The best nonfiction books of 2012 tell stories, dispel myths

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 6, 2013

SALISBURY — Non-fiction reading is always a challenge because there are so many varied and interesting genres, from biography to history, science to self-help, anthropology to zoology and everything in between, and it is impossible to come close to approaching everything one wants to read. The sad fact is that most of what one wants to read will of necessity get left behind, maybe for another day if one lives to be several hundred years old. So despite the huge amount of reading Sheila (Brownlow) and I do, our choices are obviously carefully selected for our own interests, and therefore our picks for the best non-fiction books for 2012 will reflect our limited, preferential choices. For non-fiction, we did find it easier to place a numerical ranking on our choices, thus we each chose five books and ranked them independently one through five.
All that being said about independent picks, my No. 1 pick for the year just happens to be shared by Sheila, as well. Of course, this means Sheila is cheating, because she gets six picks while I just get five, but, I’ll let it slide this year. Our mutual pick for best non-fiction book of 2012 is “Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace,” by Michael Perry. Perry’s fourth book of narrative non-fiction relates his relationship with his neighbor, Tom Hartwig, 82, who lives down the dirt two-track in rural Wisconsin. Perry talks of Tom, Tom’s life, his own life and the relationship he and Tom have formed. He philosophizes about rural life and the meaning of community, of neighbors, of a past that may not be as distant as it first appears and that may be something we should not be so willing to let slide through our hands. Everything Perry writes he writes with humor and compassion in the spirit of the agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry.
Sheila’s second non-fiction book of 2012 is “Quiet” by Susan Cain. In a world full of loud, opinion-spouting extroverts, introverts can get lost. Cain describes the science of personality temperament and the ways that introverts may be wiser in many situations. The sad fact is most of us just don’t realize it because they aren’t piping up all the time. Once you have read “Quiet,” if you’re an introvert you’ll feel vindicated; if you’re an extrovert, you’ll feel as though you need to shut up.
My pick for No. 2 is “Stand Up That Mountain” by Jay Erskine Leutze, the environmental saga of saving Bellview Mountain in Avery County. With a writing approach as compelling as any novel, and a story of environmental salvation as gripping as “A Civil Action,” “Stand Up That Mountain” traces the action-packed fight to save Bellview Mountain, from the first dynamite blast intended to mine it into a gravel quarry through the final North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling which saved it forever for future generations, a fight led by uneducated mountain folk, a 14-year-old girl, and a lawyer who never passed the bar.
Coming in at the No. 3 spot on Sheila’s picks is “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough. Tough argues that intelligence is not the key to success in school, particularly college. The personal characteristic of grit, he shows, is far more important. And the best news for many (particularly those who have had stressful, impoverished beginnings) is that grit and perseverance are trainable. Previous attempts at character education tended toward the inculcation of values and virtues that were (are) not universally accepted as those to be embraced; this approach differs because there is evidence (from neuroscience, sociology and psychology) that personal control rather than intellect leads, ultimately, to successes in school and eventually, life. Tough shows how failure is OK because it is instructive and not an indicator of a permanent inherent state, how we can develop self-worth that comes from accomplishment, and that paying attention and having our “non-cognitive” act together are worth more than a giant IQ. Tough’s argument is a clarion call for educators, parents and anyone interested in a viable way to help people out of poverty.
My No. 3 is the much-acclaimed winner of the 2012 National Book Award, Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” After embedding herself in one of the undercities that surround Mumbai, Boo writes of the lives, hopes and dreams of the people who live in this festering slum of slapdash houses, no permanent or even real jobs, and lifestyles of barely scraping by. Yet it is an example of what the official government of India calls a success story, and it is a story of the hope for the future and a better world that Boo finds among the people who live there that sustains the inhabitants. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a powerful statement of what the future of the Second and Third World hold, a caution for what the First World helps to sustain, and the problems for which the entire world must come together to solve.
“The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty” by Dan Ariely makes cut No. 4 on Sheila’s list. Ariely, Duke University’s renowned behavioral economist, explains why just a little bit of cheating and lying opens the door for just a little more cheating and lying, and how we fool ourselves and rationalize our behavior. The book is a great mix of behavioral studies, personal observation and stories about people you may recognize. You might even recognize yourself.
Fourth on my list is a late-in-the-year book, the powerful biography by National Book Award winner Timothy Egan, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” Curtis hailed from a poor family, received only a grade school education and taught himself photography, yet he went on to become the greatest photographer of Native Americans, devoting his entire life to his pursuit after what started as an almost accidental image early on. With the backing of powerful and educated men, including Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, Curtis would compile a 20-volume set of books on the American Indian, covering 80 tribes, in his attempt to document the remaining Native Americans in their habitat. He moved from just a photographer to an advocate before his penniless death. Curtis has remained virtually unknown, his work largely unrecognized, until Egan, who with this powerful book may return Curtis and his photography to their rightful place in history.
Interestingly, Sheila’s No. 5 pick is an autobiography, “Elsewhere,” by Richard Russo, a memoir of a famous life lived in the shadow of a mother’s mental illness. Russo is, of course, famous as an author, writer of eight novels, including “Straight Man” and “Empire Falls,” as well as short stories and screenplays. His mother is not so famous, except as part of his semi-autobiographical novels. Russo recounts his many moves — always with his mother in tow — across and around the country, and how his whole life (and that of his saint of a wife) were framed in terms of his mother’s obsessive compulsive disorder. “Elsewhere” is a compassionate view of the effect of illness on families.
Sheila’s final non-fiction pick of the 2012 is “Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital,” by Eric Manheimer. It is the tale of Bellevue Hospital told in the stories of 12 very different patients. Manheimer tells how Bellevue came to be the hospital that it is, how it is a New York City icon, and why certain people and not others end up there. Readers will appreciate Manheimer’s infinite patience with his charges, and how Manheimer is always cognizant that he needs to remember “this could be me…”
And my final pick of the year is the last book by the great contrarian Christopher Hitchens, “Mortality.” Over the final 18 months of his life, while dying of esophageal cancer, Hitchens dwells in “Tumortown.” He recounts in “Mortality” his “year of living dyingly.” Basically a book of seven interrelated essays, with a final short section of random jottings from his last lucid days and hours, and a short afterward by Hitchens’ wife, “Mortality” is a powerful statement of last … of last everything … but, mostly of a life lived without any regrets. At the end, Hitchens could not speak and could not do what he enjoyed the most, which was talking to his friends. Many of us miss Hitch a lot.
So that’s it for non-fiction for 2012. Although we have covered a broad range of subjects and genres, many fine books have been left by the wayside, maybe to be read another day, and maybe not. With hundreds of thousands of books being published yearly, the two of us can’t even make a dent in trying to read them all. We not only don’t get to all the good ones, we don’t even get to all the good ones we want to read. The old saying, “too many books, not enough time,” remains true and forever will.

Deal Safrit and his wife, Sheila Brownlow, write reviews and commentary at Safrit is a member of the Summer Reading Challenge committee. Brownlow is a professor of psychology at Catawba College.