Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Best Books of 2008

The sky is falling. And it has been for some time. The past 12 months have produced the sorts of calamities that can start panics. And it seems that, as delighted with the economy as everyone seemed to be 12 and certainly 24 months ago, they are now willing to believe it’s all coming apart. The reality is this: you must have downs. If you did not, how would you even recognize the ups? It’s all physics. There’s change ahead? Sure. But there’s always change. That’s just how we humans roll.

If there’s a juicy center to current financial woes its that the book industry is less likely to be as shaken as some others. And, sure: some layoffs have been announced and some houses have cut back. But industry insiders have said that the layoffs were due and the cutbacks warranted and some corners of the industry are already reporting reasons to smile. I predict this will continue. In times shaped by political turmoil and financial calamity, the book takes an even more important place than usual. You can no longer afford that Lexus you’d promised yourself? Console yourself with a new book. Took a hit in the job market? Help yourself out: buy a book. Legal advice too expensive? Do part of it yourself with a book. As a treat and as a lifeline, if you’re not already turning to books for answers and succor, my crystal ball is telling me that, chances are you will.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan forecast a new dawn for the book in the quieter America she sees heading her way:
I suspect reading is about to make a big comeback in America, that in fact we're going to be reading more books in the future, not fewer. It is a relatively inexpensive (libraries, Kindle, Amazon), peaceful and enriching activity. And we’re about to enter an age of greater quiet. More people will be home, not traveling as much to business meetings or rushing out to the new jobsite. A lot of adults are going to be more in search of guidance and inspiration. The past quarter century we’ve had other diversions, often expensive ones -- movies, DVDs, Xboxes. Books will fit the quieter future.
Even while some stores have reported lower sales, many library systems are enjoying record use. Translation: we may not have as much money as we did in recent years, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to read.

The year we’re just passing out of was an important one for the electronic book. Finally, after a couple of decades of hollering about it, the e-book got the bit in its teeth. This was partly due Amazon’s debut of their very accessible Kindle e-book reader and partly due Oprah’s (good old Oprah!) endorsement of same. It may even have been due in part to the stinky economy. After all, though the initial investment for a reader is relatively hefty, the cost of a book manufactured and shipped in the ether can be comparatively slim. And it should be, too. Let’s face it: in a world increasingly concerned with renewable resources, devices like the Kindle deliver books right into your hand without killing a single tree. Something to think about.

In terms of the books themselves, 2008 was a fabulous year. Times may be lean, but some of our very favorite books were thick and lush and rich in spirit if not in fact. And if there were less books published than usual, we certainly did not notice it. As always, the January Magazine stacks were also thick and lush and it was apparent that many worthy books were published in 2008.

As usual, our best of the year feature reflects the books our contributors and editors liked best in 2008. We review from almost all branches of the book industry and, as a result, our choices run the gamut.

The January Magazine Best Books of the Year list is not a popularity contest. Our choices reflect what our writers and editors liked best of the books they read and enjoyed throughout the year. They don’t need to qualify their choices or explain them to anyone. There is no board or panel. No quotas from certain publishers, no authors that must be included. These are, quite simply, the books that our well read eyes and hearts liked best, listed in alphabetical order within the loose category in which they fall.

You can find various segments of January Magazine’s Best Books of the Year 2008 feature here. Best Children’s Books, best Cookbooks, best Art & Culture, best Non-Fiction and best Fiction. Best Crime Fiction appears in two segments: Part I is titles from A-G and Part II is titles from H-Z.



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