Of the many books I enjoyed this year, the ones that stuck with me the most were all nonfiction, not my usual arena for reading. Of those, the one book I read in 2009 that I haven’t stopped thinking about and that awed me in a way that made me want to ask more of myself both as a writer and as a person was a volume called Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss. These are essays about race, but they are far more honest and thoughtful than the treatment that topic usually inspires.
The first piece, which begins as a history lesson about the humble telephone pole and swiftly turns into the darker history of lynchings from those same poles, took my breath away. Every essay after that made me stop, made me think, made me rethink, made me reread, made me question, and made me see. I found I was dogearing nearly every other page, scribbling in the margins. The book is as graceful and serious as any I’ve read not only this year, but in recent memory, which, despite the gravity of the subject matter, made me feel unexpectedly hopeful about the direction in which the world is headed.