Best non-fiction books of 2014

First there are the economics books, including books by people I know, including Piketty, The Second Machine Age, Tim Harford’s wonderful macro explainer, Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down, Lane Kenworthy on social democracy, The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, Daniel Drezner The System Worked, and Frank Buckley on why the Canadian system of government is better.  And Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.  We’ve already talked, written, and thought about those plenty, and they are not what this list is about, so I will set them aside.  Most of you are looking for excellent new books in addition to these, books you might not have heard about.

Here are the other non-fiction books of the year which took my fancy, mostly in the order I read them, noting that the link usually leads you to my previous review or comments:

Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.  Long, exhausting, and wonderful.

Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya, a broader history than it at first sounds, fascinating from beginning to end.

Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.

The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert.

John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition.  An excellent treatment of how much work remains to be done in the “nation building” enterprise in South Asia.

Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City.  A sociology graduate student hangs out with lawbreakers and learns about police oppression, an excellent micro-study.  My column on her book is here.

Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, Tibetan scholar goes to India and records his impressions, unusual.

George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of His World.  I loved this one.

I’ve only read the first half of the new Tom Holland translation of Herdotus’s Histories (I will get to the rest), but surely it deserves note.

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.  This book won the National Book Award for non-fiction.

David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.  A look at China’s outermost regions and their ethnic minorities.  Just imagine that, we had two excellent popular China books in the same year.

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa.  Repetitious in parts, sometimes incoherent too, but it offers a smart and unique perspective you won’t get from any of the other books on this list or any other.

Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic.  This treatment stresses the (partial) cognitive advantages of having a tendency toward depression.

Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, assorted facts and insights about the English language, you don’t have to feel like reading a book about poetry to find this worthwhile.

David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, huge, expensive, wonderful, more than just a cookbook though it is that too.  I’ve spent some of the last few weeks learning these recipes and what makes them tick.

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  A good overview of how some of the main pieces of today’s information technology world fell into place, starting with the invention of the computer and running up through the end of the 1990s.

Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.

Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph.  As good or better than the classic biographies of the composer.

Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, vol. 1.  This one I have only read a part of (maybe 150 pp.?), it is very long and does not fit my current reading interests, but it seems very good and impressive and also has received strong reviews.  So I feel I should include it.

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.

So who wins?  If I had to pick a #1, it would be The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, not the kind of book I would be expecting to coronate, which is a testament to the magnetic force it has exercised over my imagination.

Then I would pick Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City and David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition as the runners-up.

My fiction picks were here.  There are still some wonderful books to come out this year, and already-published books I will still read, especially after mining other “best of” lists, so around Dec.31 or so I’ll post an updated account of what I would add to this list.


Tyler, if the George Herbert book exercised a magnetic force over you pray tell us, in which or what direction did it pull or push you? Did it make you go west or east for example?

I Struck the board, and cry'd, No more.
I will abroad.

Anyone know how the Tom Holland's Herodotus compares to Strassler's?

full frontal

Then I would pick Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City

I don't get it. It looks to me like a romantic reading of a bunch of violent, dishonest, untrustworthy feral members of the underclass who aren't even smart enough to survive on the run. A bigger collection of vile people making bad choices and blaming everyone but themselves would be hard to find.

What is the possible upside to this book? What does it tell us we didn't know - except that Whites are not the problem?

I am going to go out on a limb and say you haven't read it.

Also, I hope that, in the event that you have any character flaws, people don't judge you by the same standard that you are applying here.

His major character flaw is he's anti-open boarders but unfortunately in our society these kind of fools get a free pass.

free pass = seat in Congress

It's possible to disagree with a policy without hating the people.

Something's wrong with me, I'm actually starting to find this funny.

Go on, go out on a limb.

I am a mildly flawed person. But even I do not spend my entire life getting school girls pregnant, and cheating on them when not selling drugs, ripping off my relatives, selling out my friends to the police, shooting random people for no real reason and don't even get me started on the crack mother. Just the weekends.

Did anyone in that book have a single redeeming feature? Did they do a single nice thing for another human being?

"Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition"

Does this have lots of bean recipes?

Tyler: you left the colon out of the title: sub-title of Osterhammel's history.

How long now have colons been de rigueur in book titles? Any histories of punctuation fashion or convention to be had this season?

No colon, no royalties.

Or maybe it's No Colon: No Royalties. I'm not sure any more.

I just spent 10 minutes finding out that UK historian Andrew Roberts is no relation to the late, great UK historian John M. Roberts, who wrote the awesome one-volume Penguin History of the World (now in its fourth edition). Andrew Roberts is a Iraq war apologist, and a war-monger, which is one reason I won't read what he writes. He makes the fallacy of comparing modern war casualty rates to WWI casualty rates, thereby finding that today's wars are "worth it" since comparatively fewer people die in them. Absurd.

So what makes it a "fallacy" to compare casualty rates? People are just worth more now than they used to be?

"George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of His World. I loved this one."

Was it the odd-numbered pages you read, or the even?

While we're on the subject of Zweig: how does the new (2013) translation of "The World of Yesterday" compare with the original 1943 one?

I'm pretty shocked that Osnos's book won a major award. It's really nothing more than the kind of anecdotal accounts that many have written before. It's been done. Now it's time to combine this "personal account" with meaningful analysis of data. I know some of the people he "interviewed," and a quick .5 hour chat was turned into a long-term relationship in the book. The writing is all right, but the time for this kind of shallow account has passed.

Thanks for sharing. Will have to pick up #1, and hopefully finish it by the 22nd :)

Thank You for this great list of recommendations. I have bookmarked this page to make sure I remember to check a few of these out.
I mostly read business and self-help books and there have been a couple of real gems this year. The best the bunch that I have read was EDGY Conversations by Dan Waldschmidt. If you're looking for inspiration and a bit of a kick start, this book can really help to focus your mindset and get you on the right path. The advice shared is priceless and the very personal writing style is refreshing. It never feels like one of them generic self-helps that bash out the same old cliches. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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