This year, in a first, The Times’s staff book critics joined the Book Review’s editors in discussing and debating the titles that ended up in contention for our annual 10 best books list. But as readers inevitably do, they also cherished a more personal and idiosyncratic set of books, the ones that spoke to them on account of great characters or great writing, surprising information or heartfelt vulnerability or sheer entertainment value. Herewith, three of our critics discuss the books that have stayed with them throughout 2022.
Flann O’Brien, the Irish writer, hated one critics’ cliché in particular: “I could not put it down.” He proposed a book that, when warmed in a reader’s hands, would turn to nasty glue. You could remove it only slowly, by “taking a course of scalding hot baths.” Here are seven books I put down several times each in 2022, but most looked forward to picking back up again. They are, in other words, my favorites from this year.
Jennifer Egan’s THE CANDY HOUSE is the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” and I think it’s an even better novel: shrewder, funnier, darker, more alive. It’s about technology, about stabs at a collective consciousness, but it’s got a vastly human soul.
EITHER/OR,by Elif Batuman, is also a sequel, the follow-up to “The Idiot.” It takes her young protagonist through a second year at Harvard. What a mass of sensibility Batuman is! You sense her judgment, her discrimination and her irony in every line.
David Wright Faladé’s BLACK CLOUD RISING is a spare and moving Civil War novel, based on the actual experiences of a unit of Black soldiers that in 1863 poured into the coastal South with Union forces, helping to hunt down Rebel guerrillas.
Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, and her thin, bare and chapped memoir GETTING LOST, about an erotic obsession, is her at very near her best. It’s as if she’s carving each sentence onto the surface of a table with a knife.
WithMR. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, Jennifer Homans, the dance critic for The New Yorker, delivers a sensitive, stately and often thrilling new biography of the Russian-born choreographer.
THE LETTERS OF THOM GUNN compiles rowdy, filthy, funny and humane letters from the gay English poet, a lover of dive bars and motorcycles, who spent his adult life in San Francisco.
Amy Bloom’s memoirIN LOVE, about her husband’s assisted suicide after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, will make your heart break down.
My favorite memoir of 2022 — the one I recommend unequivocally to anyone who asks that perennial question “What’s good?” — was ALSO A POET, by Ada Calhoun. It’s about her coming-of-age as a writer in the long shadow of her father, the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and her efforts to finish the biography he started of the charismatic writer and curator Frank O’Hara, who died in a freak accident on Fire Island at 40 (the book’s title comes from his New York Times obituary). Highlight: a thrilling basement discovery of dusty cassette tapes containing long-ago, untranscribed interviews with various cultural luminaries. Cathartically, Schjeldahl lived to praise the book, which does not spare his parenting, before dying in October of the lung cancer he’d written about himself.
My favorite celebrity memoir was definitely HELLO, MOLLY! by the “Saturday Night Live” legend Molly Shannon, with Sean Wilsey. Some might prefer to hear the audiobook, which the actress who created Sally “I’m 50” O’Malley and Mary Katherine Gallagher reads with predictably perfect delivery — but I think her story of terrible family tragedy, a poignant and hilarious slog to showbiz triumph with an 11th-hour plot twist, is better on the page.
A less expected treat was AMERICAN URBANIST, by Richard K. Rein, a biography of William “Holly” Whyte, the midcentury magazine journalist who wrote “The Organization Man,” coining the term “groupthink,” and then became a widely admired expert and consultant on public spaces. At a moment when the world’s downtowns and midtowns are slowly coming back to life, this thorough and thoughtful book is an inspiring companion.
Honorable mentions: UNCOMMON MEASURE, the violinist Natalie Hodges’ debut, about music, time and growing up in a contentious Korean American household. Harvey Fierstein outdoes himself with I WAS BETTER LAST NIGHT, and in this case, the audiobook is value-added; Fierstein is a walking one-man show. You have to give props to Ken Auletta for taking on another, far more troubling Harvey in HOLLYWOOD ENDING: Harvey Weinstein and the Cultture of Silence. More escapistly, the Atlantic magazine fixture Cullen Murphy did a bang-up job editing the nonagenarian Milton Gendel’s diaries and photographs for JUST PASSING THROUGH: A Seven-Decade Roman Holiday.
I used to assume that as I got older I would settle into a way of looking at the world — that my store of knowledge would accumulate to the point of easy familiarity. But one exciting (and occasionally scary) thing about this job is that sometimes I’ll review a book that will gradually reorient my perspective until my entire world has been turned upside down. I’ve noticed that such books often focus on something so mundane that I had previously taken it for granted. The index, for example. Or the science of measurement.
Neither subject sounds particularly enticing — at least to me, or to the version of me that existed before encountering Dennis Duncan’s INDEX, A History of the and James Vincent’s BEYOND MEASURE, both of which I reviewed this year. Each book shows how spectacular technological progress rests on humble foundations, and how controversial those humble foundations have historically been. I learned from Duncan that the invention of the page number — which made it easier to index the information contained in a book — was initially seen as a conspicuous interruption, cleaving paragraphs, sentences and even words. I learned from Vincent that standardized measurements have long been a way to build trust both within and across communities — and have therefore elicited suspicion.
Threaded throughout both books are startling stories of upheaval and moral panic. Indexes could be weaponized, their pithy entries suitable for an attack on an adversary or the propagation of a conspiracy theory. A rallying point for pro-Brexit forces was the example of British shopkeepers prosecuted for selling produce in imperial pounds instead of kilos. Anti-metric fury has become such a populist cause that it even garnered an entire segment on Tucker Carlson’s show, in which he fulminated against the metric system as a tyrannical tool of global elites.
Of course, neither Duncan’s book nor Vincent’s would work if it wasn’t also crisply written, elucidating serious concepts with a light touch. It turns out that the most ordinary things are in fact extraordinarily strange. Who knew?