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.
I was as skeptical as the next iPad-lover when I saw the cover of the July 16 Newsweek, a screaming woman’s shattered face under the banner: “iCrazy. Panic. Depression, Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is Rewiring Our Brains.” Without reading a single word of the piece, I knew to be wary (and just a bit weary) – we’ve read scarifying screeds like this so often in the last ten year, after all, and some of us are old enough to remember analogous screeds about earlier waves of new technology. Such hackwork is self-evidently designed to sell copies to the perpetually gullible, the same ‘readers’ who’ll clear out the contents of their refrigerators after reading some article warns them about how protein causes face cancer, or some such nonsense. I ordinarily tend to steer clear of Time and Newsweek precisely because they tend to favor such pieces, but this issue of Newsweek was thrust upon me (I was told, on dubious authority, that reading such stuff is “part of the travel experience,” but I’m reserving judgement).
And this particular piece has an additional and much more important claim on my attention: it’s written by Newsweek staffer Tony Dokoupil, who, when he was helming the online manifestation of The Columbia Journal of American Studies, accepted a book review from yours truly. Given the rather large number of such reviews now available from a moment’s Google-search (from right here on Stevereads to the far reaches of that gorgeous pleasure-city of Abu Dhabi on the other side of the world), this might not seem like much of a distinction – but the fact is, Tony took that book review before any of that modern Steve-proliferation happened … the first such review I’d written after a very long fallow period of raising dogs and selling books and writing unreadable historical novels. It was Tony Dokoupil who, quite unknowingly, got me back in the game, as it were, and for that favor (how on Earth could I have gone all those years without doing this every day? The mind boggles) I’ll always feel a partisan soft spot for the guy, and a predisposition to give him the benefit of the doubt. And of course the working professional in me only wants to applaud when even so distant an acquaintance lands the cover story of a national magazine – that should get a round of glasses hoisted in any writers’ bar in the world, just on general principle.
I read the piece (apparently, it’s what one does on vacation – that, and egg-whisking …), and it was tough going. Not for its complexity, but quite the opposite. I’m guessing an outfit like Newsweek has a fairly heavy-handed house style, and naturally, if you’re going to write a scare-tactic warning-bell piece like this, you’re probably not going to be allowed to do it by half-measures. So in the course of examining whether or not “the onslaught” of electronic devices and media – iPhones, iPods, iPads, Facebook, Twitter, etc – is shortening attention spans, rewiring cognitive pathways, and, in the magazine’s hyperbole, making us crazy, Tony is encouraged to employ the usual talismans that get hung from the rafters of all such pieces. “Experts” are consulted; “recent studies” are summarized; “survey findings” are tarted up for maximum effect. I suspect that if Tony had been commissioned simply to write a personal essay on the worrying, problematic role the Internet plays in our modern lives, the resulting piece would have been very different (more balanced, more entertaining, and above all more thoughtful, since this is a very reliably thoughtful writer) – but here he was commissioned not to write an article on Internet addiction but to write a Newsweek article on Internet addiction. The difference is key.
In this piece, we get the story of the kid in Japan who had to be institutionalized once his Internet use went from ten hours a day to the full 24; we get study-results saying compulsive Internet use makes people depressed or antisocial, that it shapes portions of their brains into a gumbo resembling that scanned in drug addicts; we get jeremiad-writers warning that young people seem physically unable to disconnect from their iLives. And along the way, we get paragraphs like this:
While brain scans don’t reveal which came first, the abuse or the brain changes, many clinicians feel their own observations confirmed. “There’s little doubt we’re becoming more impulsive,” says Stanford’s [Elias] Aboujaoude, and one reason for this is technology use. He points to the rise in OCD and ADHD diagnosis, the latter of which has risen 66 percent in the last decade. “There is a cause and effect.”
It doesn’t take an Oxford graduate student in logic to spot the many flaws in such a passage, the torturous mis-connections, the circular posturing (quite aside from my oft-repeated contention that there is in fact, neurochemically speaking, no such thing as ADHD). This piece is full of such passages, designed more to provoke comment than to elicit thought. Thus, absolutely no “studies” or “experts” are brought on-stage to point out any of the good cognitive changes the Internet might be causing in the young people who are the main focus of the article. The whole thing is designed for the Newsweek-sought purpose of generating controversy, of getting people talking. Tony may have conceived the piece with some genuine concerns in mind, but he’s also smart enough to know how much such controversy can help a writing career. As Van Wyck Brooks pointed out many, many years ago, “You write such articles when you’re young specifically so as to gain the freedom from writing them when you’re older.”
And my, my – the article certainly is generating controversy! And a good chunk of that controversy comes to us in the form of that priceless gadfly Ed Champion, of whose very existence I’ve only just recently been made aware. Champion is a cheerful pit bull, an omnivorous ongoing autodidact of the type every literary scene badly needs and not all of them are lucky enough to get. He can generate lots of snappy prose very quickly (not necessarily a bad quality … ulp …), he reads or tries to read everything, and he’s easily irritated – in other words, the next time he’s in Jamaica Plain, he’ll just have to stop by the house for a bottle of wine and some laugh-our-asses-off book-talk (provided he has a constitution strong enough to endure the, um, gaseous anomalies of a certain basset hound).
On his Twitter feed, Champion has picked up the dog-bone of Tony’s article and is worrying it to splinters, and that inevitably produces a slightly schizophrenic reaction in somebody like me. On the one hand, seeing the kind of uninhibited rhetorical blood-sport Champion can make when the mood strikes him is a source of pure joy for an old trouble-maker such as myself. It might be a painful thing for an author to have hisNewsweek piece scorched and scraped the way Champion’s doing it to Tony, but in the larger picture, the republic of letters is incontestably stronger with such blood-sport than without it.
But on the other hand, I’m an unapologetic Dokoupilophile, and not just because of that back-in-the-game book review, either: as mentioned, this is a smart, thoughtful author, somebody with a vast and important career in front of him. And some of the big-picture concerns he raises in this scare-piece are very much worth raising:
Overwhelmed by the velocity of our lives, we turn to prescription drugs, which helps explain why America runs on Xanax (and why rehab admissions for benzodiazepines, the ingredient in Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs, have tripled since the late 1990s). We also spring for the false rescue of multitasking, which saps attention even when the computer is off. And all of us, since the relationship with the Internet began, have tended to accept it as is, without much conscious thought about how we want it to be or what we want to avoid. Those days of complacency should end. The Internet is still ours to shape. Or minds are in the balance.
That concluding note of optimism is important – maybe ultimately more important than whether or not the article parses a research finding with 100% accuracy. My advice to Newsweek would be to let Tony write the personal essays I mentioned – give him a regular page for them, and watch the incredible body of work he generates in short order. But in all likelihood, neither Newsweek nor Tony himself would especially like that advice – readership of this article is through the proverbial roof, and Tony can write many more such articles, and that arrangement works just fine for both him and Newsweek. And for all its somewhat shrill popularism, journalism like this raises interesting points, things worth talking about. On one level, that’s always been a prime function of magazines like Time and Newsweek, and although it’s never appealed to me (I don’t need any pointers on what’s important to think about, thanks)(except, apparently, while on vacation …), its worth shouldn’t be underestimated.
And my advice for Ed Champion? It’s pretty simple: keep up the great work.