The conventional wisdom in publishing holds that tough economic times are good for books, because books provide more hours of entertainment per dollar, more life-enhancing education and more grist for post-materialistic soul-searching than any other form of purchasable culture.
Then again, 2008 was a year when all conventional wisdom went south, and we end it with layoffs in many of the largest publishing companies and an announcement from Houghton/Harcourt, a recently merged fusion of two venerable houses, that, for the time being, they will not be acquiring any new manuscripts. (Publishers have imposed informal buying freezes in the past, but announcing it publicly is almost unprecedented.) On the other hand, the Hachette Book Group, its coffers fattened by the "Twilight" series of teen vampire romance novels and James Patterson’s unnervingly productive thriller-industrial complex, is dishing out bonuses at a time when even hedge fund managers feel lucky to still be getting a paycheck.
There's no doubt that escapism pays, especially when there's plenty to escape from, but great books continue to be published and read, and many of these also provide welcome respite for jittery readers. Remember what it was like to slow down, take the phone off the hook and immerse yourself in a story, true or invented, that made the world around you disappear for hours on end? Or to give yourself the time to understand some important aspect of this world in a deeper and more comprehensive way than any newspaper or magazine can offer? Here is our annual list of 10 books -- five fiction, five nonfiction -- that brought us back to that experience.
In this distracted, anxious and superficial age, getting lost in a good book has begun to look like the very best way to get away from it all.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
An elusive German writer and the murders of hundreds of girls and women in a bleak town on the Mexican-U.S. border are the two mysteries at the core of this expansive, mesmerizing novel in five parts. The critical reputation of Bolaño, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, got a massive boost in the English-speaking world with the publication of "The Savage Detectives" last year; we were skeptics when it came to that novel, but "2666" has made believers out of us. Bolaño pursues, with suave implacability, questions of art and evil through an immense web of stories, some humorously mundane, others as resonant and enigmatic as the great myths. On any page, you might be reminded of Borges or Melville or David Foster Wallace, but the totality is utterly original. Are the worst brutalities that humanity perpetrates redeemed or ameliorated to the slightest degree by our most sublime achievements? That's the puzzle this novel circles as it winds through academic conferences and coroner's reports, romantic triangles and gang killings, cafes and battlefields, with a light-footed and mournful curiosity that seems, despite the author's abbreviated life, nothing less than infinite.
A Person of Interest by Susan Choi
In Choi's Hitchcockian premise, an undistinguished Midwestern math professor finds himself the object of rumors and suspicion when a more celebrated colleague is killed by a mail bomber. Dr. Lee, a refugee of aristocratic descent from an unnamed Asian country, may be innocent of that crime, but he holds himself guilty of other, less actionable transgressions, and his pervasive discomfort with himself and everyone around him causes him to sink further and further into confusion and disgrace. A nuanced consideration of what it means to fit in, and of what we owe to the people around us, "A Person of Interest" eschews obvious answers. At once a tragedy of character and a tale of suspense, this novel is a seamless integration of the political and the personal, beautifully written and impeccably unsentimental.
The Likeness by Tana French
Ostensibly a detective novel, French's follow-up to her 2007 novel, "In the Woods," is, like that earlier book, willfully disobedient to the dictates of genre; French refuses to offer complete resolutions or strictly realistic scenarios. Cassie Maddox, the partner of the self-destructing detective who narrated "In the Woods," is drawn into a ménage à cinq of college students living a seeming charmed existence in an Irish country house. One of the five, a girl who is Cassie's doppelgänger and has been living under an alias Cassie once used as an undercover narcotics agent, turns up murdered in a ruined cottage. Cassie is given the unlikely task of pretending to be a woman who was pretending to be a woman whom Cassie once pretended to be. As you might expect, "The Likeness" wrestles with matters of identity and intimacy as its heroine comes to prefer this triply false life to her real one. The hypnotic prose and eerie atmosphere conspire to make this ostensible mystery novel much, much more than it appears to be.
Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
Perhaps it's some subtle shift in the zeitgeist, but "The Likeness" is not the only novel of complicated identity on our list this year. In Galchen's wryly elegant tale, Leo Liebenstein, a New York psychiatrist, suddenly decides that his beloved wife, Rema, has been replaced by a near-perfect impostor. After sparring with the "false" Rema, he embarks on a continent-spanning search for the real one, winding up in Argentina, where the notion of disappearing loved ones acquires an even more painful resonance. In his quest, Leo is assisted by one of his own patients -- a delusional fellow who claims to be on the lam from a cabal that manipulates the weather -- and is guided by cryptic messages apparently sent by a distinguished meteorologist. If Tana French writes of the impossibility of understanding the full truth about ourselves, Galchen marvels over the hubris in thinking that we can ever really know those we love -- and suggests that authenticity is more a matter of faith than of facts.
