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Desiderata: 2011, Our Favorite Nonfiction Reads

Continuing our weeklong examination of self-importance, we bring you our favorite nonfiction reads of the year.

Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’ll have more to say about this in a January blog post, but Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef was one of those books I read on vacation and kept wishing was five times as long. I am a sucker for any kind of kitchen book, but it was the family that grabbed me here. Hamilton opens with such a painfully vivid portrait of her parents and siblings, especially her mother, that nothing else in the book can quite compare, and yet I didn’t care. The first chapter was so good that it rang through the back of my mind for the rest of the memoir.

Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): During all the preparation for our forthcoming issue, the Science Fair, I was bitten by the science bug. Of all the books I tackled, or attempted to make my way through, one sticks out in my mind for the manifold ways I enjoyed it: The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes. Holmes has written many books about the Romantic poets, including a few great ones on Coleridge, but here turns to the scientists that were working at the time. The book contains mini-biographies of Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy, and others–and Holmes does a great job to give the historical context of each discovery, too. And all in really fun, approachable prose.

Lance Cleland (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): Maybe the subject matter just found me at the right moment, but Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation stayed with me longer than any other nonfiction piece this year. Hardly a page went by without me taking pause to write something down in my notebook. Intimate without being self-serving, Koestenbaum has taken on a subject that is increasingly part of our cultural narrative and attacked it from both personal and historical vantage points, resulting in an addictive read. Not everyone will be on-board with his approach, but the results will have you thinking long after the book has been closed.

Elisabeth Pusack (Intern, Tin House Magazine): Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty. She talks about all the juicy stuff–Michael Haneke, the Vienna Actionists, Ana Mendieta, Lars von Trier. She has no blanket policies about when violence in art is illuminating and when it is gratuitous. Instead she charts her visceral reactions–both revulsions and attractions. I got really riled up, sometimes rallying behind her and sometimes wanting to call her up and argue! This kind of impressionistic criticism is really inspiring. Her approach is still kind of haunting me.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine) You’d be hard-pressed to find a more deft read on cultural uses of violence than what Maggie Nelson offers in The Art of Cruelty. More even than I admire what the book has to say, I’m awed by the writing itself.  Nelson conjoins and balances the instances that build her case in a way that makes me think of Calder’s mobiles, where the movement of one remote element of the project quietly pushes the others into motion until the whole piece is spinning.

Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): My favorite nonfiction read of the year was a return to The Gift, Lewis Hyde’s 1983 masterpiece about artistic creation and its meaning to society. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone who has ever entertained the idea of doing something creative.

Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. This book was so much fun to read! A quick, intelligent yet gossip filled, ride through one of the most dynamic and exciting moments in LA’s art scene. I read it twice!


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