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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!