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
This sprawling, satirical novel of intersecting suburban families is set in Sheffield, England, from 1974 to the mid-'90s, and its author is firmly committed to reproducing the textures of that world, from the pretentious hors d'oeuvres served by an aspiring middle-class housewife ("mushroom vol-au-vents") to the white formica and smoked brown glass of a neighbor's furniture "unit." Yet somehow the very specificity of these details makes Hensher's suburbia seem all the more universal, an archetypal field of dreams, seething with antsy and malign children, distracted husbands and yearning, straying wives who muddle their way from the swinging '70s through the Thatcher years. American writers tend to approach suburban life with either savage ridicule or stricken solemnity, so Hensher's humanism, equal parts humor and sympathy and embodied in a restless third-person perspective that gives every character's viewpoint its due, feels especially welcome. Reading it is a bit like wandering through your old neighborhood, listening in on the thoughts of the residents in each house, finally able to apprehend the hilarious, pitiful and miraculous expanse of it all.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris
Film critic Harris takes the five nominees for the best picture Oscar of 1967, and uses them as lenses to examine the tectonic changes that were taking place in the movie industry and American society as a whole. "Doctor Dolittle" represented the irrelevant bloat of the doomed studio system; "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" stood for right-thinking, middle-of-the-road liberalism; "In the Heat of the Night" showed how much (and how little) an African-American actor like Sidney Poitier could expect in the way of opportunity; "Bonnie and Clyde" embodied the birth of a hip new internationalism; and "The Graduate" spoke for youth culture and its romantic discontents. Harris retraces the very different stories behind the making of all five films, beginning around 1963, when two staffers at Esquire with no experience of Hollywood wrote a screenplay about a couple of Depression-era bank robbers for their idol, François Truffaut, and unwittingly ushered in a new approach to movie production. It seems astonishing that no one hit upon this premise earlier, but as Harris' execution abundantly illustrates, no one could have done it better.
The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer
No other book penetrates further into the black heart of the war on terror than Mayer's masterly examination of the Bush administration's erosion of civil liberties and human rights in the prosecution of that so-called war. Tapping published works by other journalists as well as her own reporting for the New Yorker on the administration's efforts to justify the use of torture on detainees, Mayer makes sure that "The Dark Side" is about much more than just Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. She describes the process by which, after Sept. 11, a toxic combination of fear and arrogance infected the inner circles of the nation's leadership -- most notably Vice President Dick Cheney and his secretive advisor David Addington, the architect of the administration's notorious torture policies -- leading to what Mayer persuasively describes as "the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history." Though their reign is nearly over, the moral downfall of these men remains a lasting lesson for any leader, an example of the terrible dangers inherent in power and paranoia.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
Part true-crime narrative, part cultural history, Summerscale's exploration of a notorious case of child-murder in 1860 is above all an inquiry into our lasting fascination with detectives and detective stories. Her hero, Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of the very first investigators at the newly formed Scotland Yard and a figure of fascination for such writers as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, was called in to solve a killing in a country house that eerily resembles a notorious mystery of our own time: the JonBenet Ramsey murder. What Whicher found out -- but was ultimately unable to prove, to his lasting despair -- undermined almost everything that nice middle-class families chose to believe about their own way of life. Summerscale uses the case to crack open not only the allure of the detective as a fictional diviner of guilt and innocence, but also the curious details and ugly truths about everyday Victorian life concealed behind the most respectable facades.
Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker
Much as we may decry and gripe about the phenomenon Walker calls "commercial persuasion," marketing and advertising are omnipresent aspects of contemporary life, and Americans have a much more complex and ambivalent relationship with them than most of us are willing to admit. "Buying In" explores the bleeding edge of innovative marketing, from undercover shills touting a new line of booze in your local bar to hipsters appropriating a product like Pabst Blue Ribbon to millennial kids whose concept of art is the creation of their own brands. The implications of these examples are wide-ranging. A concept Walker calls "murketing," in which advertisers refrain from establishing a mass-culture identity for a product and instead encourage various subcultures to project their own meanings onto it, may be the most helpful model for understanding the precedent-busting campaign of Barack Obama. Walker makes an exceptionally insightful and reflective guide to this brave new world, ever prepared to cajole his readers into thinking a little harder about cultural phenomena we take for granted and too all blithely write off as affecting everyone but ourselves.
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order by Joan Wickersham
Wickersham's father shot himself in 1991, apparently in despair over an impending business failure, but the real motivations of this Willie Lomanesque figure will never be known. Written in the form of an index, an acknowledgment of Wickersham's inability to frame her father's act in any conventionally linear form, this memoir is written in a cool, economical and ultimately piercing style utterly devoid of easy pathos or cliché. Anyone prone to facile dismissals of the memoir as literary high art should be silenced by the perfection of Wickersham's prose and her ability to hold the facts and her feelings up to the light, turning them again and again to reveal yet another facet of grief, anger, love, pity and guilt.