Must Read Books 2012: JK Rowling, Toni Morrison Round Out the Top 15

Looking for the best books of 2012? Here are the must-reads in non-fiction and fiction:

Best Non-Fiction Books of 2012


1) When I Was a Child I Read Books (Marilynne Robinson; in stores now)



What it’s about: Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist and essayist Marilynn Robinson writes essays on politics, personal life, and everything in between. From analyzing the global debt crisis to meditating on American individualism in a personal essay about her childhood, Robinson calls on us to reinvigorate the hope of American democracy.  

Why it’s a must-read: In her first book in 12 years, Robinson writes more politically charged than ever. She ties current events to her subtle understanding of our social, cultural, and intellectual inheritance.

2) Barack Obama: The Story (David Maraniss; in stores now)



What it’s about: The first installment of the president’s two-part biography begins with his grandparents and ends with the ambitious young student’s entry into Harvard Law School. The Clinton biographer and Washington Post editor covers every part of Obama’s early life, sparing no details. He spends time on Obama's teenage pot-smoking years and clarifies the mismatch between many of Obama’s stories and the real-life evidence.

Why it’s a must-read: Already receiving high praise in early reviews, this book is the most highly anticipated political book this year. Maraniss draws on letters, journals, diaries, other documents, and hundreds of interviews with his closest relations to paint a personal, yet factual and comprehensive narrative.

3) Thinking the Twentieth Century (Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder; in stores now)


What it’s about: The famous public critic writes his final book, an ambitious retelling of the major intellectual battles that shaped 20th century politics.

Why it’s a must-read: As a series of intimate conversations between Judt and Eastern European historian Timothy Snyder, the book’s structure is innovative and inviting. The ambitious story is told with conversational tone and deep thought.

4) The Passage of Power (Robert Caro; in stores now)



What it’s about: In the fourth book in his epic coverage of Lyndon Johnson’s life, award-winning historian and journalist Robert Caro covers the politician from 1958 to 1964, from his strong Senate Majority leadership to his powerless vice-presidential position to his sudden role as president. 

Why it’s a must-read: Caro navigates through decades-long research to spin an ambitious, compelling 600-page narrative. He’s known for making political biography read like novels.

5) The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of War, Love, and Genius, As Written By Our Genetic Code (Sam Kean; July 17)


What it’s about: The book focuses on how DNA can tell you everything about your life. He catalogues the genes that explain why some people survive nuclear bombs, why others have no fingerprints, why some people become cat ladies, and why Einstein was a genius.

Why it’s a must-read: The best-selling science writer Sean Kean has draw on our evolutionary history and genetic code not only to explain past and current phenomena, but also to explain what DNA says about our future.

6) Vagina: A New Biography (Naomi Wolf; Sept. 11)



What it’s about: This book is an epic cultural and scientific history of the vagina.

Why it’s a must-read: As a new feminist and cultural critic, Wolf is radical, smart, and entertaining in her eyebrow-raising new book. By explaining our views on the vagina, she explains how we understand women.

See 10 New Must-Read Books for Summer 2012


Best Fiction of 2012


7) Arcadia (Lauren Groff; in stores now)



What it’s about: Taking place in 1970’s upstate New York, Arcadia is about a group of idealists living in a commune called Arcadia House. The novel follows the optimistic romance, challenges, and ultimate fall of the utopia. 

Why it’s a must-read: The story may seem like a hippie artifact, but critics have praised Groff for resurrecting the utopian ideals in a complex, beautifully told way.

8) Canada (Richard Ford; in stores now)



What it’s about: After his parents are imprisoned for robbing a bank, 15-year-old Dell flees to Canada in hopes of rebuilding his life. There, he meets an enigmatic American who takes him under his wing. But as Dell finds himself deceived and threatened, he finds it harder and harder to understand what trustworthiness and being an adult means.

Why it’s a must-read: It’s this year’s best coming-of-age story. Dell’s loss of innocence is a mature, dark tale that proves why Richard Ford is a Pulitzer-Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning novelist.

9) In One Person (John Irving; in stores now)



What it’s about: Irving’s latest novel is about the tragicomic life of a bisexual man.

Why it’s a must-read: The novel explores questions of sexuality and identity in a world still figuring out what it means to be sexually different. Critics have praised the offbeat, yet loving book with its eccentric cast of characters.

10) Home (Toni Morrison; in stores now)



What it's about: A Korean War veteran, Frank Money, disturbed by the racial, economic, and psychological oppression of his situation, lives consumed by violent memories. To help his medically abused younger sister, Money must return to his small Georgia hometown, a place he's hated for his entire life. Childhood and wartime memories shake Frank's sense of self, but help him on a path to renewal.

Why it’s a must-read: The Nobel laureate's 10th novel explores Morrisonian themes of memory, race, and how the traumatic past shapes present life. But Home filters these themes through a male war veteran, who deals with alternate questions of masculinity and moral identity. Her latest novel packs an epic Odysseyian journey into only 160 pages.

11) The Secret of Evil (Robert Bolaño; in stores now)


What it’s about: 21 short stories on everything from an American journalist in Paris to Arturo Belano, the author’s alter-ego.

Why it’s a must-read: The posthumous collection of the short stories Bolaño had been working on until his untimely death in 2003 has finally been translated to English. The Chilean author was known for The Savage Detectives, an energetic, non-linear novel about bohemian young people. His work was imaginative and tragically cut short.

12) The New Republic (Lionel Shriver; in stores now)



What it’s about: Insecure corporate lawyer Edgar Kellogg leaves behind career to explore the dynamic life of journalism. When a magnetic journalistic personality disappears while covering a Portugese terrorist movement, Edgar steps in to replace him. But as soon as he begins, the terrorist attacks stop. Why?

Why it’s a must-read: Shriver, known for We Need to Talk About Kevin, writes with wit about terrorism, charisma, and the media.

13) NW (Zadie Smith; September 4)


What it’s about: In Northwest London, the Caldwell housing estate stands as one of the last remains of 1970’s urban planning. Five identical housing blocks -- Hobbes, Smith, Bentham, Locke, and Russell -- house children who were meant to move onto a better life. The novel follows five ex-Caldwell siblings who live in separate worlds in isolation. One afternoon, a stranger approaches one of them and sucks them back into the world of their childhood. 

Why it’s a must-read: In her first novel since 2005, (when she wrote "On Beauty"), Smith explores the interplay of private and public life in modern London. As her last novel generated major buzz, and is slated for HBO series adaptation in the near future, her forthcoming tragicomedy is expected to deliver laughs and twists at the pace of a city itself.

14) Telegraph Avenue (Michael Chabon; Sept. 11)



What it’s about: Chabon’s latest novel explores the intertwined lives of a black and a white family in Oakland, California. Pop culture, friendship, and race all figure into this effort.

Why it’s a must-read: He’s an incredible writer and explores race issues that still matter today.

15) The Casual Vacancy (J.K. Rowling; Sept. 27)



What it’s about: When a small town’s political leader dies unexpectedly, the community is in shock and must re-elect another to the parish council. But along the way, the town’s idyllic facade fades away as the incident aggravates its hidden rich-and-poor, parent-children, husband-wife, and teacher-student divides.

Why it’s a must-read: It’s J.K. Rowling’s first book post-Harry Potter, and it’s for adults. Readers everywhere will be watching to see if she can write a non-Potter success.