A Year of Favorites: Tobias Carroll’s Favorite Non-2012 Books of 2012

First thought upon looking at this list: there’s a lot more nonfiction than I’d expected. Many of my favorite books that I read this year (that weren’t newly released this year) are, in fact, works of nonfiction — meditations on art and culture, in many cases. It doesn’t hurt to know many folks with excellent taste in books; many of the books on this list were recommended by friends or received as gifts. In the months to come, here’s hoping I can return the favor.

Ten books follow, in no particular order.

A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Archipelago)
It’s a sort of history of angels, this novel, leaping from the present day to the Middle Ages to retellings of familiar Biblical narratives. It’s incredibly readable; it’s also, ultimately, totally bat-shit insane and will probably make you terrified of seagulls. Seriously, you should be reading it right now.

Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins (Holt)
In this collection of profiles of contemporary artists (Cindy Sherman, James Turrell, and Damien Hirst among them), Tomkins is incisive about their work and  the context in which it was created. He also, impressively, subtly raises issues of class and economics without ever overwhelming the short narratives he creates.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin)
Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost begins with a contemplation of solitude, and moves forward from there. Histories cultural and personal, unlikely geographies, and musings on politics all play a role in this book; from these disparate elements arises a compelling (f0r me, at least) work.

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer (Vintage)
The easiest description of this book — “Geoff Dyer tries, and fails, to write a book about D.H. Lawrence” — doesn’t do justice to the work that ensued. Like almost everything Dyer has written, it eludes easy summation but is incredibly rewarding.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (Penguin)
I’d intended to read Rebecca West’s mammoth book about the Balkans for a while now, and while traveling over the summer I finally did so. Her book examines eastern Europe just before the second World War, and it’s both a compelling portrait of nations awaiting chaos and of the complex history of the region.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (Harper Perennial)
Featuring some of the most lyrical writing about nature I’ve ever encountered, as well as some of the most disquieting images of it.

Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World by Donald Antrim (Picador)
Surreal, sometimes hilarious and sometimes monstrous events in a suburban community gone horribly wrong. Tonally, it’s like nothing I’ve read before, and it left me eager to read more of Antrim’s work.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (NYRB Classics)
Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s account of his efforts to travel to Greenland, and of his time journeying through the towns he found there, is both a compelling narrative and a starkly honest look at the gulf between expectations and reality.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books)
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets serves as a kind of meditation on the concept of blue, and of certain relevant artistic and personal occurrences. It was strange, reading her book The Art of Cruelty a few months later, to see some of the same events she described here written about in a vastly different style.

Boggs: A Comedy of Values by Lawrence Weschler (University of Chicago Press)
Lawrence Weschler’s book about artist J.S.G. Boggs is a smart take on illusion, artifice, and aesthetics — I’d love to pair it with Orson Welles’s F For Fake. But it’s also a smart meditation on economics and ideas of labor; the tone may be breezy in parts, but the concepts wrestled with here are anything but.

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