Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013

I read 125 books in 2013, down somewhat from last year. But as far as I can tell, here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read.

1. My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

I think I’ve already said everything I wanted to about this marvelous little book, but the critical thing is that it saved me. I felt like I could keep believing in Christianity after reading Wiman’s memoir of faith. So, if you’re ever in a place like me and find yourself deep in doubt and ennui, turn to Wiman. He has some beautifully perfect and powerful things to say about being a modern believer in an ancient religion.

2. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Topping out at about 1,000 pages, Far from the Tree was my Big Tome of the year. The fact that I, a childless person, so enjoyed this book about parents and children speaks to Andrew Solomon’s gift as a writer and storyteller. The book is also riveting and frightening to me, as a childless person, but Solomon writes with honest hope about what he calls “horizontal relationships” between parents and children — that is, children who differ markedly from their parents (e.g., parents to kids who are transgender, deaf, or autistic; have dwarfism or Down syndrome; are criminals, etc.). Solomon spent 10 years researching this book, and his meticulous attention to his subjects is filled with grace and understanding. Each chapter tackles a separate identity and how those parents and children have learned to live and love through their differences. It’s a momentous book on a rarely discussed topic.

3. The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton

The Architecture of Happiness

This completely charming, intelligent, and engrossing little book is for everyone. Provided that you’ve ever lived inside a structure or been enchanted by the form of a building, Alain de Botton has some words for you. Why is it that we are attracted to beautiful buildings? Why, as he asks, do we feel different inside a McDonald’s than inside the Westminster Cathedral? This is a beautiful, thoughtful foray into the theoretical ramifications of architecture, and I want to read it all over again right now.

4. Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Pulphead

Yes, I feel a few years behind the John Jeremiah Sullivan craze, and I am embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to read it, but maybe I should say that it was worth the wait? This is an ideal collection of essays: deeply funny, honest, and far-reaching. Plainly, Sullivan is just a great writer. Favorite essays: His experience at Creation, the giant Christian rock festival (“Christian music is the only music industry that has excellence-proofed itself”); the essay about his brother’s “resurrection” after being electrocuted; and the essay about caring for “the last Confederate,” Mr. Lytle. They’re all good; they’re all perfect; they’re all delightful; you should go get a copy of this book right now.

5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

If I’m being perfectly honest with you, I’ve never been much interested in foreign poverty narratives. You know what I’m talking about: Those sentimental books by non-native writers about the noble, angelic people trapped in desperate poverty in the Third World. For these reasons, I didn’t really want to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A white journalist writes about life in a Mumbai slum? Sounds like it’s going to be out-of-touch and cheesy. But this book is so far from that — which is probably why it has garnered such widespread acclaim. Katherine Boo spends several years living with and researching the people of Annawadi, a specific Mumbai slum, and produces this book, which reads like a thrilling novel with a complex array of characters. The best part about this book, though, is that Boo displays real life with real people in Annawadi. These are people as complicated as any of us; no one is purely good or purely evil. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was so refreshing to read, and it vitalized this small, difficult part of India in my mind.

6. An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

This year, I read this book for the second time as part of my church book club. I’m an ardent Annie Dillard fan, so even though this memoir wasn’t new to me, I had to include it on this list: It’s just that good. I first read this book when I was 15, and reading it again at 25 left me with such a different impression. Instead of being pulled in by the stories of childhood adventure and discovery, as I was before, this year I was more entranced by her careful portrayal of the nuanced pain and beauty of growing up and the intricate process of figuring out who you really are. Dillard has such a fertile, curious mind; she’ll always be a writer that I turn to year in and year out.

7. How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Artists and writers love to portray death in all sorts of romantic and eloquent images and phrases, but what is it really like to die? Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland wants to tell you, in this little book, his classic account of what happens to our bodies at the end of our lives. It is rare that we get to hear about death from someone who is actually in the business of living and dying, and Nuland writes with unsentimental clarity and precision. Recommended, because it’s going to happen to you and me one of these days.

8. Overdressed, by Elizabeth L. Cline

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book does for the fashion industry what Michael Pollan and his ilk did for the food industry. Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline researches the dark side of the cheap fashion business, which comprises the vast majority of the clothes that are purchased in the United States. A dramatic shift has occurred in the way that Americans consume clothing. Much like food, we now spend more money on clothes than ever before and have far bigger wardrobes than we actually need, and yet the clothes are vastly poorer quality. We see clothes as disposable items, which has created a powerful fashion industry that is unethical, wasteful, and unsustainable. I do believe that Overdressed is a book that every clothes-consuming American should read. It’ll change the way you think about what you wear.

9. Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Finishing the book Delusions of Gender really took the wind out of my sails. Rather than making me proud to be a woman — o, the happy, beleaguered sex! — the barrage of studies and debunked gender myths has only made me more dejected, more frustrated, more hopeless. Gender roles and stereotypes are all so ingrained. You are already disadvantaged in the workplace, in math and in science, in general living and everyday safety by having been unfortunate enough to have been born a woman. That’s all you had to do to lose, just be born.

And yet, while reading the book, I was filled with a frantic, Sisyphean energy to do all of these things:

  • Stand up taller!
  • Make eye contact with men!
  • Take a math class!
  • Benchpress something! (Is that a thing? Is that what you call it?)
  • Study for and take the GRE!
  • Have a baby girl just so I can NOT buy her anything pink!
  • Write a children’s book with a female lead! (And with a boy character who is nurturing and gentle and needs to be saved, like Peeta.)
  • Punch a wall!

Which just made me feel more tired and more despondent. We still live in a country in which women live in fear of men on a daily basis — a feeling that most men would be hard-pressed to even sympathize with. It’s a sad state of affairs. But Fine’s book explores the ways that we’ve been misled to think that men and women are “hardwired” to act in certain ways. Rather, we’ve all been insidiously cultured to act in certain ways — even from the womb. It’s fascinating, and it’s a great book, even if you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.

10. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf, and I love when she’s in love. Most famous people’s letters are desperately boring, but Vita and Virginia couldn’t be boring if they tried. Recommended even for those who only have a passing interest in Woolf.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Deborah Needleman
  2. The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
  3. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
  4. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  5. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas
  6. American Sphinx, Thomas J. Ellis
  7. The Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson

Up next: Best 10 fiction (novels, poetry, and plays) books I read in 2013.

Virtue and dwelling

Encroaching fig tree
Our bedroom; encroaching fig tree.

My mother used to say that keeping a beautiful home could be seen as her spiritual gift. She has a cornucopia of spiritual gifts, but I agree that hospitality and housekeeping are chief among them. And I use the word “housekeeping” not in the dim, 1950s housewife way; I think of it in the Marilynne Robinson way: housekeeping as a holistic lifestyle, the way that one dwells in a physical space, the way that you create and keep a home. (Accordingly, men engage in housekeeping as much as women do, even if they’re not participating in its most obvious elements, such as decorating and doing such “female” chores as cooking, laundry, sweeping, etc.)

But back to Mom: She has a great eye, which she passed along to Grace. I wouldn’t say that Kelsey and I are devoid of this eye, but we certainly don’t have its abundant powers, which are so clearly manifested in our mother and youngest sister. I aspire to this spiritual gift of the beautiful home, and so I study people like my mom and my sister, and people like Catherine, Stephanie, Ross, Matt and Liz, and Cate, who also have this gift. I want to know how they know what they know. How they can walk into stores that look crammed with junk and find this perfectly patina’d treasure. How they know what works and what doesn’t. How they show such control and restraint.

Can I have a beautiful home if I don’t have the great eye or the gift?

I don’t know, but I do see this ability — to make a beautiful home — as a spiritual gift. A peaceful, welcoming, lovely house shows fruit of the spirit. It’s not everyone’s gift and nor should it be; but I maintain that it is a gift and that it can work on souls with as much power as prophecy.

I read a few books on feng shui during my interior design-reading craze. Although I had trouble believing in many of its essential principles or suggestions (e.g., “Sprinkle sea salt on the floor where you sense negative energy”), the majority of the feng shui wisdom applied to interiors made so much sense to me, even as a western person. It makes sense that high ceilings make the spirit feel freer and lighter and that low ceilings make one feel trapped. It makes sense that mirrors open spaces and that the direction of windows can significantly affect one’s chi. I am fascinated by these tenets, because I have felt the truth of them in many spaces.

Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness:

If buildings can act as a repository of our ideals, it is because they can be purged of all the infelicities that corrode ordinary lives. A great work of architecture will speak to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace to which we, both as creators and audiences, typically cannot do justice–and it will for this very reason beguile and move us. Architecture excites our respect to the extent that it surpasses us.

Buildings work and act on our hearts, whether we want them to or not. And this is why I believe in the spiritual gift of beautiful housekeeping and homemaking. We are beguiled and moved by the physical spaces we inhabit.

Now I just have to figure out how to attain this gift myself. Starting with finding a house with higher ceilings.

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As of Tuesday, I have read 100 books this year, a sizable portion of which were how-to books about keeping houseplants alive. My fiction numbers are down considerably from last year, a fact which I still blame on David Foster Wallace.

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Headed off this weekend to see my brother Win get hitched to my soon-to-be sister Tracy! Can’t wait.