Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

2014 was a banner year for me in excellent nonfiction, so this was an extremely challenging list to make. It’s worth noting that every book in the honorable mentions category is also fantastic. Without further ado…

1. Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

I write the worst reviews for the books I love the most. I have nothing coherent to say; all I can do is gush. And just say: Read this book, if you do anything at all.

Arctic Dreams is a masterful account of the natural, scientific, historical, and cultural landscape of the Arctic. Lopez writes beautifully and conscientiously and yet with a researcher’s painstaking attention to detail. The book was published in 1986, and so I’m late to the party, but I found it just as moving and relevant as if it had been written yesterday.

Essentially, I think it’s perfect; all I could ever want in a book of nonfiction. From a passage near the end of the book:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be where one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of a contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”

2. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Riveting, brilliantly researched and written. The Unwinding may be the truest portrait of post-financial crisis America that we have, and as such, it should be cherished and honored. By taking a simultaneously macro- and micro-level view of a deconstructed America, George Packer shows us what this country is made of. I still feel as obsessed with this book as I did when I finished it, many months ago. Highly recommended to all US residents.

3. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say;’ but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

A gorgeous collection of essays and lectures on poetry, meaning, and inspiration. Mary Ruefle’s style combines many of my favorite elements in an essayist: mystical asides, plenty of literary allusions, mini-anecdotes, and snippets of history and fact. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Her lecture on reading (“Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World”) had me in total raptures. I started writing down quotes from it and then slowly realized that I was just copying the entire piece verbatim. (We read Proust in the exact same way—one volume a year, in our twenties, because an older man told us it was the only thing that mattered—I feel that we might be soulmates, Mary and me!) I also loved her joint lecture on Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank; her meditation on fear; her lecture about theme and sentimentality; an exposition of the irreverence of art.

Read it; savor it; thank God we have poets such as these.

“Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicated things—the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe—what else is there?”

(With gratitude to Celeste for telling me about this book and lending me her much-loved copy.)

4. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The Noonday Demon is an important, comprehensive, compassionate book about depression, the seemingly ubiquitous plague of modernity. As always, Andrew Solomon is gracious and thoughtful in his portrayals of real stories (continually and gently humanizing the face of the illness, both with his own experience and the experiences of others), and thorough and incisive in the sweeping scope of his research. After chapters of the various methods of reckoning with depression (whether physically or philosophically), the book ends with powerful, raw honesty and light.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over and I have to grit my teeth to stay on the sidewalk until the light turns green; or I imagine how easily I might cut my wrists; or I taste hungrily the metal tip of a gun in my mouth; or I picture going to sleep and never waking up again. I hate those feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”

5. The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

I first read this book many years ago, and I finally bought myself a copy, because I loved it so much. Re-reading this book — Thomas Merton’s collection of the proverbs of ancient Christian hermits/mystics in North Africa — brought a renewed sense of pleasure. This little book served as a powerful reminder to me, in my general throes of doubt and mistrust, that Christianity was and is beautiful and mysterious and humble.

6. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

For many years now, this elusive little book has haunted my to-read list. A handful of my favorite writers and critics were always dropping oblique references to The Poetics of Space, but the library didn’t have a copy, and so I kept putting it off. Foolishly, I now acknowledge. I finally bought myself a busted old copy and read it with a great deal of reverence and delight.

In this charming and surprisingly readable text, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard discusses the intersection between poetry, imagination, and buildings — and does it in such a way that makes you want to constantly scope your surroundings for hidden meaning. He draws inspiration from nature, dreams, Rilke, Baudelaire, a great deal of lesser-known French literature, smatterings of Thoreau, and his own experience.

I am often intimidated by philosophy, but here Bachelard fashions it into a welcoming arena. Nothing is too minor or mundane for him. As he says, “I am moreover convinced that the human psyche contains nothing that is insignificant.” Images, after all, are simple; we experience them every second and no weighty scholarship can improve their reception. Bachelard is concerned with this topic, how the imagination processes space and transfers it to memory, to art, to awareness.

It’s a beautiful book, and upon finishing it, I wish I had read it more slowly.

7. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

I am admittedly obsessed with the poet Mark Doty, particularly after his memoir about dogs and grief (Dog Years), and so I was elated to find this slim volume at the library.

