The best books I read in 2014

The list this year has more fiction than nonfiction: I read a lot of great novels this year, but the nonfiction was more hit-or-miss. In alphabetical order by author, since I can’t come up with a satisfying way of ranking them. I usually do a lot of reading in December, and am desperate to get back on my reading schedule after a month or more dealing with moving house and renovating, etc, so I may update this later if I finish something else quite good before Jan. 1.

Nonfiction

  • The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, by W. Brian Arthur. The rare book that delivers exactly what it promises in the title. These days we are constantly inundated with pronouncements, analyses and prognostications about technology and its impact on our lives. Yet for something so important, the general principles of how technology works are very poorly understood. There is an emptiness at the heart of many arguments about technology, which treat it as a mysterious separate universe whose inner laws can only by divined by the cognoscenti. Arthur cuts through the cant with brilliantly clear and simple prose, and logically and rigorously develops nothing less than a General Theory of Technology. We learn to see technologies not as isolated units — “fruits” plucked from a tree, be they low-hanging or high, in one popular metaphor — but as collections of elements that are constantly evolving and combining. Among other things, Arthur explains not only why modern technological progress, once started, is not going to stop, but also why that progress is never consistent or even. I found it tremendously refreshing and very insightful, and all in all an essential toolkit for understanding the world around us.
  • Invention of the Modern World, by Alan MacFarlane. An excellent entry into the crowded field of “how to explain the modern world” books. It attempts to answer the question of where the Industrial Revolution and modern life came from by a deep dive into the particulars of English history. MacFarlane is anthropologist by training, though he has spent most of his career not writing about the traditional societies that anthropologists (ahem) traditionally focus on. Fittingly, however, his argument is essentially anthropological: that the patterns of the modern technological economy reflect a particular social structure, and that England developed this social structure first for a variety of contingent but identifiable historical reasons. Very readable, thanks to its origins as a series of lectures for Chinese students, and while the England-as-origin-of-all-things thesis goes overboard occasionally, it is mostly pretty convincing.
  • Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy, by William Janeway. A strange and not always terribly readable book, it was nonetheless one of the most thought-provoking I encountered this year, so makes the list. Janeway is a private-equity investor with an academic bent, and the book uses his own experience to develop general ideas on how innovation and technology work and are financed in the real world. Strangely, the detailed anecdotes about particular companies and technologies were mostly uninteresting, while the general reflections I found excellent (usually it is the other way around).
  • Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe. Not a fun read, but an engrossing and thoughtful one, and consistently fascinating. The book is essentially a survey of all the terrible things people in Europe did to each other after the end of official fighting. Much of the motivation and the value of the book is in just documenting these lesser-known events. But it also develops an argument that much of the so-called postwar political order that we take for granted–the Cold War, division of Germany, etc–was actually driven as much by the events after the cessation of formal hostilities in Europe as it was by the pattern of winners and losers.
  • Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937-1945, by Rana Mitter, and Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, by Eri Hotta. This year I fortuitously read a great combination of new books on World War II from an Asian perspective: the first a reconsideration of China’s role in the world war, the second an account of how Japan’s (apparently highly dysfunctional) system decided to go to war against the US. Both are lively and very readable. Mitter argues for a more generous understanding of what Chiang Kai-shek accomplished by not losing the war against the Japanese invaders, where many previous accounts have emphasized his many failures. In particular Mitter says China’s contribution to the global balance of the war is underappreciated: by keeping hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops tied down in China, Chiang limited Japan’s ability to attack other countries and make the war in Asia even worse than it was. The book also has lots of great material from archives on the Chinese experience of the war, including a stunning description of the firebombing of Chongqing. Hotta’s book is a more straightforward narrative history of the runup to the attack on Pearl Harbor–which led to a war that many Japanese knew they could not win. There is a zone of silence at the core of the book, since the available sources just do not tell us enough about what the emperor and those around him were thinking at the time. But it is nonetheless a very useful portrait of how a political system made a series of disastrous decisions that led to its own undoing.

Fiction

  • The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. Now that the works of J.R.R. Tolkien have been transformed into multimedia mass-culture extravaganzas, it’s hard to remember a time when “fantasy” referred to anything other than variations on Tolkien’s themes. But The Broken Sword predates the commercial fantasy genre, and offers a glimpse at the road not taken. This book is slim and often grim, Nordic rather than Anglo-Saxon, and in many ways the antithesis of the epic and optimistic Lord of the Rings. It’s a work that, sadly, remains unique, having spawned no followers and no imitators.
  • Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson. One of the central facts of our lives is that they are contingent: we know that things could have happened otherwise. But they didn’t, and so we never really know what might have been. This extraordinary book explores this theme through the conceit of a woman who lives her life over and over again, making different choices and having different accidents, until she gets it “right.” But it’s not the sterile working-out of an abstract philosophical concept, but a concrete, charming and often funny story. The depiction of how the same girl grows up into several very different people is brilliantly true. Hands down the best novel I read in 2014, and criminally overlooked by the various prize-giving outfits.
  • Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. What would you do if your childhood friend, the one you played videogames and smoked pot with, grew up and decided to kill off most of humanity? I don’t think you would handle it all that well, and the shattered protagonist of this book has plenty of problems. I’ve always had a weakness for life-among-the-ruins post-apocalypse stories, but a wonderful voice and storytelling structure set this one apart and make it truly literary. After reading this, you will want to read Atwood’s two sequels — the last one, MaddAddam, came out this year — but while enjoyable they do not achieve the same hallucinatory power.
  • An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris. A novelization of the Dreyfus affair that, like Harris’ previous historical novels, is among the classiest of page-turners. It is no mean feat to make a suspenseful novel about events that are so widely known, but he has managed it. The contemporary resonance of the events is clear but not overdone.
  • Euphoria, by Lily King. As a former anthropologist, how could I resist a novel based on the relationship between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson? While I had to read it for these reasons, the rest of you should read it since it is purely a good book. The description of the anthropologists’ fieldwork among the New Guinea tribes rings true, the love story is poignant, and the writing about the joys of intellectual endeavor (the euphoria of the title) is brilliant. It falls apart a bit with an implausible plot twist at the end, but is otherwise thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard. A spy is taken hostage in Somalia; a marine biologist ponders the mysteries of existence. The yoking together of two such radically different narratives is occasionally too stylized, but the writing is good and so closely observed as to make up for it, especially in the Somalia scenes. And unlike so much literary fiction it feels deeply interested in real things happening in the world. Runner up in the literary-fiction-set-in-Africa category: The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson.
  • The Last Picture Show, by Larry McMurtry. The classic novel of small-town life and its limits. I also grew up in a small, isolated town, and while my life was nothing like this, the portrait is true and spare. I also read McMurty’s Horseman, Pass By this year, which has the same setting and some similar themes, but this is better.
  • American Splendor, by Harvey Pekar. Sadly, I can’t claim to be cool enough to have read this before the movie came out. But I loved the movie, and reading the original comics has been on my to-do list for a long time, and I’m very glad to have finally done it. The tagline is “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” and you have to admire how aggressively Pekar mines banal interactions with coworkers and others for his material. It does not always work, and some of the later pieces are too self-absorbed, but the best moments are a true and deeply personal artistic achievement.
  • We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas. The sample first chapters on the Kindle version hooked me with a promise of a lyrical but closely observed portrait of Irish immigrants in the 1950s. Bait-and-switch: the book turns into something completely different along the way, much in the way that actual life does. Most of the novel is a heartbreakingly clear portrait of age and infirmity. Perhaps longer than it absolutely needed to be, but I never regretted the time spent on these pages.
  • Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Yes, it’s a novel about “primitive” life in the Ice Age. And yes, it’s actually good. Unlike almost any of the other attempts to imagine this part of human history, Robinson’s depictions of early tribal life are realistic, plausible and moving. And the nature writing is fantastic. Compelling and truly original.

2 Comments

  1. what an excellent page! To certain extends, I would hate you because I will try to buy those books and to enrich my virtual bookshelf, even though I won’t be able to read…. keep on….

    Reply

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