The Best Books of 2014: Nonfiction

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

Book: Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto

Author: Steve Almond

Publisher: Melville House

Publication date: 2014-08

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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

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

Author: Peter Watson

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: 2014-02

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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

Book: The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation

Author: Various

Publisher: National Endowment for the Arts

Publication date: 2014-08

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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

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

Author: Euny Hong

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-08

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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

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

Author: Jennifer McLagan

Publisher: Ten Speed

Publication date: 2014-09

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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

Book: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Author: Thomas Pikkety

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication date: 2014-04

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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

Book: Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

Author: Nadezhda Tolokonnikovam, Slavoj Zizek

Publisher: Verso

Publication date: 2014-09

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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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Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

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Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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