My Short List of Great 2011 Reads

It used to be Top 10 lists or, to aid the reader, two lists of 10, divided into fiction and nonfiction categories. This year, it’s Top 100 lists.

I read a lot of books this year, and I still couldn’t put together a Top 100 list. Not everything deserves to be “tops” and everyone has their own taste, which, I hope, will continue to translate to a long and healthy life for the publishing industry.

I’ve shared thoughts with you on various books I encountered this year, but here’s a very quick guide to the few chosen ones I’ve been sharing with friends, buying as gifts and recommending to colleagues.

Top 3 Fiction Books of 2011

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Canadian writer Patrick deWitt made it to the 2011 Man Booker Prize short list. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending ultimately received this year’s honor, nevertheless deWitt’s is my favorite novel of the year.

I’m not usually one for Westerns, but deWitt, with his tight, tense writing style, short chapters, and devilish narrator, Eli Sisters, weaves the perfect tall tale – one slightly darker in tone than even Twain might venture. If the films of the Coen brothers delight you, you’ll adore this.

Perhaps it is their dumb luck or some messed up alchemy that turns every fortune to ash or Eli’s tender spot for his one-eyed horse, Tub, but despite their villainy, the Sisters brothers, make for compelling protagonists in a California overrun with Gold Rush greed.

Nothing Happened and Then it Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction by Jake Silverstein
From the title, you might assume this snuck into the wrong category. It shares the culturally embedded narratives of the best literary nonfiction, but sit with the book for a chapter or two, and it’ll start to feel like a yarn spun round a campfire.

Silverstein sets off for remote west Texas to learn how to become a reporter, visions of The New Yorker dancing in his head. What happens next is a mash-up of fact and fiction: hunting for the bones of Ambrose Bierce, trying to win the Poet of the Year crown in Reno, searching for pirate treasure, missing in its entirety a 2,000-mile road race across Mexico that he wanted to write a story about, and a painful incident resulting from bad Internet research where he has to admit to a source he’s been shadowing for five days that there will be no story.

Set against the desert Southwest, the line between fiction and truth blurs, Silverstein writes. “In the unshaded sun, thoughts twist like timbers, turning from memory to fantasy to silence…the beauty is pitiless and unusual, and the hard dark mountains furnish no refuge, and the effect of prolonged exposure is often to leave you wondering what is real.”

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Obviously, Catch-22 wasn’t written in 2011, and it was a toss-up between this and The Phantom Tollbooth, both justly enjoying 50th anniversary celebrations and reissues this year.

The anniversary edition includes an introduction by Christopher Buckley and essays by Heller, Studs Terkel, Anthony Burgess, Norman Mailer, and Christopher Hitchens, among others. Heller’s essay takes you through the creation of the novel and its early years of anonymity, long before the phrase “Catch-22” became an official part of the English language, not that it was ever official to begin with:

“Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.”

It’s interesting how great books inform the different periods of your life. I’d read the book one summer when I was still in high school, then found it assigned by a kind, but overly imaginative English teacher the following year. At the time, Heller’s writing about World War II bombing missions seemed perfectly in tune with the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate malaise of the ‘70s. Today, I’d be hard-pressed to say it doesn’t remind me of certain aspects of the corporate world.

That a book can handle so many references, and have different meanings for the diverse audiences and generations who embrace it, makes it one worth re-reading, if only to remember what the fuss was all about in the first place and to have as much fun with the language as Heller clearly did when he wrote it.

Top 3 Nonfiction Books of 2011

The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose
Rose found inspiration for this book from the subjects he wrote about as contributing editor at Wired. Rose’s narrative is spellbinding, as are the examples he uses to develop his thesis. From film and music promotion to the gaming industry, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way. Thrilling to find a read like this.

Rose has tapped in to the key element that makes social media, gaming and new kinds of storytelling so powerful:

“People don’t passively ingest a marketing message, or any type of message,” he observes. “They greet it with an emotional response, usually unconscious [I think he means subconscious], that can vary wildly depending on their own experiences and predispositions. They don’t just imbibe a story; they imbue it with meaning. Which means that perceptions of a brand aren’t simply created by marketers; they’re ‘co-created,’ in the words of Gerald Zaltman of Harvard Business School, by marketers and consumers together…If individuals in the audience ‘co-create’ a story in some sort of give-and-take with the storyteller, then the whole notion of authorial control starts to get fuzzy. The author starts the story; the audience completes it. The author creates the characters and the situation they find themselves in; the audience responds and makes it their own.”

