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.

BEAUTIFUL THING by Sonia Faleiro
Released: March 6, 2012

"Gritty, gripping and often heartbreaking—an impressive piece of narrative nonfiction."
A harsh, cinematic look at the international sex trade. Read full book review >
PREDATOR NATION by Charles Ferguson
Released: May 22, 2012

"A deeply argued call to action from a lucid, impassioned polemicist."
A concise, cogent assessment of the 2008 banking disaster and how the fallout has affected the country. Read full book review >

MARBLES by Ellen Forney
Released: Nov. 6, 2012

"Forney's story should resonate with those grappling with similar issues, while her artistry should appeal to a wide readership."
For anyone who loves graphic memoir or has concerns about bipolar swings, creativity and medication, this narrative will prove as engaging and informative as it is inspirational. Read full book review >
Released: May 8, 2012

"In a well-researched, disinterested analysis, the authors show that collisions of ego, personality and politics can often result in creation, not destruction."
Two Time magazine editors chart the zigzag arc of relationships among the men who have occupied the White House since the mid-20th century. Read full book review >
THE NEW HATE by Arthur Goldwag
Released: Feb. 7, 2012

"A provocative, intellectually rigorous book written clearly and with an admirable lack of hatred."
A well-reported study of disaffected groups who hate other groups whose members look or think differently than the haters. Read full book review >

SURVIVING SURVIVAL by Laurence Gonzales
Released: Sept. 10, 2012

"Survivors of traumatic events often do not recover without help from others, and Gonzales' excellent book is an education for those wishing to be of use in a stressful, often frightening world."
How can the world smite thee? Let us count the ways... Read full book review >
PORTRAIT OF A NOVEL by Michael Gorra
Released: Aug. 27, 2012

"Not for all readers, but Gorra's approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family, and lovers of important novels and those who create them."
Gorra (English/Smith Coll.; The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany, 2004, etc.) blends a focused biography of Henry James (1843–1916) with the story of his composition of The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Read full book review >
FREEDOM'S CAP by Guy Gugliotta
Released: March 6, 2012

"Impressive research underlies a well-told story that's simultaneously depressing (what a nasty species we are) and inspiring (what a wonderful species we are)."
Partisan bickering, back-stabbing rivalries, xenophobia, character assassination, political moves that would make Machiavelli blush—no, not Washington circa 2011, but the Washington Capitol in the 1850s. Read full book review >