Booked for the Holidays
Slate picks the best reads of 2009.
Jonah Weiner, pop critic Bank Notes compiles the work of the country's highest-paid writers: self-published, anonymous scribes who can command upward of $1,800 a word. They're bank robbers who pass notes to tellers, forgoing weapons in their holdups. As anthologized by Ken Habarta—who reprints the notes alongside security-camera shots, available details of the robberies, and icons indicating the jobs' success or failure—these thieves are practitioners of a fascinating, urgent literature. What other writing seeks to do so much in such little space, and with so much at stake? There's unlikely poetry: "No die," one note goes, a reference to anti-theft dye-packs that doubles as a chilling threat. (Success.) There's blunt, utilitarian prose: "Give me a thousand dollars and don't fuck up." (Busted.) There's black comedy: "I have amtrak," a thief writes, likely meaning anthrax. (I won't spoil that one.) Some robbers look unremarkable. Others wear painter's masks or fake moustaches. The information provided is bare-boned, but every page is a gripping mini-drama.
Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of The Slate Group As a judge of this year's BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, I spent the first half of the year reading loads of nonfiction. One of our finalists, which I haven't stopped thinking about, was The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes' account of the Romantic era's relationship with science. If, like me, you didn't study much science after high school, this absorbing narrative will make you appreciate the gravity of your mistake. At one level, it is simply an enchanting group biography of the great British discoverers Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy, and William Herschel, and their relationships with the likes of Keats, Coleridge, Byron and the Shelleys. At another, Holmes's book is a persuasive plea to heal the pointless breach between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities. Reading it made we want to do college over, this time as a history of science major.
Emily Yoffe, "Dear Prudence" and "Human Guinea Pig" columnist Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, opens in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia. It is a brief era of Czech independence from the usual domination of neighboring countries, and the main characters, a Jewish industrialist and his gentile wife, build a radically modern home made mostly of glass to celebrate the throwing off of the dark, dead past and the welcoming of a world of light and freedom. Then the rest of the 20th century happens. In this exquisite novel, the vast tragedies that befall the Czech people—Nazism, communism—are told through the successive inhabitants of the house. But the people in glass room often remain opaque to themselves and others. It's a brilliant stroke by Mawer to have the convulsions of the 20th century play out in this sparkling house built on optimism. Wait until you finish to read the story of the real house, Villa Tugendhat, designed by Mies van der Rohe.
And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and contributors: Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation, by Daniel Gross; 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan; The Great Depression: A Diary,edited by James Ledbetter; The Best Legal Writing 2009, edited by Dahlia Lithwick; Reputation: Portraits in Power,edited by Timothy Noah; Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, by David Plotz; My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life, by Witold Rybczynski. The F-Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower; and Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, by Michael Steinberger.