Saturday, December 24, 2011


Some of the most significant non-fiction books published this year concerned consciousness and free will.  David Eagleman, whose comic and cosmic Tales of the Afterlives was one of my favorites last year, soared even higher in my estimation with INCOGNITO: THE SECRET LIVES OF THE BRAIN.

I also read and admired Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self, and Michael S. Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

Gazzaniga says that free will only occurs in an individual's relationship with others, which of course is what the classics of literature have been telling us all along.  Free will only develops with empathy.  Ego-driven Man is a slave to his own fears and desires. 

During the year, I enjoyed Charlie Rose's continuing series of interviews with brain scientists, as well as his interviews with physicists such as Lisa Randall, author of Knocking On Heaven's Door.  I also read The Four Percent Universe by Richard Pansk, The Fabric of Reality by Brian Greene, and The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow.

This year's Most Remarkable Tandem Read Award goes to the duo of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Rick James' Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.


Another significant book this year shook us into a new icy awareness.  Jon Ronson's THE PSYCHOPATH TEST was an enlightening read, pointing out that many of those in power are biologically psychopathic, unable to feel empathy, manipulating all of those around them for self-serving ends.  This was certainly one of the best books of the year.

Other important books included Lawrence Lessig's Republic, Lost; Barry Estatrod's Tomatoland; and Robert H. Frank's The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.

The Non-fiction Most Fun To Read Award 2011 goes to:

Jonathan Lethem's THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE.  A hearty collection of sharp insights and humor.  There are 437 pages of miscellaneous Lethem items, including an interview with Bob Dylan, insightful ideas about Philip K. Dick (whose new book he helped edit), reviews of music, books, and movies, and random humorous pieces.  A few weeks ago, I blogged about his essay on postmodernism and Liberty Valance--at this link..

The runner-up was Grant Morrison's surprising Super Gods, rather astonishing to this reader for its depth, wit, and humanism.  I'm certainly not into comics, but Morrison ties well known comic icons with universal myth and offers sound psychological insights into the communal culture that touches us all.

The Best Anthology of the Year:  DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS, nicely edited by Declan Burke.  A collection of sparkling essays and short fictional pieces commenting on the nature of Irish crime fiction, often very literary and insightful and always entertaining.

The runner-up anthology in this category was Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns, edited by John P. Avlon.

Best Memoir By An Author 2011:  Tim Parks' reluctantly transcendental TEACH US TO SIT STILL.  Honorable mentions go to Pat Conroy's My Reading Life and to Katharine Weber's The Memory of All That, both excellent.

Best Memoir By A Musician: JUDY BLUE EYES by Judy Collins.  Honest and interesting.  It gives me a deeper understanding of the music of the time.  I read it in October and reviewed it with my other Halloween reading.  I also reread the late Suze Rotolo's memoir then.

Both Collins and Rotolo talked about the abortions they had back when it was still illegal.  I thought about them again this month when reading Hillary Jordon's novel, When She Woke.

Best Memoir By An Actor:  THE GARNER FILES by James Garner.  I've read many interviews with the man but never understood his argument with Warner Brothers until I read this one.  He was helped on this book by Jon Winokur, editor of Zen To Go and The Portable Curmudgeon, books I'm glad to have in my personal library.

Best Memoir By A Film Critic:  LIFE ITSELF by Roger Ebert.

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