The Best Books of 2010, Part 5: Nonfiction Edition

[Follow this series here. We’re also compiling all our best books in one easy-to-browse page; find it by clicking the stamp, at left or anywhere else you see it on the site. That page will get updated as each new post comes out.]

Without further ado, my favorite books of 2010:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the bizarre story of a tobacco farmer whose cancer cells have been used in scientific research for decades after her death. The book features a rare combination of great writing, fantastic storytelling, and deep social significance. Skloot admirably weaves several storylines—Lacks’s life and death, the growth of HeLa cells, the many scientific advances those cells have made possible, the lives of Lacks’s decedents—into a cohesive and gripping book. But Immortal Life sits on top of my list because of its social importance. The story of Henrietta Lacks was a generation or two from being completely forgotten. It would have been a shame to lose this piece of our history, not just because of the scientific significance of HeLa, but also because of the perspective Lacks’s life and death adds to the Civil Rights struggle. Thankfully, with this book, Rebecca Skloot has made Henrietta Lacks truly immortal.

War, by Sebastian Junger

War is a fascinating look at combat and soldiers. Its strength lies in its honesty. Junger, embedded with a platoon of American soldiers, does not shy away from the effect his situation has on his objectivity. Instead, he presents us with the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of the men on the battlefront. This book asks us to empathize with their situation so that we may better receive them into society when they return home. Read my full review here.

Happy, by Alex Lemon

If this memoir weren’t true, I’d call it a cliché—it’s about a boy, lost and careless, becoming a man after coming face-to-face with death. Lemon’s quick, sparse prose matches not only the way he lived before his multiple strokes, but also the force with which those strokes changed everything. The prose makes this book original, and stands as evidence that poets make the best memoirists. (By the way, you should also check out Lemon’s poetry collection, Fancy Beasts, which also came out in 2010.)

The Routes of Man, by Ted Conover

This makes my list because of my deep admiration for Ted Conover. While The Routes of Man is far from Conover’s best work, it still stands as an example of what makes him such a good writer. While the book’s flap copy asserts the book is about the social impact of six roads in various corners of the earth, it’s really about the people those roads effect. Conover portrays those characters both honestly and lovingly; I guarantee you’ll find yourself caring about these people and their lives. Also check out Newjack.

From 2009: Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind is everything that an essay collection should be: smart, funny, entertaining, and thought provoking. I’d be willing to argue that Smith is the most talented artist writing today, and I’d stand this collection up alongside the best ever written.

This book will be posted, alongside many other outstanding books from last year, on our Best Books of 2009 page.

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