There are three more categories to review as we look at the All the Best Books Compilation, a resource that compiles the results of 172 different authoritative awards and best-of-the-year selections to find the books from 2014 that were mentioned most often. A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the best books of the year in biography and memoir, now let’s look at the rest of narrative nonfiction. I’ll count down the top 8 books that received 20 or more mentions as a best book. In nonfiction, this seems to be a year of addressing the big questions with graceful writing.
Download the full ABBC 2014 spreadsheet
Three books are tied for the sixth spot with 20 mentions each. The first is historian Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice: the Grand and Terrible Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette. It’s a Gilded Age tale of an American expedition that went searching for the North Pole and the remains of the Franklin Expedition, and ended up trapped in pack ice themselves. I won’t spoil the tale, but as he did in Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and Hellhound on His Trail, Sides knows how to make history accessible, readable, and exciting.
Lawrence Wright, who is rightfully getting attention for the documentary adaptation of his Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, is also earning applause for his latest book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. The peace accords crafted by the 1978 Camp David conference are still the lonely exception of a successful negotiation to solve some of the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East, and as such, deserve careful study. Wright covers events day by day, finding a surprising amount of suspense, a great cast of real world characters, and a story that puts a human face on political events.
The third book tied for sixth is What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Author Randall Munroe is a master of asking crazy questions and casting light on real science with his answers. This is an expansion of his popular XKCD webcomic. If you wanted to know how long a nuclear submarine would last in orbit, how many Lego bricks it would take to build a working bridge across the Atlantic, or what would happen to diseases like the common cold if everyone stayed away from each other for a few weeks, then this is your book. There’s also plenty of humor, references to geek culture, and clever cartoons. How much would scientific knowledge advance if everyone read this book? Maybe Munroe will answer that in his next volume.
In fifth place, with 22 mentions, is On Immunity: An Innoculation, by Eula Biss. It’s an extended 205-page essay, combining science with history, myth, literature, and personal storytelling to make a convincing case for immunization, while still showing sympathy for the fears of parents, perceptions of risk, and resistance to coercion. This is a book for readers and writers, not those who prefer dry facts in neatly arranged rows. If you don’t care about good prose, look elsewhere. For those who do care, this maybe the final word needed on the subject of vaccinations.
Fourth place, with 25 mentions, is occupied by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The plaudits for this tome often note that it may be the year’s most important book: a rigorous, ambitious take on a big subject that will serve as one of the standard works for those making economic policy for many years to come. Piketty crunches a LOT of data—looking at over 20 countries and long periods of history—then applies what he finds to a variety of past economic theories and the contemporary world. His central questions involve how wealth is created and how inequitable distributions of it can be avoided. While this is certainly the most demanding book in this list, Piketty’s writing isn’t impossible for the educated lay-reader to understand, and reviewers seem to agree that it’s worth the effort.
The third most mentioned book of the year, recognized 30 times, was The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. The author looks at the history of mass extinctions, and more frighteningly, how humans are creating conditions that make our planet susceptible to a sixth wave of mass species loss. It’s a downer, but Kolbert has a gift for describing unusual species, for explicating the work of scientists that readers don’t know, for weaving together different scientific disciplines, and for finding a bit of humor among all the gloomy prognostications. These are hard truths, but The Sixth Extinction isn’t a hard book to enjoy.
Atul Gawande is fast becoming our leading chronicler of modern medicine and how it impacts not just the quantity, but the quality of our lives. In second place, mentioned by 32 sources, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End looks at the growing focus on our expanding longevity and how it sometimes undermines the goal of alleviating suffering. Gawande finds a balance between graceful aging and finding quality and closure at the end of life. Gawande makes a clear case in a format and length that most readers won’t find trying or taxing. He takes a subject matter that could be morbid and instead finds a way to ennoble and enable readers.
With one more mention, 33 in all, Leslie Jamison’s book of essays, The Empathy Exams, takes the top spot this year. Perhaps it’s fitting in a year when so many of the top books were about big, heavy subjects, that a book that makes a case for maintaining feeling and empathy tops the list. Jamison blends memoir, travel tale, history, feminism, and philosophy, arguing that we need to find a way to embrace fear, pain, and sentiment instead of avoiding these feelings, becoming numb to the human condition, or running away from vulnerability.
These are just the top of a list that encompasses over 500 nonfiction books published and praised in 2014. Download the ABBC to delve further into the list for the topics that might please you or the readers you work with or know. I’ll finish with a list of other books that received 10 or more mentions.
Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore
The Invisible Bridge: the Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald
Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), by Christian Rudder
Flash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein
The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, by Greil Marcus