This year’s list of the worst malefactors in the Republic of Letters in 2014 could really have been boiled down to one entrant (which will become evident, and which all of you should be heartily ashamed of making so popular), and that entrant perfectly typifies exactly the same kind of cold-eyed arrogance that characterized the worst fiction of the year as well – the reek coming off these pieces of crap has the same aroma: reflex, laziness, and, most of all, an insufferable sense of entitlement. Instead of books we have product, and once it’s been manufactured by cheap labor, it then has to be marketed and hyped – in which process, my own shabby profession, book reviewing, now reliably features to an absolutely disgraceful degree. In fact, even talking about these things as books almost seems fraudulent … if only the greater fraud weren’t clearly being perpetrated on unsuspecting book-buyers everywhere. For once, this Stevereads list appears early enough before the book-buying holidays to function as a warning instead of merely a ‘what-were-you-thinking’ castigation. And so, with that in mind, here are the worst of the worst: the Worst Nonfiction Books of 2014:
10. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson (Riverhead) – The boorish, opportunistic, popularity-pandering Mayor of London here slaps his name on a string of Wiki-factoids and bald lies revolving around the boorish, opportunistic, popularity-pandering WWII Prime Minister and his bulldog tenacity, adding yet another and one of the most nakedly needy bumper-stickers to the Churchill pile.
9. Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive by TD Jakes (FaithWords) – It’s harder and harder with every one of this fraud’s tawdry little books to understand how anybody can take him seriously, as an honorable or interesting person, much less a “man of God” – and yet the ranks of his followers swell with every passing year. This latest thing purports to show you the way to “achieve ultimate success,” which couldn’t any clearer be huge amounts of money if there were piles of the stuff on the cover. Jesus Himself would be tempted to shin-kick this guy.
8. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James McPherson (Penguin Press) & Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda (Harper) – These two slightly sloppy and necessarily blinkered books – by two historians who ought to have known better – aren’t the only examples of retrospective whitewashing of appalling historical figures on our list this time around, nor are they the worst examples of it, but they’re plenty bad enough, celebrating the heroism of two of the worst traitors in American history … while at the same time contributing virtually nothing new or interesting to the study of their life and times.
7. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster) – This big follow-up to Perlstein’s Nixonland has a crackerjack subject: the unlikely, alarming, and deeply inexplicable political rise of Ronald Reagan. But although Perlstein gives the subject a generous amount of space, he also gives it a generous amount of massaging; if you follow the veritable blizzard of notes and citations back to any of Perlstein’s primary sources, you’ll find him spinning and stage-managing the facts in such a persistent way as to make the whole thing irritatingly untrustworthy. You can read my full review here.
6. The Nixon Defense by John Dean (Viking), World Order by Kissinger (Penguin Press), & The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by Pat Buchanan (Crown Forum) – As I’ve learned in spending a year studying the career of British historian David Irving, some of the truly evil creatures of mankind’s history are perfectly capable of mesmerizing the biddable and the deeply flawed even long after they themselves have died. Even though Hitler died when Irving was still a small child, Irving as a full-grown man fell under the Fuhrer’s dark spell as surely as if he’d been standing in the crowd at a Nuremberg speech, and that same process was very much at work in 2014’s book world, as can be seen in this unholy trinity of books still under the shadow of Richard Nixon: the oily John Dean’s bizarre ongoing acrobat-act of both trying to exonerate himself from all blame for Watergate and, somehow, trying to exonerate also the Boss he betrayed; the odious former Nixon Wormtongue Henry Kissinger, who in his latest book has the gall to decry the lack of trust and consistency in international relations, when he himself did more to destroy those things in world politics than any other person in the 20th Century, and the thuggish former Nixon flunky Pat Buchanan, who wants more than anything to convince you all what a grand guy the Boss could be, if you caught him at just the right moment. I was jaw-dropped aghast reading through each one of these horrifying zombie-jobs, and I’m seriously hoping this trio represents the last gasp of trying to rehabilitate one of the foremost occupants of Hell.
