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The Ten Best Books on My (Pretty Long) List for 2013

By Nancy Flanagan — December 27, 2013 3 min read
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Many bloggy friends have been tallying up and promoting their best-of lists and top ten mega-traffic posts. Doing that produces a bump in numbers, I suppose--but I feel as ambivalent about blog numbers as I do about achievement data. I’ve read some passionate, articulate thinking on education issues from virtually unknown teachers--and found some pieces with thousands of re-tweets shallow and poorly written.

What feeds me is reading, not being read--although I certainly appreciate everyone who reads “Teacher in a Strange Land” and especially those who comment and share.

Back in January, 2012, my friend Claudia Swisher--a high school English teacher who taught the all-time dream course for Language Arts educators, Reading for Pleasure--challenged me to read 150 books in 2012. I thought that was beyond my grasp (it was), and re-set my personal bar to 125 books. I made it, barely.

This year, Claudia’s retired and not reading five hours a day in school, but still way ahead of me in our friendly competition. We both use Goodreads to log our books, critique and rate completed volumes, one to five stars. My goal this year is 135 books (I have a couple left to go). I just sorted my 2013 reads by stars granted, and found 35 five-star reads. I suppose you could say I’m an easy grader, since I gave a mere 15 books one or two stars--but I rated only completed books, not abandoned ones, and there were plenty of those.

Of those 35 books, here are my 10 favorites. Interesting observations:

Of the 10, eight were written by women, and that proportion held for all 35 five-stars. The first five listed are non-fiction (note: step back, David Coleman). And only one was directly about education, although I read, or started, tons of books on education this year. All five fictional books were from authors whose work I read without fail.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan) Aslan’s detractors seem to fall into two distinct camps: scholars who believe that he doesn’t offer anything new on the historical Jesus and angry right-wingers who are incensed that a Muslim has written such a book. Being neither of those, I learned a lot.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) Reading Patchett’s non-fiction sent me back to her novels, which are also good. Her essays are just delicious--meticulously written and wry.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Diane Ravitch) Said it before, will say it again--if you only read one book about America education this year...

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Jonathon Haidt) Haidt gets a little lost in the weeds in laying out the history and purposes of his research, but once he starts sharing data and conclusions, it’s a virtual parade of aha moments.

Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm (Mardi Link) Link is a local memoirist who deserves to be better known. Her story of a very bad stretch in her life ranges from hilarious to poignant--and it’s set in my neck of the woods, so I know these people and places.

How the Light Gets In (Louise Penny) The thinking woman’s cozy. I read the entire series this year. So far.

The Round House (Louise Erdrich) Erdrich always makes you think, but Round House was exceptional.

Life after Life (Kate Atkinson) Atkinson’s best book, built around the question of how you would change your life if you got to shake the cosmic Etch-a-Sketch and start over, multiple times.

Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel) Style and substance and deadpan snark.

Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver) So many books end the wrong way--the author doesn’t have the nerve to let her characters do what they will, and so chooses a neat-n-tidy or happy or tragic ending. Kingsolver’s work is always layered with moral issues, especially those relating to environmental balance, but she doesn’t take her knowledge or principles out on plots and characters.

Four more days to go. What would you recommend?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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