Posted by: Matt Compton | December 12, 2011

My favorite books of 2011

So far, in 2011, I’ve read 68 books. That’s a bit down from last year, but I still have a couple weeks to catch up. I’m shooting for 75. This was a year was dominated by novels — only 22 of the books I read in 2011 were nonfiction.
As I’ve worked on these lists, I’ve tried to choose 10 books that were standouts — books I want to recommend to everyone. The one rule I’ve tried to keep is that the books I choose in any given year should be published in the year I’m putting together the list.
But today, I’m going to bend that a bit. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan should have been on last year’s list. It was one of the first books I read in January, and it was beyond brilliant. It is an incredible novel, written as a series of time-hopping, genre-bending, interconnected stories about rebellion, rock and roll, and loss. Sharply-poignant bits of heartache flow into acute, pitch-perfect moments of satire. No chapter is better than the 70 page power point presentation toward the end.
Here are my favorite books of 2011.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Henry Skrimshander is the kind of baseball player whose abilities transcend the sport. In game after game, he’s perfect. Until suddenly he isn’t, and a routine throw manages to put his roommate in the hospital. You could say this is a book about baseball, but that would be like saying that The Great Gatsby is about parties. This is a story about failure, brotherhood, and becoming an adult. It’s the kind of novel that takes a decade to write, but the result is something old-fashioned and honest.
Ready Player One by Earnest Cline
Ernest Cline’s first novel is geeky, engaging, and sweet. It’s a funny, page-turning adventure filled with cultural catnip for anyone who spent a part of childhood in the 1980s. Wade Watts is a young gamer in a race with the planet to unlock a series of puzzles and win the estate of a dead billionaire game designer. Along the way, he grows up, falls in love, and tangles with an evil corporation bent on unwinding the online world that is his life. This is science fiction — alternating between a deeply-imagined, advanced multiplayer game and a run-down, resource-poor America of 2044. But at its heart, this is a narrative of the future that’s obsessed with nostalgia.
The Submission: A Novel by Amy Waldman
As this novel opens, a jury is making its final decisions about the memorial that the city of New York will build at Ground Zero. Choice made, the jury chairman opens the envelope that holds the name of the winner, and then all hell to break loose. They’ve picked a submission from an architect named Mohammed Khan and everyone has an opinion about whether or not a Muslim should be allowed to build the memorial. This is a story about how America views itself. It’s brave, honest and beautifully written — and I knocked it out in one sitting.
If there’s any justice in this world, Laini Taylor’s young adult novel will develop the kind of following that puts her heroine, Karou, in the same pantheon as Katniss, Bella, and Harry. Karou is an art student in Prague, who is regularly tasked with running shadowy errands for her family — all of whom are otherwordly. The plot is exciting, the characters are fully realized, the writing is beautiful, but more than anything, the story is startling and original. And when we’re talking about fantasy — a genre where too many novels grow in the shadow of earlier work — creating something new is no small achievement.
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
The heroine at the center of this novel is Margo Crane. I don’t know if there is a stronger or more idiosyncratic character in any book I read this year. She suffers from appalling violence without being a victim. She struggles to carve out a life for herself but never loses sight of her identity. She has a genuine talent — the ability to do nearly anything with a gun — and the determination of a survivor. But her innocence is deep and nearly inescapable, a fact which continually gets in her way. This is a story of rural Michigan which tells a broader truth about what it means to be free anywhere.
In this new book, Charles Mann has written a history of how the modern world came to be. He looks at how corn, tobacco, and sweet potatoes helped to bring an end to the Ming Dynasty, how malaria added years to the Civil War, and how smallpox might have helped to create the Little Ice Age — and that’s all before the book is halfway done. It’s a globe spanning dynamo of a read that chronicles disease and social upheaval, innovation and exploration. Throughout, Mann weaves together agricultural history, economic analysis, political science, and personal observation to create a book packed with startling insights and fascinating anecdotes. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.
Hamilton is the owner of Prune in New York City and an incredible chef. She’s also an MFA graduate from the University of Michigan. When I began her memoir, I didn’t realize that fact, and as I read, I became more and more frustrated by the depth of her talent. It seemed patently unfair. Somehow, knowing that she had to work to get this good as a writer made me feel better. This is a story of self-discovery and invention, and it’s easily one of the best books of 2011.
When a monarch is remembered with an honorific like “Great,” it can be hard to peer into the fog of mythology and identify anything resembling objective truth. But the portrait of Empress Catherine that emerges in Robert Massie’s narrative is substantive, warm-blooded, and surprisingly modern — she’s human. Through almost 600 pages, we watch her grow from a girl of 14, far from home and largely without friends, to a charming and ambitious woman at the head of an expansive empire. This biography has been called novelistic, and for good reason: the pacing is tight, the details are fascinating, and the product is nothing short of remarkable.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
By the time the Second World War begins in earnest, William Dodd and his family have left Berlin and returned to the United States. But that makes Erik Larson’s story of Dodd’s ambassadorship in Nazi Germany no less thrilling. The family is there as Hitler consolidates power, and each of them experiences the mounting oppression and paranoia from a unique perspective. Unique, by the way, is perhaps the only way to describe Dodd’s daughter, Martha — opinionated, shameless, and in many ways, captivated by the dramas unfolding around her.
Steve Job by Walter Isaacson
For all the ink that’s been spilled writing up profiles of Jobs — some fawning and others not — there’s never been a treatment of his life and career quite like this. In writing this book, Isaacson had Jobs’ cooperation but not his oversight. He talked to scores of the Apple founder’s friends and collaborators, associates and rivals. The resulting book is as complex and fascinating as Jobs himself. We all have our own opinions about the man changed the world in which we live, but it’s impossible to read this book and not walk away with a different impression of Steve Jobs and what he accomplished.


  1. It’s nice to see what other people are reading! I am a bookworm myself and I occasionally blog about books.

  2. Today i spent 300 bucks for platinium roulette system , i hope that i will earn my first cash online

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