I read 144 books this year, almost half and half fiction and nonfiction. And only about a third of the 63 nonfiction books I read were Russian in nature, so there! Anyway, at this juncture, I would like to give you my Top 5 Picks for Nonfiction Reads in 2012. (This only means I read them in 2012, not that they were published this year, because I really never do read new books.) You may ask why only five, especially when the fiction post covers ten. Pretty much because I only liked five nonfiction books enough to go on about them, and also because I didn’t want these two posts to have a word count of about a million. (PS, the read dates indicate when I finished the book; no start dates.)
1. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky
My number one favorite nonfiction book from the last year is one that I don’t necessarily recommend anyone else read! But that makes sense because the more I like a thing, the more specific to myself it seems. Oh, I even have a great story about how I discovered this book! In Bloomington, where it seems like I lived a lifetime ago, I used to hunt in used bookstores for books about Nicholas, and I actually found two that had been stuffed with relevant newspaper and magazine clippings by former owners! Jackpot! Tucked into the very back of The File on the Tsar (another one I have a great story about that I won’t tell now for lack of time) was a three-page folded article from a 1992 issue of People magazine discussing Radzinsky and this very book! It took me awhile to get it from the library, but when I did, I was extremely pleased. Here is not only one of the best books I’ve ever read written on the subject of Nicholas II, but also the only one actually written by a Russian. Edvard Radzinsky is actually a Russian playwright, but a fascination with the lost Romanovs led him to spend twenty years researching this masterpiece. Although the translation is a little quirky at times as far as wording is concerned, it is bar none the fairest and most thorough biography of the last of the Romanov tsars, and the standard by which I now measure all other biographies. (Fairness is my number-one criterion when it comes to judging books about Nicholas II. He may have been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church but he was no saint and far from perfect, but did he do anything worthy of execution? No, he did not.) Radzinsky gets the final word in my world. I don’t actually recommend this book to anyone in particular, unless you’re interested in Nicholas, have a thing about biography, or are some kind of WWI buff, maybe. Because if you aren’t any of those things, I don’t see how it will be interesting reading for you. But since it was my favorite nonfiction book I read all year, it comes first!
2. Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire by Dominic Lieven
Again: the best Nicholas II biography I have ever read. Both of these claim the honor but for different reasons. This is not a typical biography; it is the only comparative biography I have ever heard of. Nicholas II is a popular target for criticism and hatred even to this day; in response, Lieven takes the unique route of examining pretty much every aspect of Nicholas’ life through the lens of nineteenth century contemporaries: how did other rulers of the same time period handle similar situations? (The answer: pretty much the same way Nicholas was. Judgments against his political rulings and reactions are unfair because he was behaving within the political norm and the political possible for his day and age as well as for his country.) Also, how did Nicholas’ upbringing by his parents compare to the upbringing of his aristocratic peers? (The answer: not good. Unfortunately, unhappy Nicholas’ parents screwed him over from the beginning. With a dominating father, overbearing mother, and almost perfect isolation, it’s a miracle he turned out as well as he did!) Anyway, a really brilliant book, and absolutely fair. I do recommend this one for anyone who would like more detail about WWI, or just looking for a general and fair overview of the last Russian tsar that leaves you free to make up your own mind about him.
3. Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker
My recommendation is less specific this time: if you’re in the United States and you care about libraries, books, tax dollars, or the common good, you need to read this book. I would warn you that it’s extremely difficult stuff to read, and I recommend taking it in small chunks, especially if you even remotely care about books, because Baker goes into gruesome detail about the outright vandalism done by so-called librarians ever since the 1950s and the microfilm/microfiche craze and all its related propaganda. You will never, ever look at the Library of Congress the same, I can promise you that much. The title refers to a ridiculous test performed by these supposed librarians who were out to prove that paper was an unreliable medium doomed to absolute disintegration within the next 25 years (you can do the math on how long ago it’s been since they made these claims in the 1950s! Paper is clearly not going anywhere!) — they took a book, threw it in an oven at something like 400° and baked it for a few days, and then they folded the corners of the paper back and forth until they fell off, thus “proving” the inherent instability of paper. As a solution, they gutted and shredded countless volumes, sacrificing them to microfilm gods. Microfilms, by the way, which were often unreadable from the beginning due to haphazard filming technology, and many of which are now faded, damaged, melted, or lost, and all of which were filmed in high contrast black-and-white, effectively destroying any pictures. Baker actually focuses a great deal on newspapers, particularly turn-of-the-last-century newspapers, which you can imagine how ornate and highly colorful these were. Most of them no longer exist because of the bizarre war on paper that caused libraries to simply shred them when they were done “preserving” them. It’s interesting to note, as Baker does more than once, it is actually significantly cheaper to rent bulk storage space than it is to microfilm a collection. Also, some notes on digitization make it into the book, pointing out, as I have often said, the sheer lunacy of thinking we are ever going to be able to digitize everything, simply because the server space does not exist and cannot exist. Anyway, many more and far more shocking stories than this are to be found in this book, which I would give to every single person in the country if I could.
