Best of 2014BooksOpinion

The Top Ten Best Nonfiction Books Of 2014

Julia Domenicucci ’15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

As 2014 comes to an end, the catalogue of this year’s nonfiction books seems to run on endlessly. With virtually limitless story topics, determining which of them to read can be a daunting task. Luckily, the best nonfiction of 2014 includes a little of everything—humor and seriousness, memoir and investigation, science and history. These are ten books that no reader should skip, regardless of his or her areas of interest.

1. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Monroe

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After the viral success of his web comic, xkcd, Monroe put his NASA-level scientific knowledge to more good use by answering the impossible questions. This book is the best of them, everything from the ridiculous—Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?—to the potentially terrifying—Are fire tornadoes possible? By mixing science with hilarity and cartoons, Monroe educates and entertains his readers in equal measure.

2. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Bliss

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From birth, humans are routinely given this vaccine and that one, providing scientific protection from many diseases that would otherwise devastate the population. But what about those parents who fear the vaccines and refuse to give them to their children? Bliss investigates anti-vaccination culture but also goes beyond it, exploring how every human is connected through modern diseases.

3. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Earth is undergoing the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs, and it seems to be the fault of humanity. Through scientific and historical essays, Kolbert investigates contemporary examples of extinction across the globe. It’s a difficult topic, but an important one, calling humanity to understand its impact on other species.

4. Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe

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Thorpe zooms in on three women soldiers, detailing their stories over the course of twelve years. It is one thing to say war changes people, and quite another to see those changes occur in three specific lives.

5. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis

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This book brings to a close Davis’s intensely researched trilogy on all aspects of slavery. Although as dense as the first two books, the concluding volume remains undoubtedly important in today’s world. Davis explores the Civil War and the complicated, racist culture that exists because of the end of slavery in the United States.

6. Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man by Thomas Page McBee

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In today’s world of changing opinions on gender binaries, the question of what makes a man a man is increasingly complex. But on the verge of his female-to-male transition, McBee decides to answer this question for himself. For comparison he uses the two men who had the most influence on his life: an abusive father and a suddenly compassionate mugger.

7. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee

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Penelope Fitzgerald may have won the Booker Prize in 1979, but the rest of her life was not so clear-cut. Lee teases out the enigmatic novelist’s personality and shows where her own life influenced her work, beginning with her literature-infused childhood and going through her adult life, during which Fitzgerald began writing at age 58.

8. Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir by Charles M. Blow

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New York Times columnist Charles Blow writes the difficult story of his life, describing poverty, racism, and sexual abuse in a way that is both poetic and effective.

9. Lives In Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson

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Johnson travels around the world, following archaeologists as they dig to uncover history’s secrets. This book captures the dirt, energy, and allure of the profession.

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

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Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Tobar tells the actual story of all the men trapped in the collapsed mine in 2010, which before now had been seen only through media coverage of the disaster. With so much news of loss and destruction in the world today, Tobar’s book of survival and eventual triumph is as uplifting as it is realistic.

With a mix of the silly and the serious, the best nonfiction that 2014 has to offer stretches across all categories. Although ten books of course cannot include every good work of nonfiction published this year, these best-of-the-best are an ideal starting point to kick off 2015!

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3 Comments

  1. Blow’s “memoir” in my reasoned opinion is barely disguised fiction. Its two, and only two, “incidents” of “sexual abuse” are ludicrous and I think constitute false accusation. They are prima facie laughable and inconsequential.

    Please read my one star review on Amazon, by Apis Mellifera, for Blow’s own quotes in his tedious interviews which show the downplaying and backpedaling he’s done on these silly things.

    Blow alleges against this cousin with the fake name …”the YEARS of the bullying designed to keep me from telling…” as a primary reason in his grotesque prologue for barreling down the road to murder “Chester” (all “two minutes” of this absurd “event”). But Chester NEVER REAPPEARS in the “memoir” OR IN INTERVIEWS to do more “bullying” of Blow. He does NOT EXIST.

    Remember, if you read this silly book, that Chester did his “bullying” of Blow during what have to be the last few days of his TWO WEEK visit. Chester DOES NOT EXIST after he goes back home far away. The two never have contact again.

    I’ve read, listened to, and watched many, many of Blow’s fatiguing interviews, always in their tedious entirety, and there are other incongruities.

    In my opinion, for shame including the “memoir” of a man who compares his two nothings of “incidents” of “sexual abuse” to the very real abuse of children who have truly experienced it. For shame that Blow compares his silly “pain” and absurd “suicide attempt” with that of the two boys he claims inspiration from.

    Please read my one star review on Amazon.

    1. Thank you for your reply! I have not done nearly this much research into the reality/accuracy of Blow’s book and took it at face value. I will definitely be looking more into this.

  2. Thank you, too.

    My concern is for journalistic and literary integrity, and I think reviewers of this memoir and most egregiously Blow’s interviewers have given him a pass that defies comprehension. In my opinion Blow’s been given free reign to levy false accusations against “Chester” and Uncle Paul.

    Neither of these absurd allegations of “sexual abuse” are anything other than an attempt by Blow to construct his “memoir” on the very real sexual abuse suffered by some children. To compare his two, and only two, “incidents” to theirs is shameless and indecent in my opinion.

    I know my main review and my comments following it may seem disjointed, but that’s the whole point. They show my increasing suspicion of this effort by Blow as I listened to more and more of his interviews. I really don’t think I missed one. Not only do his own words diminish these two things, but I believe he INTENDED these “incidents” to be taken as egregious and violent and physical sexual abuse, and they weren’t.

    Believe me, I’ve given this book a thorough going over, and the “incongruities” are glaring. I can only steer you back to my Amazon review and comments. At first I was appalled at the histrionic and redundant “prose” in that excerpt in the Times, only confirmed when I read the book itself. My invocation of Mark Twain is no idle joke in my comments.

    Additionally, Blow’s whole demeanor and “strategy” in his interviews became an enduring pattern. He steadfastly refuses to really address the two “incidents” and the “bullying.” It’s always a tedious buildup to the “Chester” thing, on and on. Then it’s a coy nothing of a description of it, and a lightning fast leaving of it to lecturing and generalities about sexual abuse, what “the science” says about it. If you’ve watched one interview by Blow you’ve watched them all. And I do think I have watched them all!

    That claim of being bullied by Chester for “years” is a flat out falsehood, to use a euphemism. After the chapter bearing his pseudonymous name, Chester disappears from the book except as a name to tiresomely signal Blow’s ubiquitous “pain.” Believe me, there are many places in the interviews just yelling to be filled in with Chester continuing his bullying, but it’s never, ever mentioned, because it didn’t happen.

    I’d really like to meet “Chester” and interview him. Is he still living? Why the fake name? I assume Paul was the great uncle’s real name, or was it?

    I think there’s a newspaper article there about Chester, or at least a term paper or research project. I’d do it myself, but I’m too old. I’m still very spry, though, and may look into it. Some asking around Gibsland might net some facts.

    Again, I care only for journalistic integrity, and that’s not a protest too much statement. I believe in honesty and truth when it comes to writing nonfiction.

    I think Blow’s “memoir” is fiction and just doesn’t hold together.

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