my search to Kindle selections, I randomly chose The Playground (it can also be found in certain hardcover editions of Fahrenheit 451). I finished the short story in less time than it took me to download it (possibly an exaggeration, but Ray wouldn't mind).

It made me uncomfortable. It creeped me out. It made me feel I was being watched.
It made me pretty confident in my decision to not have children because I'm selfish
enough I don't know that it would ever occur to me to sacrifice ... Well, I don't want
to ruin it for anyone who hasn't read it.

Now, I've read several books this year for book clubs and for pleasure, but none of them made me enjoy feeling paranoid. None of the others made me want to go buy actual hardback copies of works I'd already read by that author, just to recapture the feeling of the first time I'd read them. On that note, perhaps it's more appropriate to choose Bradbury's catalog as my favorite read of the year. I don't know. I do know, though, that I hope someone made a "certain sacrifice" so there's a spry, young writer out there with as much talent as Ray Bradbury. -- Merritt Martin, contributing writer


What Katie Ate: Recipes and Other Bits and Pieces, by Katie Quinn Davies
Katie Quinn Davies is a photographer, food stylist and blogger out of Sydney, Australia whose popular blog What Katie Ate has some of the most seriously incredible food photography in ... ever.

But don't take my word for it. Saveur has awarded her awards like "Best Single Food Photo" and "Best Food Photography," and GOOP named her one of the best food blogs in the world. Visit her site and just try to disagree. It's like she marries food with cinematography in a way that is at once dramatic and mouthwatering. "Food porn" is far too cheap a term for what she does. That's why her much anticipated first cookbook, What Katie Ate: Recipes and Other Bits and Pieces (or "Bits and Bobs" in the UK), feels like owning a work of art in photography, styling and typography. Even if I never make one single thing inside, I feel more awesome just by owning it, displaying it, and flipping through its luminous pages. -- Rachel Edenson Pinn, contributing writer

Next up: More fiction, a kid's book, and the book that got to Jim Schutze in 2012.

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The Art of Fielding was hands down the best fiction I read this year, while Live From New York owned my non-fiction list.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.  Non-fiction that reads like a novel.  Unforgettable.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

If you enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy try The Rho Agenda by Richard Phillips.  It's a sci-fi trilogy and you won't be able to put it down.


War by Sebastian Junger was a haunting look at the war in Afghanistan. The Presidents’ Club was extremely insightful and, well, I learned a lot. But, The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke about Bobby Kennedy was, hands down, one of the best book I’ve ever read and everyone else that I’ve convinced to read it agrees.

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