Some of the best non-fiction this year came from the realm of historical documents. Though Justice Scalia always writes a better, more entertaining and engaging opinion (albeit one that betrays a frighteningly archaic set of biases), Justice Kennedy wrote one for the ages because through his sometimes clunky legal opinions he penned one of the most redemptive, straightforward and important statements of this 21st century, denouncing DOMA:
The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
Similarly, President Obama is always a great writer and rhetorician, but his balanced comments on Trayvon Martin felt historic and redemptive:
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
Perhaps there is too much restraint in these words, but that an African American president, in his second elected terms is saying this, matters. We too often separate non-fiction into historical material and commentary on that material, but we do a disservice to the centrality and singularity of certain historical utterances that are as important and impactful if not more than literary efforts. Though, this scathing commentary on our historical gun insanity from Gary Willis is priceless.
This year also gave us a few books that signaled a shift in the reigning philosophical thinking, and evinced a real tiredness with the often shallow conversations about religion, atheism, and materialism we see on a daily basis. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his small book, Mind and Cosmos attacked the coherence of the fundamentals of pure materialism that rests at the heart of our culture and science. While many retaliated with scathing accusations against Nagel, including the sin of modern heresy, the damage was done. Similarly, but from the opposite direction, religious philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies attacks the supposed divide between science and religion and claims that religion actually accounts for science in a more holistic way that purely materialistic and atheistic propositions. Again, though controversial, the mainstreaming of this conversation highlights a prevalent cultural trend away from the supposed extreme divide between science and religion.
Moving from the realm of theory to lived life, the legal philosopher and all around public intellectual bad-ass, Richard Dworkin passed away, but left us his posthumously published book, Religion without God, that explicates the principles of Dworkin’s view of religious atheism, the ambitious life he actually lived. Again, from the opposite direction, poet Chris Wiman wrote, My Bright Abyss, an important and stirring book on his forms of religious faith, which often entail a curious mix of atheism and monotheism. Essentially, if ever you felt frustrated by the lack of nuance in the cultural dialogue of the day, this year was a good year to talk about God, faith, and belief without feeling cliched or embarrassed.
I hate to sound outdated or too conservative in any sense, but some of the White Male writers of our generation gave us interesting reads, even if they don’t hold a candle to the actual best books of the year. I think Franzen’s crankiness is unfortunate because I actually enjoyed his new book immensely. Call me old fashioned, but sometimes I like my authors to be assholes who make me think and challenge my biases. I truly think this is one of the more important contentions of 2013:
And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts toward apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our Far Left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our Far Right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that our manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction.
It’s easy to dismiss the whole paragraph because of the last sentence which places too much weight on the corrosive power of technology, but Franzen has touched an important nerve. Again, in the vein of White Privileged Males worrying about the corrosive effects of technology, I really loved Dave Eggers new novel, The Circle. Though not the best written, or even the most cohesive story, Egger’s book brims with restless ideas, and displays one of the most prolific and fruitful minds of our generation. People dismissed his book as simplistic, which is like calling 1984 reductive because it exaggerates a totalitarian society. That’s the point. Eggers offers us a frightening picture of the extremes of loving technology and its frightening because it doesn’t feel foreign at all. As Margaret Atwood wrote about the book, it’s full of philosophical ideas and questions underneath a brisk, highly readable and enjoyable story, which is what our writers should be doing. Eggers has never shied away from asking moral questions of our society and literature, and he does that better than anyone else writing today.
Some of the best cultural output of the year makes the idea of “best of” seem senseless. 12 Years a Slave, while one of the better movies of the year, belongs in a different category that transcends simple aesthetic standards. I do truly believe that if you felt stirred by the movie, you should read the book written by Solomon Northup. Similarly, It’s hard to say that I loved artist, Karen Green’s, Bough Down, because how can you love something that leaves you terribly shattered? Most people wouldn’t know the artist Karen Green except that she was the wife of the beloved David Foster Wallace. She released a curious memoir this year, a sort of a mourning journal with art that defies categorization. The book doesn’t mention DFW, even in the description on the back, but he haunts the pages. Green is a beautiful writer on her own, and her struggling through the poetics of grief is some of the most challenging yet compelling writing I’ve read in a while having nothing to do with whom she grieves for.
TV gave us another fantastic year full of great goodbyes (30 Rock and Breaking Bad, Eastbound and Down) and returns (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Justified) but most significantly for me, TV showcased the talent and range of woman on TV today. Tina Fey wrapped up the generationally defining story of Liz Lemon, and Orange is the New Black, for all it’s lovable flaws, is one of the best cultural expressions of womanhood with range, depth, bite, and warmth to spare. Gillian Anderson was amazing in The Fall, Elisabeth Moss was flawless on my favorite TV series of the year, Top of the Lake, and the women of the French show, The Returned, steal the show including the electric twin sisters and the lesbian couple. Getting On, the new show on HBO centers on women taking care of women, displays Reno 911‘s Niecy Nash in a side you would never expect from her.
As for the work that left the greatest impression upon me, well, I still can’t stop thinking about Eduardo Corral’s award winning debut set of poems, Slow Lightning. Some of his poems I don’t yet understand, but when I connect, I feel changed, in touch with something elemental and dangerous. It’s a thrill to read.
Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality.