The Best Books Read in 2012

Submitted just as the window of year-end reminiscences is closing, this post is my chance to look back at the dozen books that stood out most for me in 2012. I hit some kind of reading slump toward the end of the year, my pace of matching 2011’s total of 60-plus books, well in reach around summertime, taking a hit late to settle for 53 books. Better luck in 2013, I guess. Coming up with this list wasn’t too difficult, nor was selecting one of the 12 as my favorite of the year. It was a book I read early in the year, and nothing I read in the remaining months came (anywhere) close to matching it for ambition, scope, and resonance.

Drum roll, please…

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#6: White Teeth (2000), by Zadie Smith

“What a peaceful existence. What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and the things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place. They’re not constantly making the same old mistakes. They’re not always hearing the same old shit. They don’t do public performances of angst on public transport. Really, these people exist. I’m telling you.”

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“I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten sentences in before I was overwhelmed with nausea. More recently, when people tell me they have just read that book, I do try to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation, like when someone tells you they met your second cousin in a bar in Goa.”
–Zadie Smith, 2008*

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Few literary books came packaged with such hype and anticipation as White Teeth. There is not a piece that has ever been written about this novel that doesn’t mention that Smith was 24 when she published it, and (obviously) younger than that as she was writing it at Cambridge. That’s not an idle fact, or something to be used strictly for PR purposes on book jacket biographies. It seems like a built-in dividing line for readers: either she’s a preternaturally gifted wunderkind or another overcooked media sensation, and WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?

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