15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 2014, it’s that stacks and stacks of noteworthy, interesting, and beautiful books are published in a single year. To sum up the year in the span of 15 books is putting a toe into the endless sea of books, and frankly, best-of lists are forever subjective snapshots of where the writer is and what they’ve had the opportunity to read and experience at some arbitrary point.

Yet a certain cohort can rise to the top, in an easy fashion — I plan on rereading or referencing many of the books on this list in the future. Here are the true stories, memoirs, and reporting that have left a mark.

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Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, Hector Tobar

In 2010, a group of 33 Chilean miners were buried 2,300 feet below ground, in the squeamish, hot, belching heart of the earth, when a mine collapsed. Through meticulous reporting and beautiful writing, Tobar recreates the horror and transcendence of this experience, and, crucially, he describes the aftermath. Some of the images in this book still haunt me.

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This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein

As other books, like Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, have argued this year, we are already stuck in the aftermath of climate ruination. Capitalism has run roughshod over the earth, and the resulting destruction means that we have 100-year storms every year and the idea that cities will be gone, thanks to rising waters, feels precariously close. Klein brings in the weight of her knowledge and passion to show us the full force of the environmental destruction that we live in now — and, incredibly, gives us some hope regarding what could be done for the future.

 

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Lives in Ruins: Archeologist and the Seductive Love of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson

Possibly the most pure fun on the list. Johnson, who’s previously written about the secret lives of librarians and obituary writers, discovers just what it’s like to be an archaeologist, and the weird passions that inspire that profession. It’s certainly not the money — one shocking fact was that your average archaeologist is basically on the poverty line. Et tu, Indiana Jones?

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Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town, Beth Macy

An epic tale about American industry and innovation. Macy spans decades and countries writing about the Bassett Furniture Company of Bassett, Virginia, and how it was once the world’s biggest wood furniture manufacturer, until globalization played its role. The story of how John Bassett III brought his factory back form the brink is a gripping narrative, and Macy captures it in all its complexity. Read it before Tom Hanks makes it an HBO miniseries.

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The Empathy Exams: Essays, Leslie Jamison

It’s been lovely to see Jamison’s searing, human exploration of our flesh and bones and weary hearts get the attention it deserves. Whether writing about pain, extreme ulta-marathoning, getting punched in the face, or the post-wounded woman (an essay that, in its excess, nails truths I hadn’t heard before), she’s endlessly curious, taking a topic and writing around, to the side, and through the subject, ending up in a location that’s completely different.

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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham

In a year of books about books about books, Birmingham dexterously winds several books’ worth of history together: a James Joyce origin story, the Lost Generation in Left Bank Paris, the letters and experiences that gave birth to Ulysses, its struggle for release, and an eventual obscenity trial. With winning, smart prose, he takes a dusty classic off the shelf and shows how vital it is today.

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson

Forget statistics. America pays a human cost for the rise of incarceration and imprisonment in our society, and Stevenson — a human rights attorney who advocates and represents poor and underserved clients in the prison system — shows just what justice is in America these days. He recounts how he got an innocent man off death row (in a case that had shades of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird), and the story elicits both anger and empathy. It leaves you wondering if this is the truth: “the opposite of poverty is justice.”

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The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era, Craig Nelson

What I like about Nelson’s thorough, fascinating history is the visceral feeling behind it. He gets into the gross aspects of history: how scientists in the Curie laboratory, for example, basically had their hands melt off dealing with radiation, or the total weirdness that went into the creation and isolation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. And the result? Energy that could blow up the world.

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Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn

Con-man and murderer Clark Rockefeller led a life of intrigue and charm that all went south once he kidnapped his daughter during a custody dispute. In this searing book, writer Kirn explores the dynamics — class and otherwise — that went into his friendship with this notorious shadow, and it’s a creepy, fascinating story of seduction on both men’s parts.

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Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Jennifer Percy

A disconcertingly intimate book, this debut by the talented Percy starts with the idea of talking to veterans dealing with PTSD. Things get beautifully creepy once she meets Caleb Daniels, a veteran who lost his brothers in a helicopter crash; he believes that his PTSD is a demon, a demon that can be exorcised, and so Percy follows him down to Portal, Georgia, to explore exorcisms and demons. Expect hauntings.

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On Immunity, Eula Biss

Can you think a book matters even when you don’t trust the narrator? In the case of a book on why vaccines are important and part of the social contract, yes. Biss makes brilliant connections between how mythos — vampires — may have come out of our history of health care and the beginning of vaccinations; enough so that I could look past the worrywart tone, which felt disingenuous considering the intelligence of the work.

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The People’s Platform and Other Digitial Delusions, Astra Taylor

Far from being the typical cheerleader (or the occasional doomsday prophet, à la Nicholas Carr) for our Internet age, Astra Taylor argues that the new tech guard, with their one-man bootstrap stories — Facebook billionaires and Google believers — are just as beholden to the corporations and business that drives capitalism as any other entrepreneurs. The Internet may preach freedom, but it’s ceding its promised democracy to the same gatekeepers, albeit “cool” gatekeepers dressed in hoodies.

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Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Karen Abbott

Abbott makes it look easy, weaving together four women’s stories — from a society woman who used her position to steal and share secrets, to a cross-dressing soldier in the war — in order to write a history of the civil war through the eyes of women who did extraordinary things. It’s wildly entertaining, with a page-turner narrative, and leaves you with a surfeit of crazy-can-you-believe-this? facts to share at parties.

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Box Girl: My Part-Time Job as an Art Installation, Lilibet Snellings

It’s not easy to make a memoir about being young, rootless, and trying out jobs and identities interesting, but this charming book does it. Snellings starts with her weird job as “Box Girl” at The Standard Hotel — a job where you are literally suspended in a glass box, on display for art, wearing a white tank top and white boy shorts; and she moves on from there to the everyday twenty-something hustle of trying to be somebody.

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Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

We were rich with books by the always-genius Solnit this year — fall brought us Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, essays of politics and hope — but this slim little firecracker may just go down as a classic and a perennial gift for a little sister or young college graduate. Hearing Solnit take on mansplaining, violence against women, and marriage equality, among others, allows us to imagine what could be in a better future.