Ah yes, yet another year-end “best of” list. Last week, I shared my Favorite Fiction of 2014 post, and now I’m back with my favorite non-fiction. But I’m going to do this list a little bit differently.
Before this year, I didn’t read much non-fiction — and when I did read non-fiction, it was usually memoir. One of my goals for 2014 was to branch out a bit more with my reading, and I dug into some really excellent non-fiction titles that probably wouldn’t have been on my radar before. But because I didn’t really hit my non-fiction stride until the second half of the year, I didn’t read a ton of titles that were released in 2014. With that in mind, my list of favorite non-fiction encompasses all of the non-fiction I read this year — not just new releases. (They are listed in the order in which I read them — not ranked on a scale.)
1. Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell. Churchill paints a vivid portrait of 1920s New York, the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all of the things that influenced Fitzgerald while he wrote his masterwork, The Great Gatsby. The central premise was a bit weak, but overall this was an engaging, informative book.
2. Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. In four years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men about whom she cared deeply. In her powerful, haunting memoir, she memorializes these young men, seeks insight into their deaths, and discusses the way systemic racism let them slip through the cracks.
3. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay. This collection of essays about race, culture, and feminism rocked my socks off this year. Gay writes eloquently about topics that are both universal and intensely personal, from liking Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines despite being offended by it, to her thoughts on the films of Tyler Perry, to female relationships.
4. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides. Sides chronicles George Washington de Long’s doomed 1879 attempt to lead the first naval expedition to reach the North Pole. This book is narrative non-fiction at its finest. The combination of impeccable pacing, vibrant details, and a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat makes this book read like a novel.
5. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. In her funny, fact-filled memoir, Caitlin Doughty describes the year she spent working as a crematory operator for a family-owned mortuary. Along the way, she also discusses the way we relate (and avoid relating) to death and calls for a shift in the way we perceive such a necessary part of life.
6. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham. You either love her or you hater her. Either way, Lena Dunham’s collection of personal essays about love and sex, her body, work, family, and friendship made a splash this fall. I loved her fearlessness in telling her stories despite the culture that says that what women have to say is trivial and unimportant.
7. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Shortly after Alison Bechdel came out to her parents as a lesbian, she found out that her father was also gay. But just a few weeks after this revelation, he died in an apparent suicide. Decades after his passing, Bechdel explores her relationship with her late father in this graphic memoir. I don’t even have the words to describe how powerful and beautiful this book is.
8. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilynn Johnson. Although Indiana Jones makes archaeology seems sexy and exciting, the reality of life as an archaeologist is remarkably less glamorous. Through her hands-on reporting, Marilyn Johnson explores the everyday lives of real archaeologists, describing what exactly it is that archaeologists do, why they do it, and the unique challenges they face.
9. Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Lives for the Better by Clive Thompson. This is a fascinating, impeccably researched book about how technology is altering the ways we think, work, connect, and create in positive ways. It’s the perfect antidote to the doom-and-gloom attitudes of those who are convinced technology is shortening our attention spans, decimating our memories, and making us dumber.
10. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. I probably don’t need to say a ton about this book. It’s Amy Poehler. If you love her (as you should), you’ll love this book. It’s charming and funny, but it knows when to be serious. And it’s great both on audio (guest stars like Seth Meyers and Carol Burnett!) and in print (funny pictures!).
What were our favorite non-fiction reads of the year?