Just as surely as the first week of January brings new diet books, the last week of December brings Top 10 or Top 100 lists. These lists are way too late to inspire holiday shopping, so they must serve another function. Perhaps they are a quick way to come up with copy when magazine editors would rather be partying. Perhaps these editors know that, at the end of a year or a decade or, not so long ago, a millennium, a lot of us feel the need to examine, sort, take stock, evaluate.
Since 1997, when I made a long commute bearable by reading, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. Before then, when people asked if I'd read any good books lately, I could assure them that I had—but I had no idea what they were. Now I can prime myself before attending social functions where that question might come up. I decided it would be fun to look at my lists for this decade and choose a favorite novel and nonfiction book for each year.
I quickly realized I could not limit myself to two excellent books a year, so I decided to allow two in each category. The criteria: I had to remember what they were about (not so easy: I was amazed at how many titles I did not remember at all). They had to be interesting—no moral uplift or literary elegance unless I truly liked the books. And they had to stand alone: I did not include books that are part of series, even though that meant leaving out some of my very favorite authors (I listed 10 of them on my blog).
The subheads refer to my year of reading, not the year of publication. Most books were published a year or two before I read them—I waited for the library to acquire them, or for the paperback edition to come out. Some books were published whole generations before I discovered them. For each year, the first two books are novels; the second two are nonfiction. My mother made me read one nonfiction book for every novel I read, and I haven't entirely lost the habit.
John Mortimer, Summer's Lease. An enjoyable romp through Chiantishire by the creator of Rumpole.
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow. Novel of place, character, and love of the land.
Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess. Who knew that literacy and feminism are inversely proportional?
Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination. Up with Grandma, down with the hierarchy.
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Sprawling family saga; good read even if Oprah liked it.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow. Jesuits in space.
Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon. It's about depression, but it isn't depressing. Especially the part about the chicken.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale. Reconstruction of New England life 1785-1812, based on an actual diary.
Zadie Smith, White Teeth. London immigrants and natives crazily intersect. How could such a young author know so many people so well?
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Bumbling terrorists hold a houseful of party guests captive.
Caroline Knapp, Pack of Two. Memoir: the bond between dogs and humans.
Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God. Memoir: growing up as a Jewish-Christian bookworm.
Michael Cunningham, The Hours. Repositioning of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. See also the movie—of Mrs. Dalloway, not of The Hours.
Ian McEwan, Atonement. Like McEwan's later novel Saturday, shows Mrs. Dalloway influences.
Nora Gallagher, Things Seen and Unseen. Memoir: through the church year in an Episcopal parish.
Lewis Smedes, My God and I. Gentle but starkly honest memoir from the late great theologian.
D. L. Smith, The Miracles of Santo Fico. Sweet story if you're in an Italian mood.
Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April. The movie is excellent, and so is the book—also if you're in an Italian mood, as I usually am.
Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World. Once upon a time, Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together in relative harmony in southern Spain.
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Memoir: book clubs can be subversive.
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A can't-put-it-down novel about a boy with Asperger's. Really.
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. A thrilling story and a parable about Afghanistan.
Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation. Grandin, an animal behaviorist, uses her experience with autism to explain how animals think.
Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains. How a determined physician revolutionized health care in Haiti.
Vinita Hampton Wright, Dwelling Places, and Nicole Mazzarella, This Heavy Silence. Sensitive novels about financially and emotionally troubled farm communities.
Julia Child, My Life in France, and Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone. Memoirs by foodies. Child is fascinating; Reichl is hilarious.
Dave Eggers, What Is the What. Fictionalized account of Sudanese refugees in the U.S.
Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Even better than Kite Runner; this one is about Afghan women.
Judith Jones, The Tenth Muse. Memoir: the editor who discovered Julia Child and many other major chefs/food writers.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Fast food, commercial organic food, local food, and food you find and shoot. Pollan is such a good writer that you don't have to have prior interest in his topic to enjoy his books.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. A novel based on the Biafran war in the late '60s.
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger. Lower-caste life in India, chillingly humorous. I liked this better than the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, Love by the Glass. Memoir by the married couple who write the Wall Street Journal's wine column.
Peter Brown, The Body and Society. How Christians from the first through fifth centuries viewed sex. (Thank God for Jewish rabbis and for common people who didn't write books but kept on loving one another. See my review here.)
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. World War II story for book lovers.
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. A collection of interwoven short stories about a bristly character you might come to appreciate. My review is here.
T. R. Reid, The Healing of America. Should be required reading for anyone before they express any opinion about how to reform American health care. My Christian Century review is here.
Gail Collins, When Everything Changed. How American women's lives have changed since 1960. Here's my review.
I've enjoyed looking at other people's lists, like the New York Times's "100 Notable Books of 2009." I've read only two of this year's notables: When Everything Changed (see above) and Losing Mum and Pup (funny memoir). Thinking maybe my score was low because some of the books haven't made it to the library yet, I checked the 2008 list. Alas, I had read only one: Home (fine novel). 2007, maybe? Hey, I read six of the novels, though none of the nonfiction (perhaps I should try How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read).
But that's missing the point, isn't it. We read what we enjoy. We share lists because some of our friends enjoy similar books. I hope you'll tell me about books and authors you especially like. 2010 should be a good year for reading.