''Nothing matters more than the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world," one character tells Tommy Taylor, the hero of the graphic novel Unwritten. She is trying to console him about the twists his life has taken, but her words apply to many of the notable books of 2010. From a look at the events that led to the global recession to the tale of the woman behind much of the leading biomedical research, these books reveal the power of words to define and transform reality:
Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. A boy who was the inspiration for a series of Harry Potter-like books written by his father discovers that parts of the books' fantasy world might be real, while the facts about his own life might not be. Using his innate "literary GPS"—the knowledge of "who wrote what where"—Taylor sets out to separate truth from fiction. With references to J.K. Rowling's boy wizard, 1984, Catch-22, Paradise Lost, and Frankenstein, and an entire chapter featuring Rudyard Kipling with appearances by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clemens, Unwritten maps the marks that literature has made on the world.
The Passage, by Justin Cronin. A disastrous military experiment attempts to give men longer lives and enhanced strength but instead unleashes a virus that turns people into ravenous vampire-like creatures. Cronin keeps his cast believably human. When he takes readers inside the Cheyenne, Colo., test facility, it is hard to know who is more pathetic, the ex-con test subjects who have turned into "glowsticks" because of the heat they radiate or the chemically castrated watchmen hired to keep an eye on them.
The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History, by Jill Lepore. Beginning with a visit to Boston Harbor to see a replica of the ship that colonists raided in December 1773 and following with visits to contemporary Tea Party meetings and rallies, this concise essay by a Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer examines how that original act of rebellion has reverberated throughout the nation's history.
The Big Short, by Michael Lewis. Few explanations of the credit default swaps that led to the 2008 global financial collapse are as articulate as the one Lewis offers. Investing in a swap was "like laying down money on a number in roulette. The most you could lose were the chips you put on the table; but if your number came up you made thirty, forty, even fifty times your money." Lewis populates his financial primer with a memorable cast, such as the Oppenheimer analyst who reads contemporized versions of fairy tales in his spare time.
Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach. Riding in Gemini 7 was "like spending two weeks in a latrine," astronaut Jim Lovell tells Roach in this amusing book that takes the glamour out of human space travel. From handling bodily functions in zero gravity to dealing with radiation during a flight to the red planet, Roach illuminates the nitty-gritty of soaring into space.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. A true account of Henrietta Lacks, who died eight months after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. Lacks's tissue cells, taken without her permission, are alive today and have been a cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar biomedical research industry—used to develop the polio vaccine and in research for cancer, cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and Parkinson's. Skloot explores the human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine's inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave.
Obama's Wars, by Bob Woodward. "If there are 10 possible outcomes in Afghanistan, nine of them are bad," adviser Richard Holbrooke tells President Obama's National Security Council during a briefing before the Afghan elections in the summer of 2009. Such are the options the president and his team face, as detailed in this latest behind-the-scenes look by the veteran journalist, as they work on how to build a functioning, honest government in a nation where it takes "42 steps to get an Afghan driver's license, nearly all an opportunity for someone to pocket a bribe."