This is a tricky category, of course; it wanders over its nearest borders with a good deal of recklessness. Some of this year’s top Nonfiction picks might just as easily qualify as history, for example some species of sociology, or even biography, but against its oddness I every year lay its unfailing ability to get under my skin, to move me. That quality is rare, and this kind of book is for some odd reason, the most likely to possess it (hence its place of honor here at the end of our Stevereads festivities). These tend to be sui generis books, and I think that accounts for the narrative snap so many of their more straightforward genre cousins so often lack. In quest of that extra little charge, I read all kinds of general nonfiction every year; here are the best of the best from 2014:
- The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt (the Belknap Press) – For the book that represents the biggest single amount of sheer fun in 2014, Schmidt’s wins by a country mile. His hyperenergetic tour of all prose has something happily quotable on almost every single one of its 1200 pages. This is one of those books every book-lover should read. You can read my review here
- Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment by Robert Ferguson (Harvard University Press) – There’s no bleaker or more discouraging book on any of my 2014 lists than this study by Robert Ferguson about the almost unbelievable iniquities of the American prison system, and there are few that are more eloquently written. You can read my review here
- The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? By Patrick Tucker (Current) – Tucker’s broad-range look at the always-increasing capabilities of apps and computer programs to shape predictions about their human users is incredibly lively reading, and it’s incredibly informative, but the thing about it I liked the most was its optimism: Tucker insists on seeing the bright side of all these coming technologies – and he’s very convincing.
- The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 by Carlotta Gall (Houghton Mifflin Hardcover) – This lean, intensely kinetic book is the outcome of Gall’s wide-ranging and thoroughly brave reporting on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over a decade, and it’s an amazing, at times harrowing gallery of set-pieces and personality-portraits, all informed by Gall’s signature combination of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness.
- Reading the Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw (Penguin Books) – Sometimes, great things come in small packages (just as sometimes wretched novels come in huge packages, but that’s a rant for another time), and in 2014 that was nowhere better demonstrated than with this brilliant, passionate little book Shillinglaw’s written about The Grapes of Wrath. No matter where you stand on Steinbeck’s fiction – whether your despise it or only hate it – you’ll love this book. You can read my review here
- Capital: The Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta (The Penguin Press) – The vast, teeming, thoroughly disreputable and irresistibly alive city of Delhi is captured beautifully in Dasgupta’s prose; his keenly-trained observer’s eye shifts from the bizarre to the pathetic to the vaguely heroic with ease. Delhi’s future is as uncertain as that of every other megalopolis in the fragmenting, frying, flooding new century, but Dasgupta’s book is a loving snapshot of its present.
- Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future by Adam Sobel (Harper) & Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy by Kathryn Miles (Penguin) – It’s the slimmest but sometimes most reliable silver lining of any major ‘act of God’ natural disaster: first-rate book-length works of reporting. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, US publishing has so far seen two superb examples, both rich in narrative and personal detail, both crystal-clear on the science of storm cells and the devastation wrought by this one. I whole-heartedly recommend both books.
- Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright) – This luminous book – from one of our greatest living Dante scholars – gives readers a wonderful (albeit tantalizing) taste of what it might be like to be a student in one of Prue Shaw’s classes. With the ease of total mastery, she tours the world of Dante – his work, his history, his philosophy – and it’s all done with such cheerul confidence that this most forbidding of medieval writers suddenly seems to open like a blossom. The paperback should go to every single person thinking of reading Dante – or re-reading him.
- Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury) – When I first saw Roz Chast’s actual four-page cartoon by this title in the New Yorker, I was floored; as bittersweet and worldly-wise as her illustrations always are, nothing in them had prepared me for that spot-on and utterly unsentimental precis of having aging parents. The book that followed is equally impressive, both funny and unsparing, happy and sad by equal, amazing turns. Of all the books on my lists this time around, this one stands the greatest chance of making you cry and laugh in the same sitting.
- The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana by Tony Dokoupil (Doubleday) – To put it midly, everything about Dokoupil’s debut seemed calculated to disenchant me; father-son emotoinal dramas have tended to weary me since Edmund Gosse (my own Irish forefathers having drained that particular bog dry three-quarters of a century ago now); the romanticization of drug-dealing that’s hinted at in the book’s subtitle vaguely irritated me (the current U.S. sweep to legalize yet another addictive carcinogen – let alone the way its partisans tend to characterize it as healthy – has left me, as it were, fuming); and of course there’s the looming threat of the memnoir, a “personal recollection” that’s quite literally too good to be true. But Dokoupil knew better than his reader (this one, anyway): not only is his book gorgeously, electrically written – this, the Best Nonfiction Book of 2014, is the arrival on the publishing scene of a major new voice – but it’s also heartbreaking and stunningly wise.
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