Sean McDonald is the executive editor and director of paperback publishing at FSG.
To be clear, I agree with everyone else: The three best books of 2011 are Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, and Héctor Tobar’s Barbarian Nurseries.
But you want me to think beyond the walls of FSG. That makes my head hurt, but here goes.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
I’m obsessed with Tokyo and a bit of a Murakami nut, so maybe I’m not to be trusted on this one. It’s a crazier book than most are letting on, but I like that about it. It may have its problems, but they mostly reflect falling short while taking impossible risks. Maybe because Murakami seems to keep having so much fun, the failings never (for me) got in the way of enjoying the reading and admiring the fireworks.
Reamde by Neal Stephenson
It’s a giant, pulpy techno-thriller, and as entertaining and implausible as that suggests. But it’s an extremely smart and insightful giant, pulpy techno-thriller in which the implausible characters doing implausible things feel whole and human, engaged with a world that’s undeniably ours, just presented in a way that reveals a series of new, exhilarating perspectives.
The Information by James Gleick
As if my fiction choices weren’t nerdy (and impossibly long) enough . . . This, for me, was probably the book of the year—erudite, urgent, definitive, beautiful.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman
I tried to break my list into fiction and nonfiction but this book blew that up. It seems like a book that should be unbearably sad, and it sort of is—a novel closely based on the death of the author’s young wife. I can’t imagine the pain of writing the book, but it’s shot through with humor and joy and obvious love, and ultimately makes something intensely beautiful and vibrant out of a devastating accident.
That Is All by John Hodgman
In the fiction/nonfiction breakdown, this was going to go under “other.” And maybe it’s a little shady for me to include this because I worked with John on earlier books—but not this one, so I can be completely objective. And I do firmly believe that anytime anyone completes a three-volume compendium of Complete World Knowledge, it’s an achievement we should all take a moment to recognize. But this is more than just any old conclusion to Complete World Knowledge: It’s brilliant (and brilliantly designed, inside and out, by Sam Potts) in the way of one of those impossible wooden puzzles or mind-twisting Escher drawings—there’s no way to satisfyingly finish this project, and yet somehow Hodgman pulls it off. It’s weirdly, unexpectedly heartbreaking to witness Hodgman (author, narrator, and protagonist), now morphed into a mustachioed Deranged Millionaire, spending much of this final volume contemplating the imminent apocalypse. And—assuming Hodgman’s joking—it’s all unfailingly hilarious, funnier page by page until it’s over.