I devoted last week’s column to the best music books of 2017. I’m sure to have left off some of our readers' favorite music books, and I barely mentioned novels or collections of short stories whose central plots revolve around music.
Lists such as last week’s provide one critic’s suggestions of books that are worthy of reading, that expand our ways of thinking about a topic, offer new insights into an artist, or feature such clear and crisp writing that, no matter how much you disagree or agree with the writer’s take on a topic, her or his book is simply a pleasure to read. A single critic can’t read every book published in a given year (or a given month, for that matter), and so my list might not have mentioned your favorite books of the year. If your books were not on the list, please mention them in the comments to this week’s column or to last week’s column.
In addition to writing this column, I also write for a few other magazines on different subjects ranging from food writing (not cookbooks) and sports to literary biography, science, and religion, among other topics. Of course, like many of the readers of this column, I also have a stack of books on my nightstand — or on the floor by the bed — that I’m reading. At the moment, I’m reading Kathleen Hill’s She Read to Us in the Late Afternoon: A Life in Novels (Delphinium Books), which has led me to put Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady on my list to re-read next year.
This week, I wanted to add several books that are among the year’s best reads. With one or two exceptions, these books range widely from books about writing to books about science to some first-rate biographies. I’m going to list the books in no particular order, and I won’t comment on every one of them.
Enjoy your winter’s reading!
John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin) — Who doesn’t love some good, warm potlikker with their cornbread? Well, even if you have never eaten collards and cornbread, Edge’s book will stir up your appetite for great food writing and cultural history. Edge uses food to write about the cultural history of the South, and reading his book will help folks understand that region far better than reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I wrote about this book earlier this year.
Harvey Sachs, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience (Liveright/Norton) — This is probably the best music biography of the year. Even if you don’t listen to classical music, this exhaustive biography reveals a passionate musician characterized by intense concentration and personal magnetism.
Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago) — We tend to think of Thoreau either as the guy who went to live in seclusion at Walden Pond or the engaged activist of “Civil Disobedience.” In a lively biography, Walls illustrates that Thoreau’s love of nature fed his engagement with society and vice versa. This is Thoreau as we’ve never understood him but as we’ll clearly see him from now on.
Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Trash: New Agrarian Essays (Counterpoint) — It’s fair to say that Berry has long been our environmental conscience, going back to his prescient views about the misuse of land and our lack of understanding of agriculture over 30 years ago now in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club, 1986). In this collection of new essays, Berry challenges us to think about our profligate use of land and the limits of our natural resources. Like Thoreau and John Muir, Berry writes poetically, driving home the nail of his arguments deeply while we’re still enamored of his writing.
Sandra Scofield, The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision (Penguin) — Not only for novelists but for every writer who values good writing. She urges us to “read, read, read; write the best prose you can; be patient and work hard.”
John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (FSG) — McPhee is a writer’s writer, and here he shares his own struggles with writing, offers advice about the process, and shares stories about editors with whom he’s worked at places like the New Yorker.
Elizabeth Hardwick, The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB) — Like Ellen Willis, Hardwick is one of those writers whose keen insight and elegant writing isn’t well enough known. This collection offers a good starting point, and her 1956 essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing” illustrates that we’re still having much the same conversation about the decline of book reviewing 60 years later.
Julia Berwald, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Getting a Backbone (Riverhead) — We tend to love stories about the big marine mammals or marine invertebrates we can see: sharks, octopuses, whales. Berwald focuses quite elegantly on Ctenphora and Cnidaria — jellyfish — and shows us that not all of them are created equal. This is the best science book of the year simply because it gets us to thinking about significant sea creatures and their role in the web of our lives.
E.O. Wilson, The Origins of Creativity (Liveright/Norton) — At heart Wilson is what every scientist (his specialty is ants) ought to be: a wide-eyed child fascinated by the wonders of our world and its beauty and diversity. Here he makes an urgent case for the “third Enlightenment” that blends the humanities and the sciences.
Adam Federman, Fasting and Feasting: The Lie of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray (Chelsea Green) — Gray, who died in 2005, lived in Puglia in southern Italy and was celebrated by food writers as diverse as Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher for her cookbook Honey from a Weed. Federman’s biography quite engagingly recovers Gray’s story for us.
Here are a few other books worth seeking out:
Edmund Gordon. The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (Oxford)
Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio)
Roxanne Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper)
Roxanne Gay, Difficult Women (Grove Press)
Richard Ford, Between Them: Remembering My Parents (Ecco)
Julia Wertz, Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional History of New York City (Black Dog & Leventhal)
Jack E. Davis, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea (Liveright)
Jeremy Dauber, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (Norton)
Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible (Random House)
James McBride, Five-Carat Soul (Riverhead)
Hari Kunzru, White Tears (Knopf)
Ellen Rosenbush and Giulia Melucci, Know That What You Eat You Are: The Best Food Writing from Harper’s Magazine (Franklin Square Press)
Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898-1919 (Oxford)
Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard University Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking)
Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (Knopf)