All books may be created equal, but some are more equal than others. In case you weren’t obsessively perusing the nonfiction racks in 2012, here is an alphabetically-ordered round-up of the year’s best titles for geeks of all flavors.
1. Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day by Stephan Talty
A quirky bit of history that few people know: the story of a farmer who decided to be a secret agent and inexplicably ended up saving the world.
2. The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect by Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Forty years’ worth of beloved and iconic game graphics, curated by Smithsonian American Art Museum as a companion book to their exhibit of the same name.
3. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
An examination of chaos in real-life situations — and how disorder and stress create strength in everything from biology to society — from the author of The Black Swan.
4. The Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies by Graham Elwood and Chris Mancini
A serious-but-funny discussion of un-serious movies, from the creators of comedyfilmnerds.com.
5. Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung
A bold quest to discover the biological mechanism of creating personal identity, personality and intelligence, with a look at future developments that may help us map the processes. Super-geeky, totally worth it.
6. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
A biographical tour of the tools we use to eat and cook, from prehistory to 2012. Exponentially more fascinating than you’d expect.
7. Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image by Toby Lester
Vitruvian Manis one of history’s most famous images, and yet little is known about it. Lester examines the impact of da Vinci’s iconic image from 1420 into modern times.
8. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary Marcus
Think you’re too old to learn to play? 38-year-old research psychologist Gary Marcus took on the task; he learned to play, and quite a bit about the cognitive processes of becoming musical.
9. The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language by Mark Forsyth
Word nerds: You need to read this book. That is all.
10. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought by Ray Kurzweil
Futurist and probably-crazy person Ray Kurzweil takes a look at reverse engineering the human brain. Mind=blown.
11. Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
From Gutenberg to Garamond, the story of how we all became typeface-obsessed Comic Sans-haters.
12. The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet by Dimitar D. Sasselov
Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov’s speculative look at life elsewhere, how we might find it, and some examples of the weird biochemistry that might support it. (Crazy-good. Swearsies.)
13. The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by Alan Lee
Well over a hundred illustrations from the LotR trilogy’s conceptual designer, with info about and inspiration for his Oscar-winning work on the films.
14. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games by Jon Peterson
Who says games are a waste of time? A history of gaming and how we have used it to practice strategy and critical thinking for real life.
15. The Science Magpie by Simon Flynn
A seemingly-random but addictive collection of fascinating info, at-home experiments (test the speed of light in your own kitchen!) and novels ways of explaining complicated scientific concepts. (Loved this so much — try it out.)
16. Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal
“Getting a taste for the Bard” is this book’s subtitle, which kind of explains it all: Shakespeare demystified and made accessible.
17. The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
Ignore the fact that this book gets crazy hype — thanks to Silver’s weirdly accurate election predictions — and appreciate the science and math at play here. It’s a thing of beauty.
18. Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang
There’s a lot to say about this book, but I’ll stick with the obvious: NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON.
19. The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean
This was one of the best books I read all year. Here’s the first chapter. Do yourselves a favor and read the rest, too.
20. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz
Maybe don’t read this if you’re vegan: once you have some idea of how a plant’s sensory system works, there’ll be no food left for you. The rest of us will just try to keep off the grass a little more often.
There’s no way to list the entire catalog of nonfiction books that came out this year. I loved these, but you’ve probably read stuff that I didn’t. So what was your favorite new nonfic title? Let us know in the comments so we can check those out, too!