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The Best Books of 2010: The Top Ten (and More)

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Well, we had fun with our Twitter countdown experiment yesterday, and I hope we didn't keep you tied to your screen hitting refresh all day. (Well, that actually was our aim.) We saved our top ten for today, and although for form's sake we're tweeting them in order too, anyone who wants to see them all at once can do so here, or visit our Best Books of 2010 page, which went live this morning. It's chock-full of lists, in our usual style, with our Editors' Picks and Customer Favorites top 100s (the Customer Favorites is based on our top-selling 2010 releases during the year), along with top 10 lists in categories from Arts & Photography to Teens.

Our Best of the Year lists are always the culmination of a year of eager book scouting, and then a few contentious weeks of nominating, discussing, rehashing, rereading, and sorting, and this year is no different, although, like last year, our #1 pick made itself pretty plain, and left us extra time to debate the other 99 spots on the Top 100. As soon as we read Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we thought it was pretty special. In just 300 pages (and in her first book), Skloot makes an incredibly difficult task seem simple: weaving together a story of science and history with a very personal account of a family who has not always wanted their story told. The book is full of surprise, incident, and character (not the least of which is Skloot herself, although her presence never overwhelms the story), the way good stories are, but it's also a story of ideas, which Skloot treats as subtly and even-handedly as she does the people she writes about. It's the rare sort of book that is ambitious and innovative, but that you could also give to any curious reader, and that's just the sort of book we love to put at the top of our list.

As I mention on our Best of 2010 page, one thing that struck me about the top books on our list is how many of them took a long time to get written, for one reason or another. If we, as people say, live in an age of instant gratification and infatuation with youth (do we? maybe I'll know in another 10 years), these books are noteworthy for how much they gained from patience and persistence. And perspective too. Skloot, as she mentioned in our interview, was fascinated with the story of Henrietta Lacks since she heard a bit of her story in high school, and she spent over a decade gaining the trust of Henrietta's family and, with their help, unearthing her story. It took over three decades before Karl Marlantes could finally transform his experiences in Vietnam into the finished art of Matterhorn. And Patti Smith's memoir of her young friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe is so charming in part because of the way her wide-eyed youth exists so easily within the woman she's become 40 years later. Even Michael Lewis's Big Short, a book about the way we live now, didn't come in the first big wave of books about the crash, but took a little more time to tell what ended up being the first book I'd give someone to read on the subject.

(Not every book on the list fits the mold. David Grossman's To the End of the Land was certainly the product of years of labor too, but part of its raw power--reading it sometimes feels like staring straight into the sun--comes from its immediacy. You feel like you have no distance from what's happening--even without the knowledge of how terribly close the events in Grossman's own life came to those in the book as he was writing it.)

However many years might have gone into these books, though, for us they were part of the year 2010--in fact, they were some of the best parts, and we hope you've had a chance to read some of them yourself, or will soon. Here are our choices for the top 10 books of 2010:

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  2. Faithful Place by Tana French
  3. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
  4. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  5. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  6. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  7. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
  8. To the End of the Land by David Grossman
  9. Just Kids by Patti Smith
  10. The Big Short by Michael Lewis

--Tom

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