I read the entire book while on a train to DC, and I don’t think I looked up once. I was completely engrossed. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty commands his notable powers of language to discuss a small Dutch still life painting from the 17th century. And from there, how this painting stirred his heart and mind regarding art, life, and death.

It is a difficult book to recommend, because everything I say about it seems distant and disengaged, but it is tremendously beautiful and moving. I’d like to read it again right now instead of doing anything else.

8. How Fiction Works, James Wood

How Fiction Works

Sometimes you read a book and you can’t escape this constant refrain: This book GETS me.

James Wood, at the very least, gets me, and this little book on the art of fiction was tremendously charming.

For literary nerds like myself, Wood provides a great deal of delight in How Fiction Works. Honestly, I enjoyed it for a few vain, puerile reasons: (1) It’s deeply confirming when a respected writer and critic shares your taste, (2) the way your brain lights up when you actually get all of the allusions, and (3) the sense of reassurance that comes from knowing you are a snob, utterly.

But it’s pleasant and very readable, and the book made me pay attention to fiction in a way that I didn’t think was possible anymore, outside of English classes at college. In short, recommended to anyone who reads.

9. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

“Now America has among the highest percent of working mothers of any country. They work among the most full-time hours. They clock the most extreme paid work hours. They do so despite laboring in some of the most demanding and unforgiving workplaces with the most family-unfriendly policies of any developed country on Earth. And, compared to mothers in other countries, American mothers spend among the most time with their children, sacrificing sleep, personal care, and leisure time to do so.”

This book is essential reading for every American woman.

Let’s hear it for US moms. No wonder they are so strung out all of the time.

I had no idea how truly backward our country was, when it comes to workplace policies for women and families, until I read Overwhelmed. I had an idea of the injustices, but not how deeply they extended.

Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling utterly overwhelmed, all day, every day.

I was riveted by this book, and I can’t stop thinking and talking about it even now. Schulte provides fresh, honest examples of the state of American working moms, along with insightful research and interviews. She paints a frankly horrific portrait of the state of family policy in this country. (Her time with Pat Buchanan also left me with the strong feeling that he might, in fact, be very evil and that the GOP is, at the very least, living in a fantasy America that does not exist and perhaps never existed.)

Politics aside, every US woman who has children or is thinking of having children ought to read this book. It’s a rousing call to improve both our family policies and our family lives. High praise to Schulte for her research, authenticity, and important message.

One can only hope and pray that our governments and our corporate cultures take notice. Immense change is needed in the ways we work, love, and play, and Schulte has — significantly — hit a nerve here.

10. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

I still talk about this book all the time, and yet part of me wishes I hadn’t read it, because I like seafood. And now I have all of these deep, ethical qualms about eating it at all.

Paul Greenberg likes seafood too, but his interests extend beyond mere taste. Rather, in this excellently written and deeply researched book, he explores the future of fish, namely the four that we fish and eat the most: salmon, bass, cod, and tuna.

Without some drastic policy changes, the fate of these four fish looks rather grim. Greenberg is a great storyteller, on top of being a first-rate reporter, and this book will change the way that you think about and eat fish.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker
  2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace
  3. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  4. Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard
  5. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  6. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  7. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  8. My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel
  9. Citizen Canine, David Grimm
  10. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam
  11. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  12. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul
  14. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  15. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
  16. The Control of Nature, John McPhee
  17. Unapologetic, Francis Spufford
  18. Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman
  19. After the Music Stopped, Alan S. Blinder
  20. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior
  21. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs
  22. Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller
  23. A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans
  24. Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg
  25. Just Kids, Patti Smith

What were your favorite nonfiction books you read in 2014?

Previously: Top 10 books of poetry in 2014. Coming up next: Top 10 books of fiction I read in 2014.

Books for escape

Living by Fiction

10 books:

  • Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard
  • The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
  • The Wisdom of the Desert, ed. Thomas Merton
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Suite Francaise, Irène Némirovsky
  • Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
  • Close Range, Annie Proulx
  • Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose

What you do not know

Click for source.

[Faith] is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know. As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it.

— New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is what faith is.

Thoughts, at the close of this very, very busy week:

  • Daniel and Lauren Goans are such beautiful and consistently intentional people. They are also, of all the couples I have met, two people who are utterly meant to be together. God made them for each other, in that classical Plato’s other-half kind of way. They couldn’t possibly be married to anyone else.
  • The thought of welcoming a new coworker to our small, close-knit department feels akin to welcoming a new family member. Feelings of anxiety and trepidation are dredged up.
  • Jill Stein for president! According to I Side With, I agree with this crazy lady on 97% of the issues (and with Romney on approximately 0% of major things). What is a thinking person to do, in a two-party republic?
  • Every time I’ve made up my mind never to read any more British literature, because it is so tired and predictable and snobby, a specter of Virginia Woolf floats in front of my mind and I back away from that proclamation.
  • Kelsey and Alex are getting married in 15 days!

How the saint talks

Click for source.

Hence a saint is capable of talking about the world without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statement gives greater glory to God and arouses a greater love of God than the observations of someone less holy, who has to strain himself to make an arbitrary connection between creatures and God through the medium of hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion. The saint knows that the world and everything made by God is good, while those who are not saints either think that created things are unholy, or else they don’t bother about the question one way or another because they are only interested in themselves.

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

. . . . . . . . . . .

Happy weekend. I’m going to fill mine with girls, dogs, and books, some of my favorite things, since Guion is having a bro weekend in the mountains. Hope your weekend also bears as much promise of fun and relaxation. xoxo

Top 10 nonfiction books of 2011

While I’m preparing my more in-depth reviews of the top 10 fiction books I read in 2011, I thought I’d give you my list of the top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2011. One of my reading goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and I think I more or less accomplished that aim. Here are some brief thoughts on the 10 best of them.

Out of Africa

10. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

What a life! This classic memoir is crazy and makes you wish you had been around to hang out with Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, on her coffee farm in Kenya. Her stories from her pioneering life there are so outlandish that they are occasionally unbelievable. Who keeps young lions as pets? Who hosts a dance-off between warring tribes in their backyard? Who starts a romance with a dashing Brit who later dies in a tragic accident? Isak Dinesen does. And she is well worth your time. She also wrote the book in her second language, which is incredible, because she is damn good with the pen. (I still haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely on my list now!)

Nothing to Envy

9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick

North Korea holds our fascination like 1984 or Blade Runner did. I don’t have the energy to plumb why we are forever compelled by stories about dystopian societies run by Big Brothers, but we are, and that’s a fact. North Korea is doubly mesmerizing to us because it is real. This isn’t just a story. And yet Barbara Demick, former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, brings us North Korea through stories. She writes about the intimate lives and experiences of six North Korean citizens, all of whom later escape to South Korea (which is how she was able to tell their stories). I knew a little about North Korea, but this book absolutely floored me. There is so much I didn’t know and there is probably so much that we still don’t know about this dark, deeply sad country.

We Wish to Inform You...

8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch

Scott, a young philosopher, gave me this book when he moved to go to graduate school. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then, for about five years now. I think I put it off because, really, when are you ever in the mood to read about the Rwandan genocide? But I’m glad that I finally read it. This is a powerful and well-narrated account of the Hutu atrocities in Rwanda and its stories will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. Gourevitch is simultaneously objective and sincere, presenting the facts with a journalist’s attention to accuracy and detail and yet pausing to consider the trajectory of humanity, ethical responsibility, and the darkness of the human heart.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

7. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel, Alain de Botton

Having now read four volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I was already convinced of de Botton’s title by the time I picked this little book up. This is a delightful journey through the life, work, and idiosyncrasies of Marcel Proust, one of the world’s greatest writers and students of human nature. De Botton is funny and genuine and actually helpful in this book, part biography, part self-help manual. Even if you haven’t read part of Proust’s monolithic novel, this is a book that will be a steady guide to Proust’s life and invaluable contributions to the human experience.

Animals Make Us Human

6. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

If there was one book I read this year that said everything I’ve wanted to say, it was this one. My general personality can be summed up in one line, borrowed from Isabella Rossellini–Animals distract me. This book, by the famed animal researcher and scientist Temple Grandin and her assistant, Catherine Johnson, captured my deeply held feelings about animals and our considerable responsibility to them as humans. People sometimes make you feel ashamed for caring so deeply about animals. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt myself for volunteering my time at the SPCA. But this book instead highlighted the charge we have as “higher” beings to care for the “lower” ones. Grandin’s thorough and engaging research emphasizes that at the end of the day, creating the best life for animals means listening to and watching them and adapting ourselves to meet their needs. Above all else, gentleness is called for. All animals are far more sensitive than we think, and this is an idea that you won’t be able to get out of your head if you read this book.

