I shared my favorite fiction of 2014 yesterday. Today it’s on to the nonfiction. The authors who made my list all had a clear narrative arc in place — a point of departure and a point of arrival — so that they weren’t just stringing together lots of interesting but loosely connected observations, anecdotes and factoids. The topic had to be important or timely in some way or intriguingly offbeat or quirky. And the writing – always crucial – had to be excellent.
One note: You won’t find Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century here, even though it was a hot and important title this year. In a way, it’s almost too important to include in a general interest survey of this kind. You should read Piketty’s book simply because it’s going to become as important to understand the arguments it contains as to know what Benjamin Graham and David Dodd were talking about. But if you’ve already read Piketty, or have decided to skip it, these five books should be next on your reading list:
Related: 6 Top Nonfiction Books for Your 2014 Reading List
The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham
This was a great year for books about culture and modernism, especially in the interwar years. Birmingham’s work was one of the best. The Most Dangerous Book delves into the life of James Joyce, and the life of his epic work Ulysses, examining it as a creative work but also evaluating its significance in the ongoing battle over literary censorship. A lively and entertaining book, it offers insights into everything from the creation publishing feuds of a century ago to the horrific medical battles that Joyce fought as he struggled to breathe life into his artistic vision.
A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre
Probably this is the best of the series of books that MacIntyre has produced about spies and espionage. It focuses not only on Kim Philby’s long-term betrayal of his MI-5 colleagues, but the very personal betrayal of his closest friend within the service. It’s that dual nature of the tale that brings an extra dimension to the gripping tale of the Cambridge spies. Lots of suspense here for espionage fans.
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik
When Hitler seized political power in Germany, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was already a recognized cultural power in German-speaking nations. But he was Jewish — and within years, he had become part of the growing diaspora. As he traveled more widely, Zweig’s horizons actually seemed to narrow; his ability to cope with the world beyond the boundaries of that in which he had been born and raised wasn’t adequate to the task. Long before the war had ended, Zweig and his wife took their own lives in a small Brazilian resort town. This is the story of the path that led to that outcome — the chronicle of the Zweigs’ final years — and it’s beautifully and memorably recounted. Not to be missed for those interested in literature.
Related: 6 Great Novels Worth Reading in 2014
A lot of praise already has been heaped on this book, and I suspect it can stand up to a bit more. Certainly, it has earned every ounce. As a society, we devote a lot of time, energy and resources to staying healthy and to avoiding thoughts of age and death — but both are inevitable. How will we meet them? From personal experience, as a son and as a medical practitioner, Gawande offers moving and thoughtful insights. If you fail to read this, you will end up short-changing yourself: Preparing for the inevitable is about more than having a living will.
Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film and the Shadows of War by Ian Buruma
Buruma’s previous book, Year Zero: A History of 1945, got a lot of attention, so I’m somewhat bemused by the fact that this has inched onto the market with so little fanfare. It is (as I’ve come to expect from the author) simply brilliant: a collection of essays, published over the years in the New York Review of Books on the theme of art in violent societies. Yukio Mishima; George Grosz; Leni Riefenstahl. All looked “into the abyss,” and the abyss looked back. What art was produced as a result?
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