4. Biblical Creationism: What Each Book of the Bible Teaches about Creation and the Flood by Henry Morris
The last place I went with my niece Zoë was the Creation Museum. At the time, we didn’t know it was the last place we were going to go with her, but it was so providentially appropriate, and not only because of how much she loved the Creation Museum. It was actually not a very good day that came after not a very good week; everybody’s stress levels were about at their various breaking points, and I — still stinging violently from being cut out of the spaghetti dinner that was Zoë’s last really animated time in public — uncharacteristically got extremely sharp with my parents and demanded to be taken along to the Creation Museum. Because Dad had been hissing about the cost of getting five adults into the museum, and because this wasn’t long after my birthday, Mr. and Mrs. Cook actually sent me $25 for admission as a birthday present. However, by our arrival, Dad had gotten free admission for all of us, and not only that, but free planetarium tickets and a brief meeting with Dr. Georgia Purdom, a molecular biologist at AiG. So toward the close of the day, I stood in the gift shop looking at a shelf of apologetics labeled “Technical and Academic” and wondering if I dared Morris’ Biblical Creationism, a book covering every reference made to Creation in the entire Bible. How technical was too technical? But I bought it. It was the next week that Jesus took Zoë home. Now to the reason I think this book was providential: in Morris’ The Remarkable Record of Job, which I read early this year without imagining the down turn life was going to take after July, he explains how the purpose of the book is absolutely not to answer why Christians suffer, but to show the appropriate response to suffering. When Job asks God what’s up, God points to creation. So in the weeks following a death that I had never expected to happen, I read this study, and I liked it. The apocryphal parts were the most fascinating, particularly since I consider Morris a trustworthy guy who doesn’t reference anything without good authority behind it.
5. Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen: Temper Tantrums, F Words, and the Pursuit of Perfection by Gordon Ramsay
This is the American release of Ramsay’s autobiography Humble Pie. I pretty much discovered Gordon Ramsay this year, although I first watched him in Master Chef two years ago. As one of the three judges on Master Chef (Blondie, as opposed to Biggie and Baldy), he impressed me with his unflinching honesty, his enthusiasm for food, and his desire for perfection. This year I started watching Kitchen Nightmares and was just blown away by the way he was able to raise not only restaurants but people out of the depths. I also watched Hell’s Kitchen, though it has none of the soothing elements of KN, and an episode or two of Hotel Hell and some of The F-Word (which is so bizarrely British I couldn’t understand what was going on. If you don’t know what I mean by bizarrely British, you’re either British yourself, or you really haven’t been exposed enough despite ‘omg I’ve seen all the Eleventh Doctor episodes & I heart British TV so hardcore!!1!’). Anyway, not only is he attractive, honest, and perfection-driven (qualities I highly admire in just about anyone), but he is also a lot more than that, as I learned by reading this unexpected autobiography. I was home alone for a long stretch, and wildly bored, and doing nothing but watching Kitchen Nightmares in my apartment, so I rampaged through the library getting all the cookbooks I could. This was in with the cookbooks and I didn’t realize it was a biography until I picked up and started reading it at the bus stop on the way home. Gordon Ramsay is a man who has endured a lot of bad stuff in his life but never stopped believing in hard work and excellence. Every time some contestant on Hell’s Kitchen says “I understand Gordon,” I roll my eyes, but this book made me really understand him. (Also, I’m not trying to work for him.) Did I mention I admire a man who can call it as he sees it, good as well as bad? But he also has this incredible intuition for what people need to hear. Plus, he’s had about two near-death experiences and was almost set on fire by insane shark poachers while filming an expose. The guy is a badass.
Honorable Mention: The Lie: Evolution / Millions of Years by Ken Ham.
This is an honorable mention because, while I did read Ham’s 1992 edition of The Lie, I did not read this 25th anniversary updated edition that came out in September of this year. Ken Ham is a great and inspiring Christian leader and evangelist whose work in Creation Science is truly great. When I read The Lie, I believed that everyone on the planet should read it, and now, although I still don’t have this updated edition, I have upgraded my opinion to believe that everyone should read this edition. A lot has happened in 25 years, and as a follower of Ham’s blog, I have an idea of what some of the pertinent subjects he must cover in the new one that weren’t even thought of when he wrote the original.
Buy it (here).