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.

PRIVATE EMPIRE by Steve Coll
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS
Released: May 1, 2012

"Leaks, reserves, PACs, hydrofracking, bloated corporate profits and more: all pertinent concerns nicely handled by Coll in this engaging, hard-hitting work."
A thorough, sobering study of the pernicious consolidation of Big Oil. Read full book review >
AS TEXAS GOES... by Gail Collins
CURRENT AFFAIRS
Released: June 4, 2012

"A timely portrait of Texas delivered with Collins' unique brand of insightful humor."
New York Times political columnist Collins (When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, 2009, etc.) zeroes in on what makes Texas so important and why the rest of the country needs to know and care about what's happening there. Read full book review >

THE TWILIGHT WAR by David Crist
CURRENT AFFAIRS
Released: July 23, 2012

"Some casual readers may be turned off by the page count, but this is likely to be the authoritative history of the origins and progress of the Iranian policy morass for years to come."
An encyclopedic account of the ongoing military and diplomatic conflict between the United States and Iran. Read full book review >
AFTERMATH by Rachel Cusk
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Aug. 14, 2012

"Bold, gripping, original and occasionally darkly funny."
A novelist's unflinching analysis of her failed marriage. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Sept. 10, 2012

"A rich, highly readable examination of the seeds of poppies, trade, greed, grandeur and an international partnership that remains uneasy and perilous."
The author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (2010) returns with the story of America's first voyages to the Middle Kingdom, where Americans and Chinese looked at each other with wonder, alarm and calculation. Read full book review >

HAITI by Laurent Dubois
Released: Jan. 3, 2012

"A profound demonstration of what needs to be recognized, reconciled and forgiven if current crises are to be overcome."
A vigorous retelling of Haiti's history intended to revive the promise of the world's first black-led republic. Read full book review >
TURING'S CATHEDRAL by George Dyson
SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
Released: March 6, 2012

"Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the definitive history of the computer."
That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.). Read full book review >
LIFE AFTER DEATH by Damien Echols
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Sept. 18, 2012

"Essential reading for anyone interested in justice or memoir."
Exceptional memoir by the most famous of the West Memphis Three. Read full book review >