2013 Top Ten Non-fiction

1. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright (Vintage Books) Are we all just imprisoned spirits fleeing from millennia of galactic wars, or has a pulp sci-fi writer who lied about his war record and many other things merely duped thousands of willing believers in giving over their lives, and often their fortunes, to his made-up religion? New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright makes a fulsome case for the latter in his utterly fascinating takeout on L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. (Lee Gardner)

2. White Girls, by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s) These essays are in turns confounding and astounding. Als, the theater critic for The New Yorker, finds an affinity between gay black men like himself and the titular white girls they sometimes want to be. A mixture of autobiographical essays and reportage, including a long, strange, and ultimately brilliant piece about Richard Pryor’s sister as a pornographic voiceover artist, this is one of the rare and wonderful cases, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, when a collection of essays becomes an enduring and even epochal work of art. (Baynard Woods)

3. Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers, by Anabel Hernandez (Verso) In a country where journalists are killed for writing about the organized institutional corruption that powers and protects drug cartels, Mexican investigative journalist Hernandez spent five years reporting Narcoland. What she produced is a depressingly sober history of what happens to a country when the drug economy infiltrates everything and prevails. (Bret McCabe)

4. Forty-One False Starts, by Janet Malcolm (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux) Janet Malcolm is the Minerva of contemporary reportage: poised, wise, and ruthless. This stunning collection of her writing about artists, mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, was the best art writing to come out this year, particularly the fascinating essay about former Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy and the titular story about David Salle, which, mirroring Salle’s style, consists of 41 different beginnings of a profile. (BW)

5. The Book of My Lives, by Aleksander Hemon (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux) Long one of our favorite fiction writers, Hemon stormed into our non-fiction list with this brilliant collection of personal essays, many of which cover the same ground as his fiction and trace his life from Sarajevo to America. (We liked the Sarajevo part so much that we paraphrase his description of his magazine there when we occasionally call ourselves “militantly Baltimorean.”) The last essay will make you weep. Be prepared. (BW)

6. Red Doc>, by Anne Carson (Knopf) Anne Carson’s kinda-sorta sequel to her 1998 verse novel Autobiography of Red, a reimagination of Heracles killing Geryon, is line-by-line the most dazzling read of the year. In Doc> the mythological pair returns in middle age, Carson’s potently brusque stanza’s contemplations of lives hurtling toward their ends. Distressingly powerful. (Bret McCabe)

7. Painted Screens of Baltimore: An Urban Folk Art Revealed, by Elaine Eff (University Press of Mississippi) Elaine Eff has been working on this definitive study for over 30 years. Even without the hundreds of beautiful images, Painted Screens of Baltimore would be gorgeous for the stories of the painters and the description of their art. Rafael Alvarez calls it the “single best book written about Baltimore” in the last 50 years (see page 38). (BW)

8. Guinevere in Baltimore, by Shelley Puhak (Waywiser) The convention says to put poetry in non-fiction, but like Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, Puhak’s gorgeous and supremely sexy collection tells a single fictional story about the Arthurian love triangle and sets it in contemporary Baltimore. We love all the local references, but it is the precision and originality of Puhak’s language and her psychological insight that set us on fire. (BW)

9. Portrait Inside My Head: Essays, by Phillip Lopate (Free Press) A new collection of personal essays from America’s Montaigne is always a cause for celebration, and Inside My Head reminds us of the humble beauty of the form as its conversational tone takes us through Lopate’s life, from his relationship with his radio-host brother to his stamina in bed. (BW)

10. Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise, by Greg Hainge (Bloomsbury) One of the widest-ranging treatises in the noise-lit canon, Noise Matters dives deep into seemingly disparate media—the distortions of Sartre’s Nausea, the problematic theory of electronic voice phenomena, horror films as emotional noise—and draws compelling connections. (RC)