The Best Books of 2014

Nonfiction

by PopMatters Staff

9 January 2015

The truth may be stranger than fiction, but as the numerous nonfiction books of 2014 also attest, it's often the truest stories that are the most gripping.
 

Whoever feared that the internet (or was it television?) would destroy the public’s appetite for a good book was wrong. Reading is more popular than ever, and whether your preferred medium is a good old-fashioned paperback or comes in the key of ‘e-’, 2014 witnessed an unprecedented explosion of smart, provocative, and insightful non-fiction literature across a wide range of topics and styles.

In its annual report, the International Publishers’ Association reports that book publishing remains the largest industry in the publishing and entertainment sectors, with a value estimated at $151 billion. And it’s a global phenomenon. Almost half a million new titles and re-issues were published in China alone last year; a growth of seven percent over the previous year. Indeed, the world is awash in books, and it’s an exciting time for the reading public, no matter what your medium, language, or taste in literature.

To help you filter through the literally millions of books published this past year, here’s the top PopMatters non-fiction picks for 2014, culled by our talented team of reviewers from around the world. This year’s top picks of the best of the world’s non-fiction offerings provide something for everyone: from atheists to football fans; from cookbooks to movie guides; from prehistoric Britain to ‘40s-era Germany; from a graphic novel history of Showa-era Japan to a cubist history of Gottland. Are the Koreans on the verge of seizing world domination through K-Pop? Have we definitively solved the pro- vs – anti- taxes debate once and for all? From record industry tribulations to the politics of race to the memorialization of genocide to the origins of (and threats to) free speech, this list has it all. Pagans, poets, pranksters, and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Here, in alphabetical order by title, are the books we read and loved thus far that were published in 2014 (first editions, reprints and translations included). Hans Rollman

 

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Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto

Steve Almond

(Melville House)
US: Aug 2014

Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
Steve Almond


The year 2014 will mark the time that some part of America began to turn against football. Taking on everything from the concussion crisis to the game’s creepy militarization, Steve Almond’s slim but muscular broadside slams into the wall of sanctimonious hokum served up by the NCAA, NFL, and their sycophantic sportswriter enablers. Almond brings credibility to the project, as somebody who is not a sniffy academic (which most critiques of the game are usually labeled as) but as a long-suffering Raiders fan troubled by the monstrous corporate media behemoth he’s entrapped by. In this bluntly angry, funny, and perceptive screed, Almond looks long and hard at a hypocritical relationship between fan and athlete that ignores the damage being done to everything from players’ lifespans to the tax base of cities bankrupting themselves building stadiums for billionaires. Almond argues at the least for clarity: “You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves.” Chris Barsanti

 

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The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God

Peter Watson

(Simon & Schuster)
US: Feb 2014

The Age of Atheists
Peter Watson


If neither science nor religion suffices, how do we get past our present impasse? Do we lament our lack of progress, or welcome possibility? Peter Watson acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the 20th century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the 19th) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty. John Murphy

 

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The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation

Various

(National Endowment for the Arts)
US: Aug 2014

The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation
Various Authors


The NEA has been supporting the important art of translation since 1981. During that time, it has offered 412 fellowships for translating literature from 86 countries, spanning 66 different languages. This year, the NEA awards coincided with its publication of a delightful new book of essays devoted to celebrating the important role played by translated literature. The Art of Empathy brings together 19 translators and supporters of translation work, reflecting on the practice of translation: a higher calling to which they share a passionate devotion. Art of Empathy is a short read, but a powerful and inspiring one. It’s a worthy gesture for the NEA to complement the announcement of its awards with a delightfully beautiful read that reveals how truly invaluable the funding of literary translation is. It calls on us to reposition our orientation toward literature in translation, and to recognize the reading of translated works not as merely a quirky hobby, but as central to our development as literate, empathic citizens of the world, and to the dynamic vitality of our own literary cultures. Hans Rollman

 

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The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture

Euny Hong

(Picador)
US: Aug 2014

The Birth of Korean Cool
Euny Hong


A bit more cerebral than snackyCHAN, The Birth of Korean Cool nevertheless provides a compelling and absorbing read that’ll leave the pop culture aficionado with a greater appreciation of the causes and potential consequences of the rapid rise of hallyu (Korean wave, or K-culture). It’s an analysis that’s fun, informative, and skillfully conveys the implications of Korea’s experience for other countries. It’s no random fluke that K-pop stars summon record-breaking crowds from Los Angeles to Paris: it’s the result of coherent, well-studied and systematic policies on the part of the Korean government to support the arts and to channel Korea’s corporate prowess in support of artistic innovation through a combination of incentive and coercion. This is a smart and entertaining read that’ll leave you with a new-found appreciation for our future Korean overlords. Hans Rollman

 

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Bitter: Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes

Jennifer McLagan

(Ten Speed)
US: Sep 2014

Bitter
Jennifer McLagan


Bitter, Jennifer McLagan’s fourth cookbook, combines scholarly inquiry with tempting recipes, easing the way into a taste many find challenging. With her characteristic humor, McLagan probes the line between taste and flavor, advocates cooking with healthy fats, and tries to love rutabaga. Tamer offerings include pastas utilizing bitter greens, arugula pizza, and brussels sprouts softened with chestnuts and bacon. More daring types might attempt Turnip Ice Cream, Beer Jelly, or infuse tobacco in heavy cream for a very adult truffle. Aya Brackett’s ravishing photographs turn Bitter into an artwork. Diane Leach

 

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Pikkety

(Harvard University Press)
US: Apr 2014

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Pikkety


No matter how much Chicago School economists would foam at the mouth to hear it, for societies to achieve a hint of social equality, at some point the wealthier will need to pay out more to the state than the poor. An unlikely bestseller, French economist Thomas Pikkety’s canny volume is not easy-going for the casual reader. His love for deep data analysis knows few bounds, irregardless of his occasional attempts at lighter discussion (using Austen and Balzac to show the decline of money as a factor in literature). Nevertheless, Pikkety’s arguments about the dangerously accelerating accumulation of capital by the upper classes, particularly the last few decades, are as crucial as it gets, no matter how wonky the text. The study of finance, taxation rates, capital accumulation, and social inequality are shown here as central to understanding the modern human condition. “Refusing to deal with numbers,” Pikkety writes. “Rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” Chris Barsanti

 

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Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

Nadezhda Tolokonnikovam, Slavoj Zizek

(Verso)
US: Sep 2014

Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj
Nadezhda Tolokonnikovam and Slavoj Zizek


The correspondence of Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek might not change the world, but it ought to be required reading for anyone with aspirations to do so. Zizek is, of course, the Slovenian philosopher famously described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’. Caricatured by others as a ‘celebrity philosopher’, he’s the Slovenian Marxist philosopher whose appearances sell out packed arenas in mere minutes. Tolokonnikova is perhaps best known to western readers as part of the ground-breaking Russian punk-performance outfit, Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot has, however, revealed itself as much more than simply a punk band. While punk performance art was a defining characteristic of early Pussy Riot performances, the repressive and violent response of the Russian regime has turned this amorphous grouping of artists, musicians, performers and thinkers into an irrepressible force at the heart of the struggle for freedom, liberty and human rights in a country that has spiraled into overt and repressive dictatorship. Our protagonists do not, of course, reach any conclusions. If anything, the truest benefit of such an exchange is to provoke within us the flowering of new thoughts and ideas that allow the reader, in their own way, to become a part of it. Hans Rollman

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