There's a great anecdote about Stanley Kubrick's search during the 1970's for the perfect novel to use as the basis for a film. His process involved reading the first 50 pages or so of a book, and if he didn't like it, throwing it against his office wall. This went on for some time and his assistant was accustomed to the daily, ritual thumping of book-against-wall. When the thumping stopped, the assistant became alarmed, fearing Kubrick had died. She bolted for his office, only to find him enthusiastically reading The Shining. I feel a lot like that, minus the genius and the assistant. There were a few books I read this year that I absolutely hated, and a lot of books that disappointed me for their awesome potential ruined in execution. There's no need to call out the worst of the offenders, but of the 50-ish nonfiction books I read in 2015, there were enough letdowns to leave a good-sized hole in my office wall.
Any favorites list is going to be biased toward the second half of the year because I'm human, writing this for free, and not thinking too hard about it. So I can't say for sure that The Wright Brothers by David McCullough was my favorite work of nonfiction, as I read it the last week of December, but it's certainly one I didn't expect to enjoy and finished it in a single sitting. The book is great, but feels so effortless that I have to wonder if there was any need for a second draft. It's the work of a master, obviously, which helps, and it's a wonderful American story that everyone knows, kind of, but really doesn't. Upon reflection, I'm not sure if I was ever even conscious of the words on the page. The book was more absorbed than read, as though the information existed as a mist. McCullough wrote without ego, not once imposing himself on the work. There were no rhetorical tricks at work, or literary artifice. It was simply a story perfectly told. God, what a book. What a writer!
Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson was another unexpected pleasure. It's about treasure hunters who search for sunken pirate ships. It struck me as I was reading it: Wow, I am having a lot of fun reading this book. I love reading and enjoy reading, but I never have fun reading, exactly. "Fun" is video games or amusement parks. But this book was positively ebullient, like sitting across from the best conversationalist at a party, and being afraid to refill your wine glass lest you miss something she says.
I fully expected to love Church of Spies by Mark Riebling, and did. The pope's secret efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler? It's hard to go wrong with a subject like that, but I was astonished how gripping the whole thing was and in awe of how much excruciating work must have gone into researching the subject. How do you even begin? How forthcoming is the Vatican for such a project, and how do you convince its leaders that you're not secretly writing a hatchet job? How do you convince them that there's any need for a book right now? I mean, the Catholic Church operates on a millennial timescale. World War II is only 70 years behind us. That the book even exists seems like an accomplishment. That's it is excellent seems like more than we deserve.