Inspiration in book form for anyone charged with designing social media, PR, advertising or internal communications strategies and programs. Makes a great Christmas gift for that cranky old uncle who still refers to Twitter as “Tweeter.”

Measure What Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement, and Key Relationships by Katie Delahaye Paine
When engagement pundits are still proclaiming in 2011 that social media can’t be measured, it’s nice to know Ms. Paine is out there, championing business intelligence. I’m hoping 2012 will be the year of social media measurement.

One way to bring measurement into your work is to read this smart book and follow Paine on her website and blog. Paine takes the mystery and fear out of measurement and supports the use of metrics not to punish poorly performing programs, but to “identify strengths and weaknesses and allocate resources more intelligently.”

What more could you ask for? The book helps you make the case for measurement at your company, choose the right tools, and understand how to target measurement to different stakeholder audiences.

Problogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett
I had the opportunity to hear Rowse speak at 2011 BlogWorld, and he’s got such a fascinating backstory, I wanted to learn more. Ignore the daunting subtitle and mine this book for astute advice on setting up a blog, creating content and community, promotion, and helpful and easy-to-follow technical solutions. Valuable for anyone – individual, team or corporate bloggers – who wants to develop an engaged interactive community around specific topics.

Keep a Whether Eye Out for the Everpresent Wordsnatcher

Last week’s posts seem mainly about the topic of inspiration. For me, the inspiration to become a writer came from one and only thing: reading.

It wasn’t until many years had passed as a professional writer that I recognized this; I figured a love of reading and the craft of writing were natural allies, and they are. But, I also spotted a pattern throughout my childhood of books that:

  • inspired months of play because their plots were so beguiling that I and my friends just had to re-enact them;
  • conjured continual quoting of certain choice lines;
  • taught me right from wrong and the grey areas in between and what to do about them; and
  • introduced characters and themes that demanded to be revisited and rediscovered at different junctures in my life.

One of these books – The Phantom Tollbooth – may have had the same effects on you. I found it on a recent trip home to New Hampshire, underneath a stack of old books, and instantly began reading it and remembering all over again why I became a writer.

It was a pleasure to learn that writer Michael Chabon had a similar discovery:

“It was while reading The Phantom Tollbooth that I began to realize, not that I wanted to be a writer (that came a little later, at the mercy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but something simpler: I had a crush on the English language, one that was every bit as intense, if less advanced, as that from which the augustly named author, Mr. Norton Juster, himself evidently suffered.”

Chabon is author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Wonder Boys, among many other novels, short story collections and essays, and this quote comes from his updated introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth, which arrives in October.

For those who haven’t read Juster, or re-read this book in a while, The Phantom Tollbooth introduces the reader to Milo and an assortment of characters, such as the Whether Man, Tock the Watchdog, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher (who takes words right out of your mouth) and the Terrible Trivium (who surely haunts adults as much as children).

As with venturing through the looking-glass with Alice, paying your fare at the tollbooth takes you on an adventure that trusts you to think differently, play fairly, reserve judgment, and understand what’s happening without the intervention of an adult – heady stuff for a child.

“Why is it,” Milo is forced to ponder on his quest, “that quite often even the things which are correct just don’t seem to be right?”

Tollbooth isn’t all dark and danger-filled. There are feasts and castles in the air and language everywhere.

The book is rife with puns and plays on words and brimming with the pure joy of usage. As Chabon writes in his Tollbooth essay: “I can’t see how anybody who claims to love language can fail to marvel at the beautiful slipperiness of meaning that puns, like aquarium nets, momentarily catch and bring shimmering to the surface. Puns act to shatter or at least compromise meaning; a pun condenses unrelated, even opposing meanings, like a collapsing dwarf star, into a singularity.”

Near adventure’s end, King Azaz, whose name is itself a pun, and his brother, the Mathemagician, remind Milo that “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” That is as true with language as it is in life.

But perhaps we should let Milo and Tock have the last word:

“I never knew words could be so confusing,” Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog’s ear.

“Only when you use a lot to say a little,” answered Tock.

Updating to add that The New Yorker in its Oct. 17, 2011, issue sits down with author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer for this lovely interview.

Two pieces of writing that inspired me this week:

“The book appeared in my life as mysteriously as the titular tollbooth itself, brought to our house one night as a gift for me by some old friend of my father’s whom I had never met before, and never saw again. Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose. Of all the enchantments of beloved books the most mysterious—the most phantasmal—is the way they always seem to come our way precisely when we need them.”
~ Michael Chabon from The Phantom Tollbooth and the Wonder of Words”

“The last shafts of light waited patiently for a flight of wrens to find their way home, and a group of anxious stars had already taken their places.”
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster