best book
A Month-Long Series from the Editors of The Atlantic

Clive Crook, Senior Editor

This Thing of Darkness,  by Harry Thompson

The book I most enjoyed in 2009 was This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson. It isn't new: it was published in Britain in 2005 and then in the U.S. the following year as three volumes, To the Edge of the World. It passed me by at the time and was not very successful. It is a masterpiece of its genre and deserves to be much better known.

It tells the story of Charles Darwin's voyage to South America and the Galapagos, but the twist is that the principal character is not Darwin himself but ... More

Graeme Wood, Staff Editor

The Way of the World,  by Nicolas Bouvier

I hope a special, extra-rosy section of the Gardens of Paradise are reserved for the editors of New York Review of Books Classics series, who keep in print three of my favorite travel books: Tete-Michel Kpomassie's An African in Greenland, Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, and Nicolas Bouvier's The Way of the World. In the last year I have read only the last of these, so my choice for best book I read this year is an easy one.

The Way of the World chronicles a road-trip from the Balkans to Afghanistan. Parts of the route, to be undertaken safely today, might require Bouvier to mount a machine-gun on the top of his rickety Fiat—which is to say that... More

Maria Streshinsky, Deputy Managing Editor

Olive Kitteridge,  by Elizabeth Strout

Turns out, my definition of “best” has changed. It used to mean a page-turner I’d want to tote around everywhere, sneaking a few pages here and there, even (perhaps) at work. Now “best” is something more artistic, or inventive. This year, my best list should include Joe O’Neill’s  Netherland, in which time can shift—by years even—within a paragraph, and it takes a long time to feel for the main character. But I was so fascinated by how O’Neill crafted the book that I couldn’t stop reading. Or perhaps Irish writer John McGahern’s Amongst Women, a bleak, measured, novel that’s simultaneously so creative and vivid in detail that it’s compelling.

But I have to put Olive Kitteridge at the top of the list. I thought I was opening a book about some spunky—probably young—woman. Isn’t that the genre these days? But Elizabeth Strout has... More

Justin Miller, Staff Editor, The

Nixonland,  by Rick Perlstein

Pop quiz: who won more votes: Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon? Surprise: Nixon.

How did Nixon win so triumphantly across the middle 25 years of the last century? In his book Nixonland, Rick Perlstein makes clear that it was thanks to Nixon’s ability to tap into and capitalize on a growing backlash against liberalism among middle-class whites.

This is not a political biography, though. Rather, it offers a disturbing, detailed look at how America was torn apart during the sixties to a degree rivaled only by the Civil War. Unlike many political histories of the sixties, it doesn’t ... More

Chris Good, Staff Editor, The

How to Win at No-Limit Hold’em, by Dan Harrington
The Magic Kingdom
,  by Stanley Elkin

Here are two very different books I read this year. I couldn't pick one over the other...

Several months ago, I decided to learn how to play poker for money. Two serious players told me Cash Games: How to Win at No-Limit Hold’em Money Games is one of the best poker strategy books available for no-limit Texas hold’em, the most esteemed of poker games. It was published in 2008 by Dan Harrington, a top player who’s been a staple of TV poker since its boom years, and it represents an advance in the canon of poker literature, which began with Doyle Brunson’s Super System in the 1970s and continued with popular books like Phil Hellmuth’s Play Poker Like the Pros. The game has evolved over time, and Harrington puts forth a strategy that ... More

James Gibney, Deputy Managing Editor

Travels With Herodotus,  by Ryszard Kapuściński

You don't ask Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński for box scores, stock tips, or the weather—and not just because he died almost three years ago. More magical than realist, Kapuściński wasn't above letting his imagination get the better of him. What would you expect from a man whose role model was Herodotus, the original King of the Whoppers?

Yet, after reading Kapuściński's Travels with Herodotus, I had more admiration for both. Offering a book within a book, and a journey within a journey, Kapuściński takes the reader along on his ... More

Scott Stossel, Deputy Editor

Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey
My Father's Tears, by John Updike
Nothing to be Frightened of, by Julian Barnes
Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley
The Book of Basketball
,  by Bill Simmons

I couldn't settle on just one, so here's my top five, in no particular order...
1. Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey
A dead white short-story writer is not what you would expect the tribulations of Tiger Woods to call to mind. And yet John Cheever's extramarital exertions make Tiger's look prosaic. Polymorphous in his predilections, promiscuous in his affections, Cheever trysted with men and women, friends and neighbors, mentors and proteges, fueled all along by a pernicious combination of loneliness and narcissism. But then there is his art: hailed late in his career as the "American Chekhov" (a mantle that now seems to belong to Alice Munro), Cheever captured as well as anyone the suburban energy and anomie of post-WWII America. Blake Bailey's prodigiously researched biography—aided by extensive cooperation from Cheever's family and some of his former lovers—masterfully shows the complex relation between Cheever's brilliant work and the broken life that both inspired and impeded it.

2. My Father's Tears and Other Stories, by John Updike
Speaking of dead white short-story writers, the sunny John Updike was the saturnine Cheever's doppleganger, tilling the same post-War suburban terrain. The two men were friendly and competitive; Updike gave the eulogy at Cheever's funeral in 1982. Updike's last collection of short stories, published a few months after his death early this year, reveal a preoccupation with aging and mortality. (For fun, compare Updike's fictional reckonings with his senescence to his peer Philip Roth's: the former's tend toward ... More

David Barber, Poetry Editor

The Diary of a Nobody,  by George and Weedon Grossmith

I can think of a good many books I've admired of late that nonetheless bring to mind Dr. Johnson's tart summary judgment of Paradise Lost: “Nobody wishes it longer.”  So let me instead commend one from the short list of books I keep in heavy rotation because they always leave me wanting more: the beguiling Diary of a Nobody, which first appeared anonymously as a serial installment in Punch from 1888 to 1889.  Evidently its original readers couldn’t get enough of it either: when it was published in book form in 1892, the text was substantially expanded and buffed to such a high shine that the whole conceit somehow manages to survive countless re-readings with all its mordant wit and bite intact. 

The authors turned out to be two brothers who were well-known in London theatrical circles, George and Weedon Grossmith, eminently multi-talented Victorians who ... More

Bob Cohn, Editorial Director, The

To Kill a Mockingbird,  by Harper Lee

After my daughter was assigned this classic for 9th-grade English, I found myself telling her, blahblahblah, how it’s one of the great novels of all time.  But my lecture was rote, retrieved with a save/get key from the hard drive of fatherly bromides. After all, it’d been some 30 years since I read it myself. Maya nodded politely, but she knew I was winging it. So when she was done, I borrowed her copy.

I remembered, from my first reading and from seeing the 1962 film, the broad outlines: Depression-era small southern town, a racially charged trial, the mystery of Boo Radley, the moral force of Atticus Finch. All that came flooding back, but this time ... More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, Senior Editor, The

War and Peace,  by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve started and abandoned plenty of great masterpieces in my time. I’ve read and reread Pip’s explanation of how he got his name but still haven’t met Miss Havisham. And Swann’s Way, which I find delicious in small bites, is currently lying under a pile of magazines on my nightstand. War and Peace was different: after 10 pages, I was so wholly absorbed that I found myself turning off the television, staying up late, even making excuses not to go out so I could spend the evening with the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs.

I owe a huge part of my enjoyment to the translators. Richard Pevear and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, managed to render Tolstoy in smooth, natural English without ... More

Daniel Indiviglio, Staff Editor, The

The Prince of Darkness,  Robert D. Novak

Last year, upon learning I was considering moving to Washington to join the gaggle of journalists exploring politics and economics there, a friend of mine recommended Robert Novak's  The Prince of Darkness,  a 672-page autobiographical account of his 50 years of reporting in the nation's capital. No matter your view on Novak's politics, his talent for breaking huge stories and his ambition as a reporter were undeniable. And from cultivating sources to reporting from the field, his book is virtually a manual for an aspiring Washington journalist.

The book is written in the tight, unforgiving tone that made his writing famous. The pages fly by. It also provides a glimpse into his personal life, which ... More

James Fallows, National Correspondent

Two Kinds of Time, by Graham Peck
The Education of Henry Adams
Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
,  by David Wroblewski

I can’t name the “best” book I’ve read recently, but I have some alternative categories to suggest. One is “best book most readers are likely to have missed”: Two Kinds of Time, by Graham Peck, a marvelous words-and-drawings chronicle of travels through China in the decade leading up to the Communist revolution in 1949. Peck, whose day job was as a U.S. foreign service officer, was also a gifted artist and a very witty writer and observer. The book, reissued this year (with a new introduction by Robert Kapp) after its original publication in 1950, is very long but does not contain an uninteresting page.

“Best book I read this year, decades after reading it in college”? The Education of Henry Adams. Yes, it’s tedious to hear that this is a classic of American non-fiction. But it really is. ... More

Benjamin Schwarz, Literary and National Editor

Moving Pictures, by Budd Schulberg
,  by George Orwell

I recently put together a list of the 25 best books published or reviewed in the Atlantic this year, so I’ve already more than sated whatever appetite might exist for my opining about things “best.”  But books I’ve most enjoyed or needed—that would yield a somewhat different list.  This has been a particularly anxious year for me (for most of us), and in the predawn hours, after checking the Fidelity website for the sixteenth time, I’ve reached for books that give me some succor and courage. For succor, nothing beat Budd Schulberg’s dry, elegiac 500-page memoir of his boyhood in Hollywood’s golden age, a reissue of which I chanced on this summer (I’ll review the book in the March 2009 issue of the magazine). ... More

Marc Ambinder, Politics Editor

The Road To Reality: A Complete Guide To The Laws Of The Universe,  by Roger Penrose

"The {fij}," we are told on page 989 of this tome,  "are reduced modulo quantities of the form {hi-hj}." Ah, just when I had gotten my mind around the differences between Lagrangians and Hamiltonians, it took me a day and a half to understand what the physicist Roger Penrose was trying to convey. But such unabridged complexity is one reason why his book, unsubtly titled The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, is probably the best primer on physics ever created for thinking audiences.... More

Hanna Rosin, Contributing Editor

Wolf Hall,  by Hilary Mantel

You don’t need me to recommend Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, this year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize and universally praised as “dazzling.” But just in case you are put off by historical fiction, bored by novels of political intrigue, overdosed on the court of Henry VIII, or for some reason suspicious of the Booker prize, I will add my high praise. This novel’s surprise is to turn Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer, into the hero. Mantel does this by making this brutalized, runaway son of a blacksmith into one of the most humane, tolerant, enlightened, even feminist figures in recent fictionalized history.... More