5. The Price of Silence by William Cohan (Scribner) – The more I thought about Cohan’s long re-hash of the notorious rape scandal that engulfed the Duke Lacrosse Team in 2006, the angrier and sadder it made me, and re-reading it prior to drawing up these year-end lists actively infuriated me. Cohan is a fantastic writer, but that just makes things worse: what on Earth is he doing here, writing a breathless what-really-happened account of an incident that was thoroughly destroyed in court? What word by ignoble attaches to an attempt to re-grow some credibility for lying ‘victim’ and re-accuse three young men who, though undoubtedly A-holes, were also indisputably innocent? The book lies there, like a stain on the carpet. You can read my full review here
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (Harper) & Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books) – If the general ruck of 20-something coffee shop hipsters are nowadays almost spectacularly ignorant of all culture, art, literature, politics, and history that doesn’t directly affect their own lives or Twitter followings, how much worse must such a situation be for the young women among their number, so many of whom have imbibed a culture in which it’s perfectly acceptable not only to know nothing but to proudly reject learning anything unless the source happens to be female? It’s a thoroughly closed circle of shrill ignorance, and in 2014 it was epitomized by these two books, Bad Feminist – in which Roxane Gay confuses talking with having something to say – and Men Explain Things to Me – in which Rebecca Solnit makes it clear that all men, simply by virtue of their genitals, are misogynistic condescending A-holes. It’s an ongoing intellectual embarrassment that actual intelligent feminism has spawned a modern offshoot so brainless and bigoted, so bereft of ideas or informed outrage, and so mired in grade-school prose, but we can always hope 2014 represented an all-time low-point.
3. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris (Simon & Schuster) – It isn’t just that as Harris grows older he grows more offputtingly abrasive, although that’s a factor in why Waking Up appears here. And it isn’t just that the book is in its essence a cringe, a crucial step back from the honest, godless precipice where Harris has spent all of his popular publishing career until now, although it’s certainly that, a strong feint to the idea of the warm, embracing arms of an invisible something just a bit beyond human experience. No, the main thing that lands this book on the list is that apart from its condescension and apart from its hypocrisy, it’s also abundantly bad: turgid, sloppy, gaseous, distractible – product, rather than any kind of important construction. If this is the state of New Atheism, the movement needs a new firebrand.
2. Capital by Thomas Piketty (The Belknap Press) – Like a few other culprits on our list this time around, Piketty’s bloated, nearly-unreadable crap-suzette ‘study’ of the fissile nature of capitalist societies wouldn’t have gained anywhere near the level of notoriety it did if it weren’t for the craven me-tooism of its reviewers. For two awful months (until, South Sea-style, the thing’s bubble burst under the pressure of its own absurdity), it was lovingly and lengthily reviewed in every literary journal in Christendom, and if professional reviewers were out of their depth and required actual economists to step in and write pieces pointing out Piketty’s errors, fair enough. But the only reason so many non-economist reviewers even attempted it in the first place was a plain, damning thing we’ll see again as we slouch toward our #1: simple in-crowd opportunism.
1. My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Contenders come and go, of course, but there was never any real doubt that this grubby monstrosity would be the Stevereads Worst Book of the Year in the category of Nonfiction – taking all the boring volumes as one book, and more importantly, taking the whole noxious project as nonfiction rather than the fiction a uniform chorus of bandwagon-jumping book critics hailed it as all throughout 2014. Since half the people so obviously tracing-papered by its sloppy, lazy prose are suing the author’s publisher for slander and the other half are in therapy to deal with their entirely-natural feelings of betrayal, since walking tours are now conducted in the author’s tediously-recreated Norway and parts West, and since every store receipt and theater ticket stub can be called into evidence, this isn’t fiction any more than his cast-iron solipsism would make the author another Proust (oh wait – he was already called that by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The London Times, The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Pope Francis, Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky, Lucille Ball, and former U.S. Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Lincoln). Although Knausgaard’s navel-staring is the loathsomely prominent choice as Worst Nonfiction Book of 2014 (among its many, many other sins, it manages to be even less interesting than its infamous namesake), surely a dishonorable mention must go to the legion of critics who were, until the mania passed, so proud of being able to name-drop which volume of “My Struggle” they were currently wading through. Seldom in recent memory has the Republic of Letters been so badly failed by its very own watchdogs, all of whom could surely see in 10 pages that this particular emperor had no clothes but not one of whom stood up and said it (or better yet, simply declined to give it page-space). When the Big Fraud of 2015 comes along, we’ll all have to hope for better.