This year's best nonfiction books examine the world we live in and the ways in which it has evolved over time. From the sub-cultures of font and geography lovers to the first civilations on the Mediterranean Sea, 2011 was a brilliant year in nonfiction.
Our top three books focus on different aspects of a war, spanning the 20th century from Berlin's glamorous pre-Nazi days to the lingering effects of returning home from the jungles of Vietnam. What it is Like to Go to War is Karl Marlantes's very personal memoir of what he witnessed during his service during the Vietnam War and the tragic way he was treated upon returning home. With In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson brings 1933 Berlin to life through the eyes of William E. Dodd, America's first ambassador to Hitler's regime, and his wild-child daughter Martha. We get to know the strange and sinister personalities that gave rise to Nazi Germany and see how the city could succumb to Hitler's reign. In contrast, Lost in Shangri-La recounts the heroism of the three Americans who survived a terrible plane crash in the New Guinea jungle toward the end of World War II and the brave paratroopers who staged the daring rescue.
On the quirkier side, Moonwalking with Einstein chronicles Joshua Foer's participation in the U.S. Memory Championship and examines the ways we can train and improve our memories. Just My Type explains how something as seemingly simple as a font--something we take for granted--is actually quite complex and holds great power over our cultural climate.
Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings returns to writing with Maphead, a meditation on why people love maps and the joys of being a "geography wonk." The charming writing style and funny observations will appeal to map lovers and novices alike. And if geography is your thing, The Great Sea is a compelling human history of the Mediterranean Sea and a wonderful addition to geographical scholarship. Its 800-plus pages are a surprisingly fast-paced read due to the adeptness of David Abulafia's storytelling and ability to distill large chunks of history into its most important parts.
--by Caley Anderson