Best Nonfiction of 2012


Eric Liebetrau, Editor

Every year in September, I start thinking about the best books of the year, combing through the archives and querying my reviewers, the consummate professionals who assess the merits of the important—and not-so-important—books that are published every year. Like last year, 2012 proved to be a banner year in adult nonfiction. With nearly 200 starred nonfiction reviews to choose from, and nearly as many books that were significant in one way or another, it was exceedingly difficult, as always, to choose the top-100 list.

Choosing any “best-of” list is always a massive undertaking, a task guaranteed to involve plenty of discussion, heated debate and perhaps even controversy—and that’s as it should be. Whether it’s new superlative work from some of the biggest names in nonfiction—Gail Collins, Eric Jay Dolin, Douglas Brinkley, Steve Coll, David Nasaw, Jonathan Kozol, Robert Caro, Anne Applebaum, Jill Lepore and Christopher Hitchens, among others—or unexpected surprises like Gabrielle Bell’s outstanding graphic memoir, Ben Sandmel’s comprehensive, lavishly illustrated biography of New Orleans great Ernie K-Doe or Francis Spufford’s kaleidoscopic history of the economics of the Soviet Union, there are plenty of gems here to discover.

Spread out over a diverse variety of subjects and topics and representing more than 20 different publishers—and even more imprints—the Best Nonfiction Books of 2012 list amply demonstrates that, even as bookstores continue to disappear and libraries see their budgets cut even further, quality books are still out there.

Though divided roughly by subject, please note that some books don't fit neatly into any category, but have been slotted into the most appropriate category; also, some books appear in multiple categories.

STELLA ADLER ON AMERICA'S MASTER PLAYWRIGHTS by Stella Adler
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Aug. 16, 2012

"An exciting, inspiring and essential book for anyone interested in American theater."
Brilliant lectures on the American masters from the late, legendary acting teacher. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Nov. 27, 2012

"A dark but hopeful chronicle that shows how even humanity's worst can fracture and fall."
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author returns with the story of those dark decades in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union slammed the prison doors on people, cultures and countries. Read full book review >

WINTER JOURNAL by Paul Auster
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Aug. 21, 2012

"A consummate professional explores the attic of his life, converting rumination to art."
The acclaimed novelist (Sunset Park, 2010, etc.), now 65, writes affectingly about his body, family, lovers, travels and residences as he enters what he calls the winter of his life. Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: July 24, 2012

"A courageous, insightful book that offers no cause for optimism."
A former watchdog in the federal government attacks the officials who perpetuated the financial meltdown by kowtowing to behemoth banks and Wall Street firms while abandoning the public interest. Read full book review >
ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by Alison Bechdel
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: May 1, 2012

"Subtitled "A Comic Drama," the narrative provides even fewer laughs than its predecessor but deeper introspection."
A psychologically complex, ambitious, illuminating successor to the author's graphic-memoir masterpiece. Read full book review >

THE VOYEURS by Gabrielle Bell
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Sept. 4, 2012

"Playfully drawn and provocatively written, the memoir reinforces Bell's standing among the first rank of the genre's artists."
"Graphic memoir" only hints at the artistry of a complex, literary-minded author who resists the bare-all confessionalism so common to the genre and blurs the distinction between fiction and factual introspection. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Dec. 4, 2012

"A captivating tale of an oft-overlooked, morally ambiguous moment in American history."
An exploration of the violent downfall of Little Crow's Dakota nation at the hands of American soldiers. Read full book review >
MAGIC HOURS by Tom Bissell
ESSAYS & ANTHOLOGIES
Released: April 10, 2012

"Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations."
A whip-smart, occasionally pugnacious collection of essays on culture from a wide-ranging critic. Read full book review >