Posted by: Matt Compton | January 7, 2009

The Best Books of 2008

Late into the afternoon, on New Year’s Eve, I read my final chapter of 2008. This year, I finished 75 books — down a bit from the 2007 but exactly where I was two years ago.

Perhaps because I spent so much time thinking about the election, 2008 was a year dominated by nonfiction. Nearly a third of the books I read dealt directly with politics, almost half were works of history, and only 35 were novels.

Below you’ll find a collection of my favorites. I call them the best, but of course, they’re only the best that I read.

I’d love to hear reactions if you have similar (or widely different) impressions.

American Buffalo by Steven Rinella
If there is one book from 2008 that I cannot get out of my head, it is this one. I finished it a month ago, and I haven’t had a day go by when I haven’t thought about it.

The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll
I don’t know if there is a better observer of contemporary history writing today. If possible, this book is better than Ghost Wars, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
With Malcolm Gladwell you fully expect to be fascinated. You don’t expect to continue thinking about his ideas for weeks after the book is done, but that’s what Outliers delivers.

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
It took months before I appreciated this book fully, but living through the 2008 election helps a person to see the world as Perlstein does.

Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
I’ve got a special place in my heart for Sarah Vowell, and this book is her best piece of long-form history.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
This is the smartest, angriest, most emotionally-savvy novel about the world in which we now live that I’ve ever read.

Lush Life by Richard Price
There may be those who are better at seeing the American city, but no one hears it better than Richard Price. The dialogue is so fresh and credible that plot doesn’t matter.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Gosh
The world that Ghosh conjures is wholly original; populated by characters brimming with life, packed with emotion, speaking a mashup of languages that somehow wills itself to be understood. All of it is a joy to read.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
Laura Bush just signed a book deal for her memoir, but I have a hard time believing that anything she writes could be as likable or true-feeling as this novel.

Little Brother by Corey Doctorow
The unlikeliest hero of 2008 is a high school kid named Marcus who finds himself on the wrong side of the Department of Homeland Security, and this novel, ostensibly written for young adults, might just be the year’s most important book.

*Honorable Mention:

The Last Campaign by Thurstan Clark

Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
America, America by Ethan Canin
The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu



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