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Smithsonian.com’s Top Books of 2012

Looking for a reading list for the holidays? Check out our favorite books that we featured on the site this past year

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How Music Works
by David Byrne

David Byrne takes readers on an intimate excursion through the past and future of the music industry in his book, How Music Works. The former Talking Heads frontman covers a range of topics—from the technology that has transformed the way music is recorded, to the business of making successful albums, to the science behind how our brains process music—in a comfortable, conversant way.

Read an excerpt of Byrne’s book and an interview, in which he offers advice on how to enjoy music.

The Passage of Power
by Robert A. Caro

There is Ahab and his white whale, and then there is Robert Caro and his behemoth biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, says Smithsonian’s national correspondent Ron Rosenbaum. A full 30 years after the first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro released his fourth installment, The Passage of Power. The book chronicles six years of Johnson’s life, from 1958 to the first weeks of his presidency in 1964.

Read Rosenbaum’s piece on The Passage of Power.

The End of Men: And the Rise of Women
by Hanna Rosin

In the summer of 2010, Hanna Rosin wrote a much-talked-about cover story in the Atlantic, boldly declaring that for the first time in our male-dominated history, women were pulling ahead. In the workforce. In the academic world. And, in the home. Her latest book, The End of Men, delves into the hookup culture at colleges, group therapy sessions for unemployed men and “seesaw marriages,” or marriages where each person has a shot at being the breadwinner at any given moment. The end result is an in-depth look at how this shift in social order is impacting the way we live.

Read a Q&A with Hanna Rosin in which she talks about what it will take for women to rise to the top.

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived
by Andrew Wilson

This year marked the 200th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, on April 15, 1912. Instead of dwelling on the casualties of the shipwreck, as many historians do, journalist Andrew Wilson focuses on the 705 survivors. He explains how some of the survivors were forever affected by the experience, piecing together letters, diaries, memoirs and interviews with their family members.

Read an excerpt from Wilson’s book.

Dictionary of American Regional English, Volume V: Sl-Z
Edited by Joan Houston Hall

Do you know what a rippet is? How about a rumpelkammer or a honeyfuggle? “The loss of such words almost puts a lump in your goozle,” writes Smithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker. Fortunately, editors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have compiled some 60,000 of these hyper-regional terms in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The fifth volume, containing the last third of the alphabet, was released in March.

Read Tucker’s story about DARE and take a vocabulary quiz.

Prom
by Mary Ellen Mark

Some may boast about going to three or four proms, but renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark attended a total of 13 from 2006 to 2009. With a Polaroid 20x24 Land camera, Mark captured couples—and some brave stags—from high schools in New York City, Houston, Los Angeles and other cities. There are a lot of “naked and fearful expressions,” writes Sloane Crosely, of the black-and-white series. “When I look at these pictures, I see the strange mixture of maturity and naïveté that comes with being 17 or 18. As grown-ups, we tend to forget that being a teenager is an art. It’s the art of trying on the future.”

See a selection of Mark’s photographs and read Crosely’s essay.

The Social Conquest of Earth
by E.O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson has written 27 books. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, for his titles On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (2001), and a recipient of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize, the highest honor in the Nobel-less field of ecology. Needless to say, when the evolutionary biologist talks, people listen. His new book argues that we should trade the decades-old theory of kin selection for group selection, when explaining human evolution and dominance in the world. Whereas kin selection favors the reproductive success of an individual’s relatives, group selection furthers groups that organize together to successfully gather food and defend and conquer territory.

Read Natalie Angier’s article about The Social Conquest of Earth and an interview with Wilson by writer Carl Zimmer.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone
by Eric Klinenberg

According to the latest census, more than 32 million people in the United States live alone. To put that into perspective, that’s 28 percent of the country’s households. And, it’s a good thing, says Eric Klinenberg. “The spike in living alone has played a large and overlooked role in revitalizing cities, because singletons are so likely to go out into the world, to be in cafes and restaurants, to volunteer in civic organizations, to attend lectures and concerts, to spend time in parks and other public spaces,” the New York University sociologist told Smithsonian.

Read a Q&A with Eric Klinenberg in which he talks about what factors are driving this trend.

Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

As the title suggests, British food writer Bee Wilson considers the fork—and many, many other kitchen tools—in her latest book. With each surprising tidbit about the origins of everyday culinary implements (i.e. strangely enough, the can opener came some 50 years after the invention of canned food), she layers on more evidence for her thesis: that the history of kitchen technology is inseparable from the larger history of food. “There are complex investigations at work in Wilson’s book; it’s nominally about things in our cabinets and on our shelves, but it’s really about family, labor, technology, sensation,” writes Smithsonian’s book reviewer Chloë Schama.

Read Schama’s review of the book.

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
by Henry Wiencek

Master of the Mountain paints a grim picture of Thomas Jefferson as a shrewd slave owner with dollar signs in his eyes. Author Henry Wiencek bases his argument, in part, on a notation of Jefferson’s that counts each slave born as a “4 percent per annum” profit return. Wiencek has taken some heat from Jefferson scholars since October, when the book was published, but he defends his claims.

Read an excerpt of Wiencek’s book that reveals the dark side of Jefferson.

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing
by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at the UCLA Medical Center, serves on the medical advisory board of the Los Angeles Zoo. But, the fact that doctors do not reciprocate by asking veterinarians to consult on their cases is a “major blind spot,” she says. Natterson-Horowitz and her co-author, Kathryn Bowers, have coined a term—zoobiquity—for the combined study of animal and human medicine. “We brought together zo, which is a Greek word for ‘animal’ and ubique, which is Latin for ‘everywhere,’ ” Natterson-Horowitz told Smithsonian.com. The book highlights some of the afflictions—obesity, cancer, substance abuse—that humans and other animals have in common.

Read a Q&A with Barbara Natterson-Horowitz in which she encourages doctors to embrace our animal roots.

American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation

by Eric Rutkow

“It’s very hard to understand the American experience if you don’t understand our relationship to trees,” says Eric Rutkow. The historian’s new book, American Canopy, is a thorough and fascinating romp through the country’s 400-year history from the often-overlooked perspective of our interactions with forests. Where and who, for that matter, would we be without the stalwart pines of New England, a crucial resource for building some of our first settlements? Not to mention, the towering conifers of California, which inspired the conservation movement.

Read a Q&A with Eric Rutkow in which he talks about the future of American forests.

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