Eating Animals

5. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

I dare you to read this book and continue to eat chicken afterward. Or any meat, for that matter. While Foer isn’t my favorite novelist, he is a skilled writer and this is a skillful account of his journey into vegetarianism, spurred by the birth of his son. Compounding years of research, Foer covers every major meat source for the American public–and will make you never want to eat factory-farmed meat again. The topic of food is rife with emotion, horror, and ethical balance, and Foer carefully plays on all of these topics in Eating Animals. Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, this is a book that I think everyone should read, if only to think a little more carefully about the powerful decisions we make whenever we put something into our mouths.

Dog Years

4. Dog Years, Mark Doty

Yes, I know, it’s got “dog” in the title and dogs on the cover, but this is the best memoir I’ve read all year. Mark Doty is a celebrated American poet and this is his beautiful and sad story about navigating grief. Doty writes about the years between the loss of his partner, Wally, who died of AIDS, and the subsequent gain and loss of a dog, Beau. The memoir is about all of the difficult, dark issues of grief and comfort, of solitude and community–and about the more complicated issue of how dogs can offer us something that no humans can. Doty writes with heartbreaking honesty and skill. He is not sappy. He is not self-indulgent. He is humble and honest and every line of his prose speaks with sincerity and strength. It is a book for the brokenhearted and for those who will one day be brokenhearted, because, as Doty gently reminds us, no one escapes.

New Seeds of Contemplation

3. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

Ah, Merton, it is good to return to you, the mystical forefather of modern Christian contemplative thought. I read Merton when I was a teenager, but my father-in-law reintroduced him to me via Merton’s edited collection, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, which is the most profoundly affecting volume on the humility of the spiritual life I’ve ever read. This book, which is actually one of Merton’s older books, is a journey into the life of a contemplative. Merton strips away all of the pride and self-importance from the increasingly rare Christian discipline and makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can enter in to such peace and fluid communication with the divine, too. But you won’t get there by trying. Merton constantly reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are able to do anything, even contemplation itself.

Moonwalking with Einstein

2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer

I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I read it and I think it’s the book that I’ve recommended to the most people this year. Joshua Foer, younger brother to Jonathan Safran Foer (mentioned above), got an assignment from Slate to cover the U.S. Memory Championships. (This is a real thing that happens.) People gather to exhibit feats of memory, like repeating back two stacks of shuffled cards in order or citing the 600th digit of pi or memorizing a poem in five minutes. Foer assumed this event was for savants, but then he met a competitor who told him, “Train with me for a year, and in one year, you will be the next U.S. memory champion.” Foer laughed at him, saying he couldn’t remember a shopping list or his girlfriend’s birthday. But he took him up on the challenge and began training. Then, a year later, Joshua Foer is crowned the U.S. memory champion. This is that story, but even more broadly, it is a story about the history of the human relationship with memory and an encouraging polemic that our brains are much more powerful than we can even begin to know.

Half the Sky

1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book simultaneously ripped my heart out and made me passionate to ACT. I have not read a book all year that made me sob like this book did; I had to put it down in numerous places and then proceed to totally lose it for 10 minutes. How could I sit here and read this in the safety of my home? A college-educated woman with a job who did not live in daily threat of rape and violence? Of social injustice and inequality? How was it fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all. But by the end of this book, I felt that there was hope, that the plight of women and girls around the world could actually improve. Unlike many books about the world’s grave injustices, Half the Sky does not unnecessarily dwell on the hopelessness of the situation and the towering challenges that face women around the world today. Rather, this book explains the extent of the problems women face worldwide, and then shows hopeful examples of local women changing their communities for the better. It doesn’t talk about what rich Americans can do to swoop in, presumptuously thinking they can fix another country’s problems. Rather, the book focuses on what we can do to empower women in their own communities to change the way that women are treated. Small steps, but they’re on a path of greater justice and equality for the countless marginalized women and girls worldwide.

Honorable Mentions

For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton